A penetrating writer examines the life and motivations of serial bomber Eric Rudolph. Even for her, he's hard to figure out
Lone Wolf: Eric Rudolph: Murder, Myth, And The Pursuit Of An American Outlaw
By Maryanne Vollers
New York City: HarperCollins Publishing, 2006
When Eric Robert Rudolph was finally arrested while scavenging through a Dumpster behind a Save-A-Lot store in western North Carolina, it came as a surprise to many. In the five years since he disappeared from sight, many law enforcement officials and others had come to believe that the Olympics bomber had either died in the forest to which he fled or managed to escape the United States entirely.
But Rudolph was very much alive, and he had traveled only a few scant miles from the trailer he abandoned in 1998. He had, in fact, survived his whole time on the lam using expert survivalist skills and a sustained program of burglarizing homes and businesses in the area for supplies. Two years later, Rudolph pleaded guilty to a series of bombings at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, two abortion clinics and a lesbian nightclub — attacks that killed two people and injured 120 others.
When he was finally sentenced, after pleading guilty in 2005 to all the attacks of which he was accused, Rudolph issued an arrogant, dismissive statement, telling the world he was doing so only to cheat the government of a death sentence.
Much was known about Rudolph by the time he was sent to prison — his early Holocaust denial, his hatred for Jews and association with adherents of the racist Christian Identity theology — but even more remained hidden. What seemed hardest to understand was what actually made the pretty-boy bomber tick.
Maryanne Vollers, a 1995 National Book Award finalist for her book Ghosts of Mississippi, decided to profile Rudolph after his arrest. While much has been written about Rudolph — including in these pages — Vollers' book is surely the best and most accurate portrait we have of the unrepentant serial bomber.
Vollers had great advantages, beyond her natural writing talent. She was the only writer with whom Rudolph cooperated, sending her letters and allowing his lawyers to break their confidentiality pledge by discussing his case with her.
Vollers won the cooperation, sort of, of Rudolph's very strange mother — the woman who started Rudolph as a boy on his odyssey into the American radical right. And Vollers also had access to most of the law enforcement officials involved.
What emerges is a portrait of a kind of sociopath. Rudolph was handsome, intelligent, and, Vollers opines, a fine writer. One lawyer even said of the man who pressed a detonator and watched as his bomb blew a police officer apart: "He's one of the most genuinely considerate and kind people … that I've known."
He was also an ice-cold killer who has never apologized for most of his actions.
Reacting to Rudolph's haughty courtroom statement after being sentenced, Vollers shows that she hasn't been taken in. "I stared at the empty space where Eric Rudolph had just been and tried to imagine the somber but rational man who wrote me letters, or the funny, thoughtful person his lawyers had come to love, or the wayward son his mother had forgiven, but all I could see was a self-righteous bastard in sunglasses and a cheap wig, his blue eyes darkening as he clutched the remote control [of the bomb targeting the officer] and threw the switch."
— Mark Potok