New Book by Henry Schuster Recounts Search for Olympic Bombing Suspect Eric Rudolph
At 7:33 a.m. on Jan. 29, 1998, police officer Robert "Sande" Sanderson was leaning over a metal toolbox that he'd just found half-buried in the flowerbed right out front of the New Woman, All Women Health Care Clinic in Birmingham, Ala.
As he poked with his retractable truncheon around the toolbox, which was tilted up from the earth toward the clinic entrance, nurse Emily Lyons, dressed in pink work scrubs, stood five or six paces away, watching. That's when the bomb went off.
The blast killed Sanderson almost instantly, tearing off an arm and sending shrapnel deep into his head. Lyons, partially shielded by Sanderson, lost her eyelids and part of her lips. Hundreds of nails ripped viciously into her face, torso and legs. Miraculously, she survived, though it would take a score of excruciating operations that would still leave her half-blind and scarred almost beyond imagination.
This was no ordinary attack on an abortion clinic. Although Sanderson was the sixth person to be murdered by anti-abortion extremists in the United States, he was the first police officer to die.
It also quickly became evident that the bomb had been set off by remote control by a man wearing a wig who stood just 100 feet distant, hiding behind an oak tree and waiting for his victims to come in range. Made of dynamite and nails, the device was meant to kill as many people as possible.
Thus began the remarkable case of Eric Robert Rudolph, who also would ultimately be accused of earlier bomb attacks on the Atlanta Olympics, a gay club in Atlanta and another abortion clinic in an Atlanta suburb.
Although Rudolph was identified with the help of two eyewitnesses just a day after the Birmingham attack, he would still manage to slip off into the wilds of western North Carolina, where he apparently spent five years living in the woods before being captured in 2003.
Now, as Rudolph's first trial approaches (at press time, opening arguments in the Birmingham case were scheduled for May), a fact-packed book has just been published that lays out virtually all the details of this intriguing case, including many that had been kept under wraps for years.
It is written by Henry Schuster, the senior producer of CNN's investigative unit, and Charles Stone, who headed the Anti-Terrorist Task Force of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and was the lead investigator on the sprawling Rudolph case until his retirement in 1999.
The book is replete with accounts of law enforcement mistakes. The first came in 1996, when, in the first attack attributed to Rudolph, a bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics left one woman dead and close to 100 people injured. Atlanta 911 operators, the authors say, failed to reach officers at Centennial Park, where the bomb was placed, for precious minutes after receiving an anonymous call that warned that a bomb was set to go off.
In another fiasco, law enforcement officials leaked the name of security guard Richard Jewel as the top suspect — a suspicion that turned out to be entirely wrong. Later, the authors recount a number of ham-handed FBI encounters with local law enforcement officials and residents during the long hunt for Rudolph amid the dense forests and deep caves of North Carolina.
But the most remarkable mistake — or, in any event, what the authors portray as a mistake — is the decision of the U.S. attorney in Birmingham to identify Eric Rudolph in a press conference held at 5 p.m. the day after the bombing in that city. Just a half an hour later, and possibly even earlier, a North Carolina sheriff called federal agents to inform them that he'd located Rudolph's trailer and could go pick the suspect up immediately.
Sheriff Jack Thompson was told not to make the arrest or surveil the trailer; instead, he was to meet federal agents later that night.
By the time authorities reached Rudolph's trailer, he had fled. Schuster and Stone suggest that if U.S. Attorney Doug Jones had waited even a few hours to make his announcement, or if Sheriff Thompson had been allowed to approach the Caney Creek trailer as soon as he had managed to track its location down, authorities would very likely have avoided what became one of the costliest manhunts in history.
This is a comprehensive book about a fascinating case. It goes into extraordinary detail about the case's more unusual aspects — Rudolph's history as a grower and seller of high-grade marijuana, the decision of one of Rudolph's brothers to saw off his own hand to protest the FBI and media, the way that Rudolph's mother helped to bring him into the world of religious extremism, and much more.
The book's authors have managed to dig up so many details of the case and its investigation that it is difficult to imagine that Eric Rudolph's trial will produce any surprises at all.