Tracking Eric Rudolph, outdoorsman-cum-outlaw-cum-outdoorsman

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Out Front, Fall 1998

Go Directly to Jail — By Way of the Appalachian Trail
Tracking Eric Rudolph, outdoorsman-cum-outlaw-cum-outdoorsman
By Bill Donahue

He was out there, somewhere, and in the oak-specked hills of North Carolina, 200 federal agents were hot on his trail, with motion detectors and heat-sensing helicopters, ready to nab Eric Robert Rudolph. Already, in fact, G-men had found a scrap of trash Rudolph failed to pack out from his campsite. They'd located a remote cabin the 31-year-old stopped in, and a pickup he'd stolen. But in February, the fugitive escaped vaporlike into the bush. As of press time, six months later, he still hadn't been found.

Rudolph — who is suspected in the January bombing that killed a security guard and severely injured a nurse at the New Woman All Women Health Care Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama — is also wanted for questioning in three Atlanta bombings, including the explosion at the 1996 Summer Olympics that killed one woman. He was placed on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Ten Most Wanted list in May, and FBI director Louis Freeh is almost certain his quarry is hiding in the western tip of North Carolina, which Rudolph reportedly has called home for more than a decade.

If so, there's little doubt that he's invoking the wilderness skills he learned during an Army stint. "You can't live in those creek woods without filtering the water," says Dwight McCarter, a ranger who has spent 33 years tracking fugitives and others in the Great Smokies. "There's pigs wallowing upstream." Other hazards include rattlers and copperheads, according to McCarter, and Rudolph probably knows what their rock-heap homes look like. He can read a compass, it seems, and weave nimbly from one hiding spot to the next. "Maybe," says McCarter, "he's been studying his topo maps."

Perhaps. But no one really knows how the guy is spending his time in the wilds. So we offer a few likely scenarios as the year's most infamous wilderness trek grinds on.

Feeding (barely) on God's green gifts. A spokesman at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors anti-government groups and other extremists, says there is "abundant evidence" linking Rudolph to Christian Identity, a movement holding that blacks, among others, are the evil spawn of "inferior beasts of the field." So it's probable that Rudolph regards his survival as a holy endeavor. He'd have no choice. "Living off the land would be a full-time job here," says Burt Kornegay, a North Carolina-based wilderness guide. The woods are loaded with potential prey — most notably, the gray rabbits that locals call "Hoover Hams" — but Rudolph would be stupid to shoot. Which forces him to forage in a landscape dense with rhododendron and laurel. "There are green briar and cucumber roots and lily bulbs," Kornegay notes somewhat dismally, "and also hickory nuts, acorns, and blackberries." The most plentiful crop, however, is ramps: sweet, wild garlic that Rudolph may have come to despise. "Ramps," Kornegay explains, "are the world's foulest-smelling things. You eat them for two days and you reek out of every pore. People can literally follow your scent."

Smiting demons. The morning after the Birmingham bombing, as cops pondered the wreckage, Rudolph rented a B-grade adventure film called Kull the Conqueror from a video store in Murphy, North Carolina. He viewed the writhing drama raptly, one imagines. Kull is a shirtless brute who journeys into the wilds to slay an ice-snorting monster who epitomizes godless times. The hulking heartthrob's stabbing of the dread Valka conjures up the story of Phineas, a biblical priest who serves as patron saint for many Christian Identity followers. In Numbers 25, Phineas righteously skewers two heathens with a javelin, thereby shielding the masses from the plague of idolatry.

Jerry Walters, a Tacoma-based Lutheran pastor who is writing a book criticizing Christian Identity, considers Rudolph's clinic bombing a "Phineas action." And one suspects that, deep in the woods, Rudolph may still be playing Phineas/Kull. His probable hiding grounds are rife with the ancient demons of the indigenous Cherokee. Consider Akwetiyi, a spot on the Tuckasegee River just east of Murphy. James Mooney, in his classic Myths of the Cherokee, notes that "according to tradition, there was a dangerous water monster in the river." Could Rudolph the Conqueror perchance be hunched there now, rabidly jabbing a spear into the stream's frothy currents?

Deliverance. The Great Smoky Mountains Railway cuts through the woods northeast of where Rudolph ditched the pickup. It's the site of the escape scene in The Fugitive, where Harrison Ford wriggled free after a train smacked his prison bus. "Rudolph could have seen the movie," reasons Dwight McCarter. "Right about now he might be thinking, 'What if I jumped on one of those freight cars?' It's a time-honored way of escaping."

McCarter recalls a pair of murderers he once snared who lasted just a few days in the forest before they emerged to heist pork and beans from a country home. "They told me, 'We were just so tired of eating tomatoes without any salt,'" McCarter relates. "See, human beings, they crave things. When I'm not in town, I crave fresh, cold orange juice. Other guys, maybe it's corn bread. If Rudolph was alive, he'd be sneaking toward town for something."

And if the munchies don't do him in? "Come October," McCarter says, "it's wild boar season, and those hunters, they pack 30-06s. Old Rudolph, if he decides to mess with them boys — well, he'll be in trouble."

Illustration by Jonathon Rosen

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