Then a bomb went off.
One person was killed. More than a hundred others were severely injured. And a manhunt was on — a manhunt, it turned out, that hunted down the wrong man.
That harrowing story is being retold in Clint Eastwood’s new movie “Richard Jewell,” which gets its title from the name of the park security guard whose life was destroyed after he was wrongly accused of planting the bomb.
How the real bomber was captured is a tale of luck, perseverance, and keen investigatory instincts. It begins two years after the Olympic bombing, on the morning of Jan 28, 1998, in Birmingham, Ala., the site of Rudolph’s fourth attack — this time at an abortion clinic.
A man named Jeffrey Tickal was having breakfast at a nearby McDonald’s when the explosion occurred. He saw a man calmly walk by and decided to follow him to his truck. He wrote down the license plate on his coffee cup: KND1117. But Tickal didn’t stop there. He and another bystander, Jermaine Hughes, kept following him.
Tickal told the story to the Los Angeles Times:
When Rudolph pulled out onto Valley Avenue, Tickal made a U-turn and followed him. Rudolph’s Nissan stopped at a light, and Tickal stopped behind him, scribbling the license plate number on his coffee cup. At the next light, Tickal pulled up alongside Rudolph’s truck and tried to get a clear look at his face.“He was looking at me looking at him,” Tickal said.
The plate was registered to Rudolph. Forensic tests showed connections between his bombings. Then they had to find him — a hunt that took five more years.
Rudolph, investigators later learned, had more bombings planned. In fact, he had a cache of dynamite weighing more than 250 pounds. But he also knew that the FBI was on his tail.
“Washington was lucky that day in Birmingham,” Rudolph said in a statement after he was caught and pleaded guilty. “They had a witness who happened into a fortuitous position, and my truck was identified.”
Rudolph said he had a choice: to run, or not to run.
“I chose the woods,” he said.
More specifically, the woods of western North Carolina, where he had grown up before enlisting in the Army. Rudolph was an expert survivalist, and he knew those woods so well they were like a giant living room to him.
“He was anticipating a great conflict and he had clearly lined up caves and campsites where he could go,” said Chris Swecker, who headed the FBI’s Charlotte field office at the time. “He had a number of hiding places, and he knew the mountains so well he could navigate them at night.”
And he knew where to get food. When authorities eventually discovered his camp site, they found, Swecker said, “a bunch of 55-gallon barrels buried in the ground, full of grain, soy, and oats” that he stole at night from a nearby granary.
“He also foraged around some of the restaurants, got the patterns down,” Swecker said. “He knew when vegetables were going to be put out on the loading dock.”
Though some law enforcement officials thought there was no way Rudolph could survive that long in the wild, the FBI worked with local police to continue circulating wanted fliers and encourage hunters to keep an eye out for him.
“I think 90 percent of the population had written off Rudolph as being out of the area, long gone, or dead,” Swecker said.
And then it happened: a lucky break.
On May 31, 2003, Rudolph was hungry and went rummaging through a trash bin behind a Save-A-Lot grocery store in Murphy, N.C. It was around 4 a.m. Rookie police officer Scott Postell was on patrol and spotted him.
“I observed a male subject squatted in the middle of the road,” Postell told reporters afterward. “As I approached, he took off running and hid behind some milk crates.”
Postell ordered the man to come out. He did.
By that time, another deputy, Sean Mathews, had arrived.
“I thought he had an uncanny resemblance to Eric Robert Rudolph,” Mathews said. “I just had a hunch when I seen his eyes.”
Rudolph was “dressed in work clothes, running shoes and a camouflage jacket,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was thinner than when he was last seen, but still in good physical health, FBI officials said.
But he also knew he was done.
“When he was arrested he was actually pretty compliant and subdued,” Swecker said. “Almost relieved in a sense. His attitude was, ‘You got me.’ ”
Two years later, on a Monday in 2005, about two dozen of Rudolph’s victims and their family members watched as he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
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