5-year manhunt continues in Carolina forest

Authorities believe man sought in Atlanta bombing is there

August 05, 2001|By Marlon Manuel | Marlon Manuel,COX NEWS SERVICE

NANTAHALA, N.C. - With every jar of home-canned beans stolen, every trout farm trespassed on, every unexplained dog howl in the dark of night, officials cling to their belief: Eric Robert Rudolph is still out there - hungry, elusive, resourceful.

Five years ago, 120 miles from the dense Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina where Rudolph grew up, a bomb rocked Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park in the wee hours of July 27, 1996. Shrapnel killed popular Albany businesswoman Alice Hawthorne. Melih Uzunyol, a Turkish television cameraman, died of a heart attack as he ran to film the explosion's aftermath. More than 120 other people were injured.

The FBI and a federal grand jury charged Rudolph with the mayhem - which burst from a hidden military knapsack loaded with 8d masonry nails, powered by nearly 4 pounds of smokeless powder and timed with a Westclox Big Ben wind-up alarm clock.

Some victims still suffer effects from the Olympic Park bombing. Some carry fragments in their bodies. A civil lawsuit is pending against the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.

And after more than $24 million has been spent on government searches in the Nantahala National Forest, Rudolph has not been found.

"I thought at this time, after five years, he would have been captured, or we could have found out if he is dead or still in the mountains," said Larry Bowden, 45, who suffers lingering nerve damage from the Olympic Park blast. "It's still open. There's no closure there."

Authorities say Rudolph, a 34-year-old former carpenter, is the same man who bombed a Sandy Springs abortion clinic in 1997; the Otherside Lounge, a gay and lesbian Midtown nightclub, in 1997; and the New Woman All Women abortion clinic in Birmingham on Jan. 29, 1998.

The day after the Birmingham bombing, Rudolph apparently returned to his North Carolina home and rented "Kull the Conqueror," a dark sorcery tale, from Plaza Video in Murphy. The rental is long overdue and the late fee would be more than $3,000. There hasn't been a conclusive Rudolph sighting for three summers. The multi-agency Southeast Bomb Task Force massed nearly 300 agents in July 1998, after Rudolph re-emerged in the rugged Appalachians, abandoned a pickup truck and disappeared with supplies.

Since then, tips have diminished. The task force has dwindled to 20 members. The outgoing head of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Washington speculated in December 1999 that Rudolph was dead.

But investigators on the ground insist he's out there. He can steal food. He can live in caves or mines.

"The belief of the task force is that he planned this for a long time," task force chief Todd Letcher said at the Bob Allison Campground, off a gravel road in the Nantahala National Forest. "I think he's set himself up to live for a long time - basically to outlive the task force. But he'll never be able to do that because we're not going away."

Gone are the tactical searches of the 516,000-acre forest, home to trout fishing, hiking trails and whitewater rafting.

Gone are the helicopter flights with heat-seeking equipment and the Georgia bloodhound teams.

Gone is the 37,000-square-foot headquarters in Andrews, replaced last year by smaller quarters in the National Guard Armory.

Still gone is Rudolph, whereabouts unknown.

Victims remain

But the victims remain.

"They're the crux of what keeps us motivated, what keeps us pushing on," Letcher said.

The survivors are as frustrated as the investigators.

"It's just amazing a person could just disappear when we have our best law enforcement chasing after him," said Calvin Thorbourne of Cobb County, who survived the Olympic Park explosion. "I guess it's God who will have to do what he wants with the person who put a bomb in that park during the Olympics."

Thorbourne was in the park about 1:20 a.m. on July 27, 1996, listening to the Jack Mack & the Heart Attack band.

Then, pow! The music marketer thought a sound tower had blown up. Instead, his jeans were blood-soaked. The shock wave knocked him sideways.

He still has a piece of metal embedded in his left leg.

To this day, Vivian Davis shies away from crowds. She can't stand the Stone Mountain fireworks display because the noise reminds her of the Olympic Park blast. Just recently, children in the neighborhood shooting M-80s bothered her.

"It makes me grind my teeth," said Davis, who was hit in the head by shrapnel at the park.

On Friday, July 26, 1996, Davis, her husband and a friend had toured Centennial Olympic Park. "I just wanted to see it at night," said Davis, a part-time volleyball coach at Shiloh High School in Snellville.

Friday night turned into Saturday morning as the friends took in the rowdy sights of the park. The band played. Lights flashed.

Then, pow! She thought it was part of the show. Then blood poured from her head.

`Absolute chaos'

"It was absolute chaos," Davis recalled. "People running around, police running around. People talking pictures."

Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent Steve Blackwell was part of a plainclothes detail the night of the Olympic Park bombing. "We were the eyes and ears of the command post," he said.

His supervisor radioed that a knapsack had been spotted under a park bench. "It looks like a bomb," his supervisor told him. "It's got wires and pipes in it."

Blackwell began moving the crowd away. Within five minutes, pow!

"I saw a puff of gray smoke and an orange flash," Blackwell said. "Then the blast wave came and that took me off my feet. At some point when I was in the air, I think that's when the shrapnel hit me."

Two pieces of metal lodged in his right leg - one the size of a thumbnail, the other the size of a pencil eraser.

"Obviously, a lot more people were a lot more injured than I was," said Blackwell, who still works for the GBI. "I knew I was going to be all right. They were doing triage and you know when they leave you alone you're either dead or you're going to survive."

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