Authorities to close N.C. manhunt command post

Search for Rudolph, serial bombing suspect, will continue, they say

March 21, 2000|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The command post for the Eric Robert Rudolph manhunt in western North Carolina will close soon, though FBI officials believe the accused bomber is likely hiding in the rugged mountains.

The shuttering of the headquarters, in an old textile mill in Andrews, doesn't mean the investigation has ended.

Twelve to 14 agents will remain on the case indefinitely to pore over new leads with hopes of finding the fugitive, said Steven McCraw, head of the Southeast Bomb Task Force, which is leading the search.

"He hasn't escaped justice," McCraw said. "In fact, for over two years, he's led a life of daily deprivation and isolation."

Or so agents think.

Rudolph's whereabouts have largely been a mystery for the past two years. The 33-year-old man has been charged in the bombing of Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta in 1996 and bombings at an abortion clinic and gay nightclub in the Atlanta area in 1997.

The various blasts killed one woman and injured more than 150 people.

He also is wanted in the January 1998 blast at a Birmingham, Ala., abortion clinic that killed a security guard and maimed a nurse.

Rudolph has been on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list since May 1998.

His truck was found near Murphy several days after the Birmingham blast.

Since then, the FBI-led Southeast Bomb Task Force has operated a command post in Andrews, complete with helicopter pad and large grid maps of the Nantahala National Forest.

The 530,000-acre forest is known for its steep, rough terrain and hundreds of caves.

At times, 250 agents worked out of the Andrews post.

Officials felt the large command center was no longer needed as fewer agents worked the case.

The base could close by early summer. McCraw didn't rule out reopening the center if there is a break in the investigation.

A dozen or so agents will remain in Andrews to handle the hundreds of leads and sightings that come in monthly, McCraw said. They will work out of a temporary office, which will report to the agency's Atlanta office.

McCraw said the FBI also is considering creating a permanent post out of the agency's Charlotte office to focus on the case.

The cost of the investigation so far has been estimated in excess of $13 million in state and federal resources.

McCraw remains confident they will find Rudolph.

"The only thing we know for sure is perseverance and hard work lead to successful results," he said. "It may be later than sooner."

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