Eric Rudolph supposedly spent years living as a fugitive in the woods in western North Carolina. Was that really possible?
Eric Rudolph supposedly spent years living as a fugitive in the woods in western North Carolina. Was that really possible?
Eric Rudolph supposedly spent years living as a fugitive in the woods in western North Carolina. Was that really possible? (photo: Kevin Russ/Stocksy)
Bruce Barcott

Eric Rudolph Slept Here

The most wanted man in America survived five years in the North Carolina woods, eating salamanders, sleeping on the cold ground, and stalking deer. Or so he says. Spend a night in his secret mountain hideaway and you get the feeling there's more to this story.

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“Man could live a long time in these woods,” Richard Farner says, pausing to lean against a red oak and light a cigarette. “If he knew what he was doing.”

Deep in the foggy mountains of western North Carolina, Farner and I are picking our way up a steep, wooded slope marked off with police tape. “It’s no big deal, surviving out here,” Farner tells me. “There’s plenty to eat. Bear, boar, deer, coon, possum, turkey, squirrel. Look there,” he says, pointing to a spot where some critter has dug up the leafy forest floor. “There’s some old hog roots.”

Farner is a wire-thin hunting guide who's stalked game in these woods since he was seven. He’s 52 now, but doesn't look a day over 90. He keeps his salt-and-pepper hair bunched in a ponytail, chain-smokes GT One Lights, and views the world through ghostly blue eyes. A tattoo on his right forearm reads tennessee. On his left: HILL BILLY.

It’s early June, a little over a week since the capture of Eric Robert Rudolph, the 36-year-old accused serial bomber who, from January 1998 to May 2003, eluded one of the most intense manhunts in United States history by disappearing into the southern Appalachian wilderness. Farner and I are clawing up this muddy hollow to find Rudolph’s last known hideout and explore the question of the moment: How did he do it? After his capture, Rudolph told the authorities about two of his forest sanctuaries. His so-called summer camp sat in a beech stand on a hill a couple of hundred yards off Interstate 74, on the edge of the small mountain town of Murphy, in Cherokee County. His more remote winter camp was secreted in the steep, laurel-covered mountains nine miles east of Murphy, in the 530,000-acre Nantahala National Forest. After his arrest, Rudolph reportedly told his jailers that he’d survived on his own, eating salamanders and acorns, and that life on the lam was like a rugged five-year camping trip. The FBI isn’t so sure. Following Rudolph’s capture, federal agents continued combing the hills and grilling the locals, looking for more camps and evidence that might implicate an accomplice—or accomplices—who aided and abetted the fugitive’s flight from justice.

Farner and I didn’t even try to get to the off-limits summer camp, where evidence is still being processed. But the feds have finished their search of Rudolph’s winter camp—on Tarkiln Ridge, a little-used cut of national forest in the Fire’s Creek recreation area—which is where we’ve headed.

With a little snow, Tarkiln Ridge would qualify as a black-diamond run: It’s relentlessly steep. After locating the FBI’s trail and hiking about a half-mile and 700 vertical feet up the ridge, we reach a slight break in the slope. Here lie the remains of Rudolph’s winter camp, a collection of small living stations scattered over an acre of terrain, camouflaged by patches of hemlock and laurel. At the camp's lowest point, a small rock outcropping serves as a storm shelter and sentry post. (An assault rifle was recovered here—a Belgian .223 FN/FAL, according to one report.) Two pits, which apparently served as food caches, are dug into the hillside; one is two feet deep, the other goes more than five feet down. Federal investigators emptied both but left behind an enormous spill of the grain that Rudolph allegedly stole from a farming operation near the Andrews-Murphy airfield.

Farner scoops some up. “Feed corn,” he says. “Rye. Clay peas.”

A boulder the size of a tractor-trailer marks the upper limit of the camp. Just below it sits Rudolph’s fireplace. The fugitive had dug a bench into the hillside and inlaid it with 20 pieces of flat, blue-gray slate. The bench was constructed with painstaking care. I’ve seen sloppier inlay work done at $75 an hour.

I sit on the fireplace and sketch the camp. Farner lights a smoke and joins me. He nudges a pebble of coal out of Rudolph’s small fire pit and looks puzzled.

“Five years,” he says, “and that’s all the ashes they is?”

The scene around us throws doubt on Rudolph’s contention that he spent half a decade alone in the woods—or at least that he spent most of it here. There’s no latrine, no animal bones. I’ve read that Rudolph’s pit caches held 50 to 100 pounds of grain, which itself raises a question.

“That feed comes in 50-pound sacks,” says Farner. “Can you figure him carrying a 50-pound sack up that ridge?”

Well, maybe. It’s only a six-mile hike from the airfield to here, and nothing says Rudolph couldn’t have dumped half the sack before making the trip. Other things don’t add up, though. At one point, while I circle the remains of Rudolph’s fire, a low-hanging branch slaps me in the throat. The branch would have nailed Rudolph—who at five foot eleven is five inches shorter than me—square in the eyes.

“If you stayed here, how many times would that branch hit you before you cut it off?” Farner asks. And what about that bench, which is just right for two people: Did Rudolph have guests? Farner draws on his cigarette, exhales, and spits. “He didn’t do this alone,” he says. “That man had help.”

The U.S. Department of Justice has charged Rudolph with four bombings committed between July 1996 and January 1998. The first and most notorious—the 1996 Olympics bombing in Atlanta’s Centennial Park—killed one woman and injured more than 100 people. The last, involving a pipe bomb packed with two-and-a-half-inch flooring nails, killed a security guard and maimed a nurse at a women’s health clinic in Birmingham, Alabama. In between, Rudolph allegedly rigged explosive devices in Atlanta that injured four people at an abortion clinic and five people at a lesbian bar. Law enforcement officials theorized that Rudolph’s choice of targets was inspired by his bizarre Christian Identity theology, a conspiracy-laced doctrine whose adherents hate Jews, nonwhites, homosexuals, abortion, the U.S. government, the United Nations, and anything smacking of one-world multiculturalism.

Rudolph was steeped in this stuff. Born in 1966, the youngest son in a family of six children, he grew up in Homestead, Florida. When he was 15, his father died of cancer and his mother moved the family to Nantahala, North Carolina, a hamlet about 18 miles northeast of Murphy and the gateway to the Nantahala Gorge, a whitewater rafting and kayaking mecca.

Patricia Rudolph didn’t come for the water. She wanted to live among the handful of white supremacists who had set up shop in the region, including Nord Davis Jr., a Christian Identity supporter and a notorious author of hate literature. Davis’s 1993 booklet “Star Wars” calls for perpetual combat between Christians and Jews.

‘He didn’t do this alone,’ he says. ‘That man had help.’

Another neighbor, Tom Branham, may have taught young Eric how to translate those ideas into action. It was Branham, a Nantahala sawmill owner and Christian Identity follower, who talked Patricia Rudolph into relocating, and it was Branham who reportedly stepped in as a father figure after Rudolph's dad died. In 1984, when Rudolph was 18, Branham was arrested when federal agents found dynamite, blasting caps, a submachine gun, and other illegal materials in his home. His conviction on federal weapons charges was later overturned; Branham still lives in the area and declines interviews.

After dropping out of high school, Rudolph alternated between spending time in the woods—hunting, fishing, hiking, and caving—and spending time on the couch smoking pot. Following a brief stint at Western Carolina University, he joined the Army at 19, hoping to become a Special Forces soldier, but washed out after 18 months. Rudolph went back home and supported himself with part-time carpentry work. He also apparently became a marijuana grower and dealer (a secret grow room was discovered in his trailer by the FBI). In a 2001 interview in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report, a publication that keeps tabs on the extreme right, Rudolph’s former sister-in-law, Deborah Rudolph, claims that he made up to $60,000 a year selling pot.

According to Deborah, who divorced Eric's brother Joel in 1991, Eric’s increasingly conspiratorial and hateful views began to alienate members of his family in the early nineties. She said he couldn't watch TV—which he called “the electronic Jew”—without deconstructing the supposedly offensive aspects of each show. “You could be watching a 30-minute sitcom,” she told the Intelligence Report, “and the credits would roll and there’d be Jewish names and, excuse my expression, but he would say, ‘You fucking Yids.’”

Rudolph did not become a suspect in the bombings until January 29, 1998, the day of the Birmingham clinic blast. One witness reported seeing a man walking away from the scene who fit his description; another witness saw this man putting items into a gray 1989 Nissan pickup, and took down the plate number. North Carolina records listed the owner as 31-year-old Eric Rudolph, then living in a rented trailer outside Murphy. When federal agents raided his trailer the next day, they found the lights on, the front door open, and Rudolph gone.

It was assumed from the start that Rudolph had fled into the Nantahala National Forest, about 20 miles south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where the forgotten corners of Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina meet. At the height of the manhunt, more than 200 agents combed the hills around Murphy, in an effort that eventually cost upwards of $20 million.

(Erik S. Lesser/Getty)

The search turned up no traces of the fugitive. But six months later, Rudolph appeared at the home of 71-year-old George Nordmann, a former neighbor and the owner of an area health-food store, who lived near Nantahala Lake. Rudolph had a list of needed provisions; Nordmann didn't hand over the requested beans and batteries, but he didn't alert the police, either. A few days later Rudolph apparently stole the old man's truck and about 100 pounds of canned goods from Nordmann’s home, leaving behind five $100 bills. Nordmann waited two days before reporting the theft, and two days after that his truck was found at a public campground 18 miles east of Murphy.

The search dragged on for a year, then three, then five, by which time the FBI had long worn out its welcome. In the end, Jeff Postell, a 21-year-old rookie in the Murphy Police Department, caught Rudolph dumpster-diving behind a Save-A-Lot supermarket at 3:30 am on May 31. Rudolph had lost weight but was otherwise in good shape. He was wearing dark-blue work pants, a camouflage jacket, and old sneakers, and his hair was cropped short. He had a thin mustache and chin stubble—nothing like the Ted Kaczynski wildman look that many people expected. The cops gave him biscuits and gravy and he wolfed them down.

Rudolph now sits in the Jefferson County Jail in Birmingham, awaiting trial early next year on five counts related to the clinic bombing, after which he will be transferred to Georgia to face trial for the three Atlanta bombings. In early June, he pleaded innocent to the Birmingham charges. The U.S. attorney prosecuting that case has indicated that she may seek the death penalty.


A few days after Rudolph was caught, a reporter asked Cherokee County sheriff Keith Lovin if he expected more arrests. Lovin smiled and said, “I think the next few weeks may be interesting.”

Part of Rudolph's folkloric appeal to some people was the idea that he made it out there alone, using the skills of a crack survivalist. As I discover while talking to citizens in and around Murphy, his reputation didn't completely collapse in the wake of his arrest, but the details of his capture have led many to shift from asking whether he had help to who was involved. FBI agents are still patrolling the hills with dogs, looking for more camps and evidence of accomplices, but if they've found anything, they're not telling. “We're basically under orders from the Department of Justice to keep a lid on all information until the trial,” says an FBI spokesman. “If there’s anything that’s worthy, it’ll come out then.”

These days, about the only people publicly advocating the five-years-alone theory are Rudolph himself and Murphy mayor Bill Hughes. Hughes’s motive is clear: He’s defending his town’s honor. “The people of this area deplore Rudolph’s actions,” he tells me. “We are very patriotic, we respect authority, and we are not anti-government.” Hughes is livid over the portrayal of his town as a hotbed of bigoted redneck radicalism, and rightly so. Murphy’s bright shops, stately churches, and groomed baseball diamonds are the marks of a quaint southern town on the upswing. But beyond the city limits, where the kudzu creeps over buildings and trees, the mood can turn darker. Nord Davis Jr. ran his hate operation from a mountaintop compound outside of Andrews, a down-on-its-luck former factory town about 14 miles north of Murphy, until his death six years ago. Today, vociferous anti-abortion billboards and homemade religious signs still stand in front yards and hang from roadside trees. Around here, folks roll their eyes when Mayor Hughes denies the possibility of local involvement.

“Plenty of folks might’ve helped him,” says Hoover Anderson, 84, who lives in nearby Hayesville, the county seat of neighboring Clay County. “What he done was wrong, but a lot of people around here think what they're doing at abortion clinics is wrong, too.”

At Clay’s Corner general store in Brasstown, eight miles south of Rudolph's winter camp, owner Clay Logan lays out T-shirts that show a possum with the slogan RUDOLPH'S SURVIVAL FOOD.

“Man who survived five years had to eat some possum,” says Logan, 57, a grandfatherly type in denim overalls. His wife, Judy, a sharp-featured woman with frosted hair, tends the counter. Among the items for sale are beef jerky, Winchester ammunition, and nine kinds of chewing tobacco.

“If he done what they say he did, he’s a criminal,” Logan tells me. “You don’t go around doing things like that, no matter what you believe in. I don’t think people around here really defend him, but abortion is a pretty strong issue in these mountains.”

“Killin’s killin’,” Judy Logan concurs.

There’s more to this than anti-abortion beliefs, though. Mountain people are famously iconoclastic, and Rudolph bet his life on that independent streak. Most Americans are already convinced that Rudolph is the Olympic bomber. That's not the case in western North Carolina. Time and again, locals answer my questions with the preface “If he did what they say…”.

Out here, just because the government says something is true doesn't make it so, and the heavy-footed federal presence during the five-year manhunt didn’t help matters. The curt professionalism of FBI agents can easily be read as cold Yankee contempt.

Most Americans are already convinced that Rudolph is the Olympic bomber. That's not the case in western North Carolina.

Charles Williams, a business manager who lived in Brasstown during the intensive 1998 hunt, tells me about the day four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms showed up on his porch armed with automatic weapons. “My wife hears a knock at the door,” Williams says. “They wanted to come in and search the house. They came in and of course didn't find anything. They had the feeling that people would hide Eric Rudolph.” After five years of that sort of thing, a lot of people opted for a “none of the above” vote: not for Rudolph, not for the FBI. 

Even the local cops seem to distance themselves from the FBI’s Rudolph obsession. Still, Clay County sheriff Tony Woody is very clear on one point: He doesn’t think Rudolph could have survived five winters in the woods. “I think he had all these places laid out beforehand,” he says, indicating that Rudolph had prepared his hiding spots. “He made plans.”

Woody leans back in his chair and clasps his hands behind his head. “This is just one man’s speculation,” he says, “but I know it'd take an extraordinary man to take those winters and never get sick. Could you imagine a man sleeping out on the ground for five years? There’s no way.”

Maybe Rudolph overwintered in somebody’s attic or burrowed into a vacation cabin. We may never know. What we do know is that he spent part of his time in those two camps. What was it like there? To get a feel for that, I return to his winter camp, nine miles from Murphy, and spend a night.

Although the camp slope is gentler than the rest of the ridge, I can find only two spaces level enough to lie down on without rolling. Beside one is a blackened smudge where Rudolph tended a tiny fire. Near the other is a long oak branch stripped and sharpened into a tarp support. I roll out my bag by the fire spot.

A light rain falls, but not on me. The overhang of mountain laurel, oak, red maple, and hemlock stitches into a natural roof, and underneath this canopy, the terrain is as wide open as a parking lot. From a security standpoint, it’s brilliant; Rudolph could have come and gone via a dozen routes without creating a trail.

Sitting out here, I begin to imagine the anxious world of sound that Rudolph inhabited. Every rustling leaf and cracking twig might have signaled the approach of the law. I count the planes passing overhead. Two every hour. Those must have quickened Rudolph’s pulse. During the early years of the manhunt, FBI agents flew sorties day and night in surveillance aircraft armed with infrared sensors to pick up body heat.

Darkness creeps up the hill. Was this the toughest part of Rudolph’s day—the moment when diurnal creatures feel the instinctive urge to get home? Maybe not. Maybe the dimming light brought him relief. He could light a fire and rest assured that he probably wouldn’t be captured—for another night, at least.

(Erik S. Lesser/Getty)

At 5:40 am, the Carolina wrens start up, and hunger and thirst force me out of the tent. The creeks that trickle down the ridge seams in winter are dry now, but Rudolph’s grub remains. I skim away the rotting top layer, pop a handful of the fugitive's corn into my mouth, and chew. In a gagging instant, I understand why Eric Rudolph went to Murphy: for the food.

The next night I carry the experiment a step further by casing the area Rudolph haunted when he came to town. Officer Postell caught the fugitive prowling around the Save-A-Lot in the predawn hours, so I park my car outside the same store at 4 am and hit the dumpster. No food. I hop a low fence and stumble across a dark, grassy field toward Rudolph’s summer camp.

When you consider the Murphy hideout through the eyes of a hungry man, the advantage becomes obvious. It sits atop a wooded hill, separated from Murphy High School and the rest of town by I-74, a four-lane interstate. Within a quarter-mile there are three supermarkets, a Wal-Mart, a Taco Bell, a Domino’s Pizza, a Burger King, a KFC, a BP minimart, Capt’n Joe’s Galley, and the New Happy Garden Chinese Restaurant. Each keeps a dumpster in the back. Once the trees leaf out, you could spend the summer like Yogi Bear, picnicking in the garbage, without anyone seeing you come or go.

At the Ingles Market, on the other side of the field, two bread-truck drivers are unloading pallets of loaves. A fringe of heavy brush rings the parking lot. It’s scratchy going, but the cover gets me to the Ingles trash bins. My hand comes up wet with some strange, overripe fruit. Chow time.

Once fed, Rudolph probably headed back to camp. I decide to re-create his trip, to see if I can make my way back undetected, as he would have had to do. The problem is, the deep Valley River cuts off Rudolph’s camp from the food. He’d have had to swim across, or walk over the high Interstate 74 bridge.

5:15 am finds me at the bridge. It's still dark. Long stretches pass between cars. I pick my moment and bolt from the brush, hustling across in a comically suspicious trot. Forty-seven seconds, 116 strides. No passing vehicles spot me.

Jogging back over, I catch the glow of southbound headlights coming at me and start running fast. Did Rudolph really cross this bridge twice a night?

“He didn’t cross that bridge,” Tom Brown tells me. “It’s too exposed.”

On my last day in Murphy, I meet up with Brown, 53, a world-renowned tracker and founder of Tom Brown’s Tracker School, in Asbury, New Jersey. He's brought along Kevin Reeve, 46, who oversees the operation of Brown’s tracker teams, which law enforcement agencies often use to help find missing persons. Both happened to be appearing at a knife show in Georgia shortly after Rudolph's capture and agreed to drive up and sniff around the fugitive’s lair.

First Brown wants to check the land around Rudolph’s summer camp in Murphy. The camp is still off-limits, so we stand next to the Save-A-Lot dumpster. Brown scans the hillside and immediately spies two secure routes, both utilizing a small side-street bridge a few hundred yards south of the I-74 bridge. “See those trees?” he says. “He’s got cover all the way over here.” From another vantage, Reeve spots faint trails coming down the hillside.

Next we hop in the car and head for Tarkiln Ridge. Brown's silver hair has a military cut, his body is strong and trim, and he carries himself with command presence. When he's working in the field, he hikes like a four-year-old, taking small steps, wandering off the trail, and stopping to investigate whatever strikes his senses. On the trail up the ridge, Brown spots something buried in the mud and digs up a government-issue ballpoint pen. “Right where the agent slipped and fell on his ass,” he says, adding, “I’ve got a lot of respect for those boys. They know how to process a crime scene. But they don’t know the woods so well.”

The FBI’s evidence team has left a stampede of tracks on the hillside, but Brown is undeterred.

“It’s not hard to distinguish tracks made in the past week from those a month or two old,” he says.

The ground here is soft and steep, Reeve points out. The only way to descend without slipping is to dig in heel-first, like a mountaineer coming down a snowfield. If Rudolph met a friend and picked up supplies at the road, he’d have left heel divots behind. Brown finds none.

“No trail means no road drop,” Brown declares as we reach camp. “Everything points up-ridge.” Translation: Rudolph must have approached his winter camp from above. Brown stirs the bench fire and proclaims it six weeks old. “Any older and it would be damper and more decomposed,” he says.

Reeve studies a stump next to the rain cubby. A tree is most easily felled by notching two sides; Rudolph had hacked the entire circumference like a beaver. “He girdled it,” Reeve says. “He had an ax but didn't know how to use it.”

Given that Rudolph had an ax, a rifle, and a shovel to dig the food pits, the fugitive’s winter camp leaves Brown and Reeve unimpressed. “He’s got the morning sun, which is good,” says Brown. “That’s the coldest part of the day. And if anybody walks up on him, he’ll hear them. But he's too far from water. And why would you sleep by your food, knowing there’s bears in the area? This isn’t a bad choice for seclusion, but I wouldn’t have done it this way.”

“Rudolph was no survivalist,” Brown continues. “Survival is the act of living off the land. Rudolph just did not have the skills.”

So what exactly was this camp? How did he use it?

“Let me see that map,” Brown says. “What's behind his camp?”

We check the map. “Nothing,” I say.

“Exactly,” says Brown, pointing out that it's possible to travel cross-country from the Murphy camp to Tarkiln Ridge without crossing more than two roads. A straight 18-mile line separates the Murphy camp from the point where Rudolph abandoned George Nordmann's stolen truck in 1998. That's two days’ travel through open forest. At the midpoint of that line sits Tarkiln Ridge.

“This was no camp,” Reeve concludes. “This was a waypoint. He was heading somewhere else.” To Brown’s and Reeve’s way of thinking, somewhere at least nine miles beyond Tarkiln Ridge, Eric Rudolph must have maintained a deep-woods camp that no one has yet discovered.

Eric Rudolph seems to have had enough know-how and money—recall the marijuana dealing and the $100 bills left for George Nordmann—to go anywhere in America, yet he chose to hide out near the family home. Why did he stay?

I'm inclined toward Sheriff Woody’s theory: Rudolph made plans. I think he stayed in the Nantahala woods because he knew them, and it seems plausible that he’d spent more than a decade preparing to live in a survivalist mode, perhaps in anticipation of a future race war. The war turned out to be more lopsided than he’d anticipated—Eric against the world—but it came nonetheless. And survival turned out to be tougher than he thought. The fat of the land wasn’t so fat. When his supplies ran out, it's possible he turned to the mountain people for help.

But something is nagging at me. When Officer Jeff Postell confronted Rudolph, the fugitive could have easily hopped the fence and disappeared across the darkened field next to the Save-A-Lot. Postell wouldn't have shot him. Why did Rudolph give himself up?

“Think about how close his camp was to the high school,” Brown says. “He would have seen and heard those kids every day. That could have been excruciating.”

“Few fugitives escape to the woods and stay there,” Reeve observes. “They’ll always come back to society.”

Eric Rudolph was woodsman enough to elude the FBI, but after five years on the run, maybe he grew tired of himself. The consolation of wilderness was not enough.

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