He was a domestic terrorist responsible for four bombings in Georgia and Alabama, the first of which –– at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta –– killed one person and injured 111 more. But it would take years before Eric Rudolph was identified as the culprit and in the immediate aftermath of the Atlanta attack, a wrongfully suspected security guard had his reputation dragged through the mud.
The story of that security guard is depicted in Clint Eastwood's new movie, the eponymously titled “Richard Jewell,” which hits theaters Friday. Jewell wasn't cleared until 88 days after the bombing and it wasn't until 2003 that Rudolph confessed to the deadly July 27 attack at Centennial Park that left a woman dead and dozens more injured. A cameraman also died from a heart attack as he rushed to the site to cover the explosion.
In the film's depiction, Jewell warns the FBI that the real bomber was still on the loose and could strike again if he wasn't caught; in real life, that's certainly what happened. Just months after the Olympic bombing, in January 1997, Rudolph set off two bombs at an abortion clinic in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs, resulting in seven injuries, CNN reported.
The next month, he put a bomb in Otherside Lounge, a lesbian nightclub in Atlanta, which injured four people when it detonated. A second bomb was found in the club before it went off.
In January 1998, a bomb went off at another abortion clinic, this time in in Birmingham, Alabama. It killed a security guard and injured a nurse, according to CNN. Rudolph detonated the Birmingham bomb by remote control, as opposed to using a timer device. Investigators began looking for Rudolph as a possible suspect after his pickup truck was observed near the abortion clinic prior to the bombing.
With law enforcement looking for him after the Birmingham attack, Rudolph "managed to elude law enforcement officials for five years while hiding out in the mountains,” according to the FBI. They noted he was a “survivalist” and a “skilled outdoorsman.”
Rudolph had made the FBI's top 10 fugitive list when he was caught in May 2003 while “rummaging through a trash bin behind a rural grocery [store] in Murphy, North Carolina."
While he initially pleaded not guilty in 2003, Rudolph admitted guilt two years later to numerous state and federal charges related to all four bombings in a plea deal that allowed him to avoid the death penalty in favor of life in prison without the possibility of parole, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. During his sentencing, Rudolph apologized to his victims of the Olympic bombing but he didn’t apologize for any of the other attacks, CNN reported.
As for his motive, it was a lot of hate.
“He clearly was anti-government and anti-abortion, anti-gay, ‘anti’ a lot of things,” Chris Swecker, who headed the FBI's Charlotte, North Carolina office at the time of Rudolph’s arrest said in an FBI interview. “The bombings really sprang from his own unique biases and prejudices. He had his own way of looking at the world and didn’t get along with a lot of people.”
Harper’s Magazine referred to him as a “Christian terrorist.”
Rudolph issued a 11-page statement after pleading guilty to the attacks in which he ranted about abortion, CNN reported.
In his rambling statement, he said the goal of the Olympic bombing was to "confound, anger and embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the world" for its pro-abortion stance, National Public Radio reported.
When he was about 18, Rudolph spent time at the Church of Israel in Missouri, a Christian identity retreat, according to CNN. He served in the Army for two years before getting kicked out for smoking marijuana. After his discharge, he worked as a self-employed carpenter in North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.
He was 29 when he bombed the Olympics.
During his five years on the run, Rudolph hid out in caves, campsites and cabins, according to the FBI. He hid barrels of food under one of his campsites and foraged food from the trash of local restaurants and grocery stores, as he was doing when he was arrested.
Swecker believes that Rudolph would have killed more if he hadn’t been caught.
“We know he buried at least four caches of explosives in the area,” he said. “He just couldn’t get to his explosives and do what he would have liked to have done. That was the primary reason we were there. We wanted to catch him, but we also wanted to make sure he didn’t strike again.”
Swecker noted that Rudolph was “actually pretty compliant and subdued" and “almost relieved in a sense” when he was arrested.
Rudolph published an autobiography in 2013. He is currently serving his prison term at the ADX Florence Supermax prison in Colorado where he is expected to remain until he dies.
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