Explosives expert helped the FBI get the case right

Federal Workers

August 17, 2007|By Melissa Harris

This is the last in a three-part series on Maryland-based finalists for the Service to America Medals, or Sammies, one of the highest honors bestowed on civil servants. The winners will be announced next month.

One of the last pieces of evidence Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph saw in a Huntsville, Ala., courtroom was a green Popular Mechanics toolbox covered in fake green foliage.

A team of explosive experts from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, working under Michael Ethridge of Clarksville, had meticulously reconstructed Rudolph's fourth and final bombing, even purchasing the toolbox and most bomb parts from the same Murphy, N.C., Wal-Mart that Rudolph had.

Rudolph disguised the bomb as a plant and detonated it with a model-airplane remote control. The explosion killed an off-duty police officer guarding a Birmingham, Ala., abortion clinic in 1998, two years after Rudolph's first bomb exploded at a concert at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Lloyd Erwin, 66, a chemist in the ATF's Atlanta lab, was the last person to testify at a pretrial hearing in 2005 on the validity and admissibility of the bureau's forensic evidence and expertise in the Birmingham case. The next weekend, Rudolph pleaded guilty -- to all four bombings.

"We'll never know why he pleaded guilty, but I think that he realized that he had been had," Erwin said via video-conference from the ATF's Atlanta laboratory this week.

The 24-person team created 3,600 trial exhibits and processed thousands of pieces of evidence related to Rudolph's last three bombings. (The FBI processed the Olympic Park evidence.)

For nearly seven years, the anti-abortion zealot had eluded federal investigators. The FBI, for instance, had incorrectly identified private security guard Richard Jewell as a suspect in the 1996 Olympic bombing.

"The reason this team is so important is that the federal government ultimately got it right," said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, the organization that selected Ethridge and his team as finalists for a Service to America Medal. "They did their jobs not just well but extraordinarily well. And the Jewell case shows why it is so critical to have top talent in government. Lives can be hurt if things aren't done right."

Ethridge oversees the ATF laboratories in Beltsville, Atlanta and San Francisco. Investigators in these labs have handled evidence from the Virginia Tech shootings, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Washington sniper shootings and the Charles County serial arsons -- almost every major domestic crime in recent history.

Ethridge briefed a top agency official on the Rudolph case every day at 8 a.m. before the director's staff meeting at 8:30 a.m.

"The toughest part for me was to constantly assure executives that what was coming out in the media, that my labs weren't the source of that information," Ethridge, 57, said. "Sometimes I felt like I spent more time telling them what wasn't happening than what was happening."

The first break in the case came after the Birmingham bombing.

A witness saw a man calmly walking away from the scene as everyone else rushed toward the clinic and scribbled the man's license plate number on a McDonald's coffee cup. The plate was registered to Rudolph.

Federal investigators obtained Rudolph's fingerprints from his Army file, but the remnants of the bombs were clean. Rudolph used different parts and shells for his bombs, including a garbage bag and backpack. Some were detonated with timers, others with remote controls.

But each bomb included a plastic container often used to store cereal. In three of the four cases, the ATF forensic scientists found the Rubbermaid logo on the container. (The FBI confiscated Jewell's mother's Tupperware and returned it in pieces.)

Ethridge said the best moment -- and second break in the case -- was Rudolph's capture. A rookie police officer arrested him in 2003 as he rummaged through a trash bin near a Save-a-Lot store. Once Rudolph was in custody, the ATF scientists could begin linking evidence from the crime scenes to Rudolph's truck, mobile home and Wal-Mart purchases.

"We had our dogs essentially taken to the cleaners in between searches" to prevent evidence contamination, Ethridge said. "We were expecting a very long trial and our evidence to be challenged."

Erwin, who has worked for ATF for 43 years, can list from memory the spots where explosive residue was found in Rudolph's truck and trailer, including the steering wheel, gear stick and door handle, as well as a grocery sack, two baseball caps, a videotape, a blanket, his toolbox and a chair cushion.

"The key was the explosive evidence," Ethridge said. "All Rudolph and his attorneys saw was the science."

The Partnership for Public Service will begin accepting nominations for the 2008 Service to America Medals on Sept. 20, the day after the 2007 awards are announced. Applications can be submitted at ourpublicservice.org.

The writer can be reached at melissa.harris @baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.

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