HOW I CAPTURED ERIC RUDOLPH
As soon as I realized I'd be spending two nights camping in the mountains of western North Carolina during my scenic-route trip to Atlanta, I began to think about capturing Eric Rudolph while I was there.
You may remember the name. Eric Rudolph blew up the '96 Olympics, an Atlanta abortion clinic and a gay nightclub. He killed three people, and wounded 150 more. Eric Rudolph was especially cruel and insidious. He packed his bombs with nails, and in two of the bombings a second bomb was set to explode an hour or so after the first, when the scene is crowded with police, rescuers and news people. Footage of the second explosion at the women's clinic could once be seen in the intro to the first season of HBO's "America Undercover;" luckily, a parked car deflected most of that blast.
They've never caught Rudolph. They tried to blame the Olympic bombing on that fat guy and by the time they went to arrest Rudolph at his trailer in the mountains he'd vamoosed, and now the fat guy's rich. After a year they scaled back the manhunt and some say he probably died of starvation or exposure or whatever else might kill you if you tried to survive in those mountains for a few years. It's steep, rugged terrain. Western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee contain almost all the mountains over six thousand feet east of the Rockies, and in some ways the area is even more forbidding than the Rockies, by virtue of the dense forests and nearly tropical underbrush.
But Eric Rudolph is still wanted, even if you don't hear much about him these days, and I figured I'd make a lot of people happy if I "brought him in." I also thought there might be a reward out for him, and I could sure use the money. I'm newly married, and between the wedding and our new house my wife and I were finding our wallets stretched pretty thin.
I know it might seem silly for a keyboard jockey like me to think he'd stand a chance of capturing Eric Rudolph, a skilled outdoorsman who grew up in those mountains, knows how to live off the land, and has managed to elude the FBI for over four years. It's true I don't have much experience as a bounty hunter or a tracker of game through the forest – actually, I don't have any experience – but it was precisely my lack of experience that I hoped would enable me to bring a fresh perspective to those endeavors, to "think outside the box" and devise innovative solutions that might escape a jaded professional who's set in his ways. Besides, my mother always said there's nothing you can't do if you set your mind to it.
The length of time Rudolph's been at large further tilted the odds in my favor. Like the patient angler who avoids the crowded stream-side on the opening day of trout season, I'd have the field pretty much to myself. It also seemed possible that Rudolph would be hoping to be caught; living off the land must get old after a few years, even for the most skilled survivalist. And if it turned out he was being hid by sympathetic abetters, then by this point they'd probably be eager to get him off their hands. You know what they say about company: after a few years, they start to stink. Like fish.
Once I decided to capture Eric Rudolph I began making a list of the equipment I'd need, so I could determine what I already had around the house, and what I'd have to buy. High up on that list were handcuffs. If I was going to capture Eric Rudolph I'd have to restrain him somehow, and handcuffs seemed a logical choice. The police use them, and they're readily available. They sell them at the Ranger Surplus store in Wheaton, where I'd stopped earlier in the week to pick up some propane canisters for the lantern and stove. I can spend all day in a store like that, just poking around, and I'd seen several sets on the wall behind the glass counter where they keep the knives. Unfortunately, I remembered being impressed at how expensive handcuffs are: the cheapest set that didn't look like the fake or trick handcuffs I had as a child cost more than $30, too rich for my blood. Like I said, I've had a lot of expenses lately, and since I wasn't sure there was a reward I couldn't afford to spend a lot capturing Eric Rudolph without some assurance I'd be able to recoup my investment. A cage of some kind might do the trick, I thought, but a cage would be difficult to take with us, what with all our camping gear and the dog, and even if I could find a collapsible cage that could be stowed on the roof it would likely cost more than either handcuffs or a fixed, non-collapsible cage.
Then I remembered hearing about kidnappers who bound their victims with duct tape. I didn't want anyone thinking I was a kidnapper, but I did have a roll of duct tape in the basement. It's a good thing to keep on hand, you never know when you might need some around the house. I also recalled TV news footage of police handcuffing anti-globalization protesters with what looked like plastic tie-down straps available at hardware and auto parts stores. They're notched, they come in different lengths, and once they're on they have to be cut off. They're fifty cents each at Myer's Cycle Engineering in Kensington, where I take my motorcycle. That's not as good a bargain as buying them in bulk at Trak Auto, but I was only going to need two – one to capture Eric Rudolph, and one spare. And, one to keep in a different place than the other two, in case they were lost.
Deciding on the duct tape and the plastic ties presented the question of how, exactly, I planned to get the duct tape or the plastic ties onto Eric Rudolph. On TV the police use guns for that sort of thing, but I don't have a gun, and there wasn't enough time to figure out all the paperwork getting one would entail, and anyway, I knew that a gun would be even more expensive than the handcuffs I'd already rejected on account of cost. I've got some nice folding knives, but my father taught me that a knife is a tool, not a weapon, and a friend who claims to know about such things says that if you stab someone your hand can slip onto the blade and be badly cut when the knife strikes bone.
In the end I decided on pepper spray. It fits right in your shirt pocket, you can buy it without a permit for only $9.95 at Ranger Surplus, and if I didn't use it up capturing Eric Rudolph I could take it with me when I go jogging along the Northwest Branch. I usually feel safe jogging with the dog – he weighs 85 pounds – but, you never know.
They say you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and to serve as a "carrot" to the pepper spray's "stick," I fashioned a gigantic, mouth-watering pastrami sandwich, modeling it after the ones they sell at Katz's Delicatessen on Houston Street in New York. It stood to reason that Eric Rudolph would be mighty hungry, especially for the sort of food you don't usually find in rural North Carolina, or even in DC for that matter. You just can't get pastrami like that down here, the way they pile it on.
The last few days before the trip were filled to the point of tension with laundry, packing and errands. Stuff like that can test a new marriage, but we made it through okay and were happy to finally get on the road, a few hours later, of course, than we'd hoped. I never did get a chance to see if there was a reward for Rudolph, or even look up his picture. The night before we left I got on line but spent too much time answering e-mail and researching campgrounds and directions. Towards two in the morning I tried to look at the FBI's website, but, I'm embarrassed to admit, I entered dot-com instead of dot-gov or dot-org or whatever the FBI is, and instead of the FBI I got a porn site that kept opening new windows for other porn sites faster than I could close them, until the computer froze so thoroughly I couldn't even control-alt-delete. That's one of the hazards of living in this new global economy.
I decided it didn't matter. I remembered what Rudolph looked like from the pictures they had on TV and in the papers back then – darkish hair, not too tall or too short – and I was confident I'd recognize him when I saw him. I'm usually pretty good with faces, it's names that give me trouble.
We camped the first night in the George Washington National Forest in southwestern Virginia, where we practiced setting up the tent quickly, so that as the trip progressed I'd be able to spend as much time as possible trying to capture Eric Rudolph. The next afternoon we entered North Carolina and my search began in earnest. While we were gassing up along a secondary road I asked the fellow behind the counter in the quickie mart – all gas stations have quickie marts these days – if he'd seen Eric Rudolph around. The clerk, whose name tag read "Mujabar," said "Who? Who?" and shook his head vigorously when I repeated the name, indicating he had no idea whom I meant. Later, I realized I'd actually asked if he'd seen Alan Rudolph, the director of offbeat cult films such as "Chose Me" and "Trouble in Mind." Like I said, it's names that give me trouble.
The next day, however, I struck paydirt.
After a pleasant night near Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina we stopped for a bag of ice at another quickie mart, where I made eye contact and exchanged nods with a tall, bearded man around my age who was not quite stocky enough to be called thickset. He wore a lightweight cammo vest over a Dick Trickle NASCAR T-shirt, and a Skoal gimme cap with the bill out in front. The bond of male camaraderie established, I asked how he was doing, and if he knew were Eric Rudolph might be. After a few expressionless moments he smiled, as though pleased with his erudition in remembering this now-obscure name from yesterday's headlines. "Some people say he's dead. But he could still be out there somewhere, you never know," he said, gesturing to the nearby mountains. My eyes grew wide. I'm always saying "you never know," too! I thanked him and left the store, my heart pounding. I'd just gotten my first concrete "lead," and what's more, I was on the right track!
I was filled with anticipation during our time in Atlanta, and glad when after a few days we headed home and I could resume my search. (In Atlanta I kept an eye peeled, lest Rudolph had decided to "lose himself" in the big, impersonal city, where neighbors can stay total strangers.) I was excited that first night when we camped in the Nantahala National Forest. It's much further into southwestern North Carolina than where we stayed on the way down, and is, in fact, the very forest where Rudolph was last seen. It was near dusk by the time we set up camp and started a fire for dinner and I could finally pause to drink a well-deserved beer while taking the dog into the woods to do his nasty business. As I stood there in the gloaming, looking up through the trees at what promised to be a vivid display of stars, sipping the cold beer and taking in the sweet mountain air, the dog suddenly drew up his ears in an alert posture and growled low in the direction of a loud twig-snap not far away. We both rushed forward and sure enough, there was Eric Rudolph huddled behind a dense thicket of rhododendrons. Though unhealthily gaunt he looked just as I remembered from the pictures. Like I said, I'm pretty good with faces. In a flash I had the pepper spray out and he knew the jig was up. I told him he was under citizen's arrest, and that he'd best come quietly and not give me any trouble. It didn't hurt that I had that beer; he stared at it so hard and hungrily that I began to feel uncomfortable, the way I imagine a woman must feel when a man she's asked for directions won't take his eyes off her breasts.
It was all downhill from there. I kept the pepper spray out while Rudolph tore into the sandwich and gulped down a beer, and then I secured his wrists with one of the plastic ties and drove him to the police station in Franklin, about a half-hour away. It's not very far, but it's hard to make good time on those twisty mountain roads, especially at night. Not much was going on in the police station; aside from one of those squawky, scratchy radios it was very quiet, a few cops sitting around reading. "Here's Eric Rudolph" I said as I handed him over, and I left as soon as I'd given them my name and phone number. It was getting late, I'd had a long day, and I wanted to spend some time by the campfire before turning in.
Later, relaxing by that fire, I realized that before I left the police station I should have said something like "book him!" or, "book him, Dan-O!" I never think of those great lines until it's too late.
Since returning home I've learned that there is indeed a reward, a million dollars, for information leading to Eric Rudolph's arrest, and I've made inquiries about collecting it. They say I might not qualify because I didn't actually "provide information" leading to his arrest, and there'd be liability issues if they rewarded people for putting themselves and others at risk taking the law into their own hands as vigilantes, which I guess I can understand. I'm thinking about tracking down that fellow in the Dick Trickle shirt because he might qualify for the reward, since he actually did provide information that led to the arrest of Eric Rudolph. If they gave me the reward I'd give him half, and I feel confident he'd do the same for me. But money isn't the point. Like my mother always said, if you can make people happy, you'll never have to worry about being happy yourself.