Eric Rudolph, the self-proclaimed survivalist who eluded federal capture for more than five years in the North Carolina woods, has agreed to plead guilty to four terrorist bombings, including the deadly explosion at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the Justice Department announced yesterday.
Rudolph will be sentenced to four consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole after entering the plea in exchange for not facing the death penalty, officials said. He is scheduled to appear Wednesday in federal courts in Birmingham and Atlanta to plead guilty to the bombings, which killed two bystanders and injured more than 150 other people over three years ending in 1998.
An explosion in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Games killed spectator Alice Hawthorne and injured 111 other people.
(Robert Gee -- AP)
As part of the plea agreement, Rudolph also told authorities where to find more than 250 pounds of dynamite and bomb components that he had secreted away while hiding, officials said. Federal agents exploded the caches without incident in recent days, including one fully assembled bomb that contained 25 pounds of dynamite and was near homes and businesses, the Justice Department said.
"The many victims of Eric Rudolph's terrorist attacks in Atlanta and Birmingham can rest assured that Rudolph will spend the rest of his life behind bars," Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said in a statement. "The best interests of justice are served by resolution of this case and by the skillful operation that secured the dangerous explosives buried in North Carolina."
Rudolph, 38, is charged with setting off a backpack bomb at Centennial Olympic Park during the Summer Games in July 1996, which killed spectator Alice Hawthorne and injured 111 other people. In 1997, he is alleged to have carried out two bombings in Atlanta -- one at a family-planning clinic and another at the Otherside Lounge, a nightspot frequented by lesbians.
Rudolph is also charged with setting off an explosion at an Alabama abortion clinic in 1998 that killed an off-duty police officer, Robert Sanderson, and seriously injured a nurse, Emily Lyons. Jury selection began in that case this week.
Lyons's husband, Jeffrey Lyons, told the Associated Press yesterday that he and his wife were "extremely disappointed" by the plea agreement, although they understood authorities' desire to locate the hidden weapons caches.
"As they say, let the punishment fit the crime," Lyons said. "That was a death sentence."
But Linda Bourgeois, administrator at the Birmingham abortion clinic, told AP that some employees "jumped up and down and screamed" in excitement over the news of the plea deal. "We think it's a victory for all women everywhere," she said.
Federal prosecutors told a federal judge on April 1 that the Birmingham bombing was carried out by remote control and that the bomb consisted of a toolbox filled with explosives and nails and covered in shrubbery.
Rudolph's attorney, William Bowen, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
Rudolph, a former Army soldier, eluded capture for 5 1/2 years despite a $24 million manhunt that included 200 federal agents, a $1 million bounty and a listing among the FBI's most wanted. He was finally captured in 2003 by a rookie police officer in Murphy, N.C., who spotted him rooting around in garbage bins behind a grocery store.
Rudolph, a high school dropout, was linked in news reports and by federal authorities with the Christian Identity movement, which espouses white-supremacist and anti-Semitic ideas, and is said to have written a ninth-grade essay denying that the Holocaust took place.
While hiding in the rugged Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina, Rudolph was believed by authorities to have received help from sympathizers who shared his far-right views, although no one has ever been charged with aiding him. Even as the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and other agencies were attempting to find Rudolph, T-shirts and coffee mugs appeared in the area with the slogan "RUN RUDOLPH RUN."
Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, urged federal authorities yesterday to continue their investigation of possible accomplices.
"We're obviously pleased that he's finally admitting responsibility for these crimes," Saporta said in an interview. "But we want law enforcement to continue to investigate these networks of extremists, because we doubt that he could have evaded capture for five years without help."
Rudolph's agreement to plead guilty in the Olympics case has particular significance given the convoluted history behind that bombing. The FBI initially suspected it was the work of Richard Jewell, a security guard working during the Olympics, but was later forced to issue a public statement saying that Jewell did not plant the bomb. Rudolph's attorneys had signaled that they would focus heavily on Jewell in mounting their defense.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino, said the Justice Department probably entered a deal with Rudolph for tactical reasons, both to avoid the risks and costs of trials and to obtain the explosives that Rudolph had hidden.
If Rudolph had been executed, Levin said, it is likely that his stature would have been elevated among extremists.
"As disappointing as it is to people who think he should get the harshest penalty, this movement thrives on martyrs and they're being deprived of one," Levin said.
Special correspondent Catharine Skipp in Miami and research editor Lucy Shackelford in Washington contributed to this report.