Rudolph to plead guilty to 1996 Olympics bombing

Under deal, he will serve 4 consecutive life terms

April 09, 2005|By Ellen Barry | Ellen Barry,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ATLANTA - On the eve of his trial, Eric Robert Rudolph unexpectedly agreed yesterday to plead guilty to a series of bombings that advanced a militant anti-gay, anti-abortion ideology - including a deadly explosion at the 1996 Summer Olympics here.

The plea agreement calls for Rudolph to serve a life sentence without parole and allows him to escape the death penalty, the U.S. Department of Justice announced.

The four bombings killed two people - a 44-year-old Georgia woman who had come to celebrate the Olympics and an off-duty police officer guarding an Alabama abortion clinic - and left hundreds of others injured. Rudolph is alleged to have claimed responsibility on behalf of the "Army of God," a group that advocates killing abortion providers.

In 1998, Rudolph, a survivalist, withdrew to the Appalachian foothills where he grew up. He was captured almost two years ago while searching for food in a trash bin in the town of Murphy, N.C. He told jailers he had lived on acorns and lizards while federal agents combed the woods below.

Rudolph, 38, was scheduled to stand trial in the clinic bombing in Birmingham, Ala., next month. As part of the deal, Rudolph told investigators where to find four large stashes of dynamite that he had buried, federal officials said.

"Justice has prevailed," said Carl J. Truscott, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "Four heinous bombings resulted in two deaths and hundreds injured, and the serial bomber Eric Rudolph will spend the rest of his life behind bars for them."

But as news of the deal rippled through the Southeast yesterday, several victims said they were disappointed that Rudolph will not face the death penalty.

"I've got a piece of metal embedded in my skull, and I got several pieces in my back that always amuse the doctors when they do X-rays," said Ted Riner, 52, a state trooper who was standing near the Olympic Park bomb when it exploded. "I'm very much shocked at what they done, letting him plead off on it."

Prosecutors said the deal hinged on finding the 250 pounds of dynamite Rudolph had hidden in North Carolina. Authorities detonated a bomb they found amid his stash that contained about 20 to 25 pounds of dynamite; it was hidden "in close proximity to a road, homes, and businesses," according to the Justice Department.

By contrast, the Olympic Park bomb contained only 10 pounds of dynamite, said Kent Alexander, who was the U.S. attorney in Atlanta at the time of the bombings.

"With all this nitroglycerin buried underground, he could be killing people after he died," said Alexander, now the general counsel at Emory University. "I've got to think the condition of the deal was finding all the dynamite."

Rudolph is expected to plead guilty to the Alabama bombing Wednesday morning in Birmingham, and then be transported to Atlanta to plead guilty to the three Georgia bombings the same afternoon.

The announcement closes a brutal campaign of domestic terrorism. At 1:25 a.m. on July 27, 1996, a bomb full of nails and screws stuffed into a backpack exploded in Centennial Olympic Park, where a crowd had gathered for an open-air concert.

Alice Hawthorne, 44, was killed by the blast, and more than 100 people were treated for shock or shrapnel wounds. President Bill Clinton denounced the bombing as "an evil act of terror."

Three days later, authorities named a security guard, Richard Jewell, as their leading suspect, unleashing a flood of publicity about him; when they had found no evidence linking Jewell to the crime after two months, Alexander announced that Jewell was "not a target" of the investigation.

In January 1997, two bombs rocked an abortion clinic in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs. The second, probably timed to hit police responders, injured more than 50 people, according to the Justice Department.

The third target was the Otherside Lounge, a gay nightclub in Atlanta. On Feb 21, 1997, two bombs exploded there, injuring five people.

On Jan. 29, 1998, the fourth bombing targeted New Woman All Woman, an abortion clinic in Birmingham. That attack killed Robert Sanderson, an off-duty police officer, and left nurse Emily Lyons studded with nails from her head to her feet.

Lyons underwent a 10-hour surgery the day of the blast and has had 19 more surgeries since, said her husband, Jeff Lyons.

After the Birmingham blast, a witness spotted a man removing a woman's wig and jumping into a pickup truck with a license plate that matched Rudolph's. Tracing Rudolph to Murphy, police opened a storage locker he had rented and found nails and extremist literature. But Rudolph had vanished.

Charles Stone, a retired agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said that with the plea deal, authorities would have the opportunity to debrief Rudolph about his ideology and who helped him disappear into the North Carolina woods.

The plea agreement should come as a huge relief to prosecutors, who faced "an uphill battle" to ensure that Rudolph received the death penalty, said G. Douglas Jones, the former U.S. attorney for the northern district of Alabama.

Jones said there were weak points in the evidence linking Rudolph to the Atlanta bombings - for example, the voice on a 911 call made before the Olympic bombing is not clearly Rudolph's. Even if a jury did hand down the death penalty, the appeals process would likely have dragged on, the public might never have gotten answers about the crime, he said.

"It's really hard to get that final chapter," he said. "When this man stands in front of a District Court judge and acknowledges his guilt, that's a tremendous victory."

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