FBI agent looks back on decade since bomber found
by Carol Robinson, The Birmingham News
May 31, 2013 12:30 PM | 370 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Ten years ago Friday, a rookie police officer in Murphy, N.C., stumbled across a vagrant rummaging through a Dumpster.

And the search for serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph, the subject of what remains one of the largest manhunts on American soil, ended as suddenly as it began.

The head of the fugitive task force that searched for Rudolph - whose time on the run began when he bombed a Birmingham abortion clinic in 1998 and lasted five long years in the Appalachian Mountains - has now made Birmingham his home.

Richard D. Schwein Jr. is special agent in charge of the FBI's Northern District in Alabama, headquartered in Birmingham. He was named to the position in November 2012.

As he looks back on the years of the search, at the FBI's quest to understand Rudolph and to predict his actions, Schwein says Birmingham was key. But for Birmingham, Rudolph would have bombed more, killed more, and perhaps disappeared forever.

"Had he not been identified in the tragedy in Birmingham," Schwein said, "who knows how long he would have continued with his bombings."

Rudolph avoided the possibility of execution by pleading guilty in 2005 to the bombing in Birmingham and bombings in Atlanta, including the Olympic Centennial Park blast in 1996 that killed one and injured more than 120.

The other Georgia bombings were at a Sandy Springs abortion clinic in 1997 and an Atlanta gay club, also in 1997. The Birmingham bombing killed Birmingham police officer Robert "Sande" Sanderson and severely injured clinic nurse Emily Lyons.

Rudolph had avoided detection for years. That ended the day of the Birmingham bombing at the New Woman All Women Health Clinic. Jermaine Hughes, then a UAB pre-med student, who later went to Harvard Law School, spotted Rudolph fleeing the Southside bombing scene.

"It underscores the value of the two witnesses," Schwein said. "This kid saw Rudolph as an anomaly, much like the Boston (Marathon) bombings. Everybody else was going in one direction, this guy was going in another direction. Everybody else was kind of in a panic, and he was calm. And the witness thought right away, 'this has got to be the bomber' and followed him."

Hughes sought help and, along with Opelika lawyer Jeff Tickal, wrote down Rudolph's license plate number. Tickal scribbled the plate number on a paper coffee cup, and Hughes on an envelope he had in his car.

Even Rudolph himself once gave kudos to the witnesses in a lengthy statement he released after his guilty plea. "Washington was lucky that day in Birmingham," he wrote. "They had a witness who happened into a fortuitous position, and my truck was identified."

Hundreds of law enforcement officers flocked to Rudolph's home in North Carolina. They would spend the next five years, and tens of millions of dollars, searching for the elusive Rudolph who had seemingly disappeared into the vast western North Carolina mountains.

As an agent in Charlotte, Schwein was first part of the hunt as a member of the FBI's tactical team. "I probably went from Charlotte to the western mountains a half-dozen times for two to three weeks at a time," he said. "We walked up and down the mountains. Mostly up, it seemed like."

Six months after he went on the run, Rudolph gave local George Nordmann a list of supplies he needed and returned two days later to pick up the goods. He stole Nordmann's truck and left him $500 for supplies. Nordmann waited two days before notifying authorities. The truck was found July 13 at campsite, with a note in Rudolph's handwriting that identified the owner of the truck and asked that it be returned to him.

Schwein said his team found the site Rudolph had used to watch Nordmann's home. "We were able to dig up some trash he buried," Schwein said. "We got his fingerprints off one of the pieces of wrapping. That confirmed he was still around and out there."

In 2001, Schwein became an FBI supervisor in western North Carolina. He took over the fugitive investigation in 2002. "We felt he was still alive, that he was still in western North Carolina if not all of the time, for a significant period of time," Schwein said. "All of the experts we consulted, profilers, behavioral scientists, the geographic profiler, all agreed he was likely in this five-county area."

About the time Schwein took over the fugitive investigation, four of the five sheriffs in that five-county area were newly elected. It was a good time, he said, to bring investigators from the Southeast Bomb Task Force based in Atlanta to North Carolina to re-brief the lawmen there. The idea was to, "reinvigorate what we knew about Rudolph and explain why we thought he was still around," Schwein said.

Schwein said there was never a day he thought Rudolph was dead, but said he never ruled it out either. "Western North Carolina unfortunately has been a dumping ground for bodies and we probably did between four and six body recoveries every year during the whole time the manhunt went on," he said. Some of them were suicide victims. Some of them were murder victims who had just been dumped. We would always rule out that these were the ruins of Eric Rudolph."

"There were a lot of people who thought he was dead, but investigators all believed he was still alive and still out there and that the victims deserved justice," Schwein said. "We weren't going to stop just because he hadn't surfaced."

Schwein said it was important to always involve local law enforcement because that was one of the best chances of catching Rudolph. And that is exactly what happened.

In the pre-dawn hours of May 31, 2003, a rookie Murphy police officer, 21-year-old Jeff Postell, was on patrol and cruising the Sav-A-Lot parking lot. He saw something out of place, so turned out his cruiser lights the second time he circled around. He confronted Rudolph as he foraged for food in the Dumpster. Rudolph had a long Maglite flashlight strapped to his body, which Postell thought was a gun. He drew down on the vagrant, and called for backup.

A Cherokee County sheriff's deputy who responded had gone to school with Rudolph and pulled Postell off to the side, and told him of his suspicions. Rudolph gave them a fake name, but they told him they were taking him to get him food and verify the name he gave them.

Schwein was awakened by Cherokee County Sheriff Keith Lovin at 3 a.m. "He said, 'Rick, we have a vagrant in custody that a police officer confronted at a Dumpster behind the Sav-A-Lot and we think it might be Rudolph," Schwein said. "We'd gotten that call a few times before, but I asked the sheriff what he thought and he said, 'Rick, it looks like him.'"

Schwein and other agents started the trek from Ashville to Murphy, about a 1 hour and 30-minute drive. They told those who had Rudolph in custody to get his prints and submit them immediately for testing. "We called the criminal justice information folks up in West Virginia and the guy said, "Send them (the prints) up and we'll get back to you Monday morning."

When they realized whose fingerprints they might be researching, the time frame shortened to about 20 minutes. "Just as we were pulling into the sheriff's office in Murphy, they called back and said, 'It's him. Don't let him go,'" Schwein said. "About the same time, Rudolph had admitted his identity to one of the police officers."

At the police station, officers questioned Rudolph. A Tennessee Valley Authority officer held up the FBI's Most Wanted poster of Rudolph and demanded he tell them the truth. "I'm Eric Robert Rudolph, and you got me," Rudolph said.

"This is exactly what we had hoped would happen, that a local police officer would run across him," Schwein said. "We felt he had spent a significant amount of time in the woods and he didn't have financial means, so he would have to rely on help or he would have to forage for food."

"It was a great story," he said. "This rookie police officer had been a cop for all of about nine months." Postell later left Murphy, and now is a sergeant at the Boston College Police Department. He recently gave an interview about his capture of Rudolph to Yahoo! Inc.

"I didn't get lucky," Postell told Yahoo! "I will never tell you I got lucky. People that say this was luck - it wasn't luck. It was being out there doing what I was supposed to be doing when I was supposed to be doing it. And chance favors the prepared mind."

When Rudolph later pleaded guilty, as a trade-off he disclosed where he left more than 250 pounds of dynamite in the western North Carolina mountains. "It was where he said it was hidden," Schwein said. "I know that because (Southeast Bomb Task Force commander) Todd Lecher and I led the efforts to render safe all of the explosives he had cached in the mountains. "

They found a fully-functional IED, components for a second IED, and the 250 pounds of dynamite that was relatively unstable. "We had to blow it up in place," Schwein said. "We shook a lot of windows in western North Carolina and made a big hole in the ground."

The recent bombings in Boston renewed feelings of those close to the Rudolph probe. "Obviously for a lot of people involved in the Rudolph case, the Boston bombings brought back a lot of memories," Schwein said. "But they're really very different events other than the fact that they were both acts of terrorism."

Though 10 years have passed, and technology has vastly changed, Schwein said there isn't much they would do different in their hunt for Rudolph. "The challenge of the manhunt was that here there was an individual that eschewed technology. He wasn't communicating with people using the technology that folks use today," he said. "Most fugitives get caught because of their social network or because of their reliance on technology. He stayed away from technology and his social network. He avoided his family."

The mountainous terrain was in his favor - ample food and water supplies - and he was a skilled woodsman. "He spent weeks at a time out in those woods before he became a fugitive," Schwein said. "He cached supplies and equipment prior to the Atlanta bombing."

"We also know that when he got stretched, he reached out to George Nordmann for assistance," he said. "It wasn't a decision he took lightly, but he ultimately took that risk. I still feel he may have taken that risk with other people that didn't ever come forward."

"I don't know if there's anything in today's arsenal that would allow us to capture an individual that has eschewed his social network and doesn't utilize technology," Schwein said.

In February 2013, Rudolph released his paperback book, "Between the Lines of Drift: The Memoirs of a Militant." Federal authorities moved to seize any profits from the book's North Carolina publishing company, and copies of the book for sale have since become scarce.

Schwein said he was surprised to read in the book that Rudolph had targeted Lecher for assassination, but doesn't doubt it. "It was a little discomforting to read that he put the device in some boxwoods next to the entrance, which there were boxwoods next to the entrance," he said. Rudolph said that after conducting surveillance on the agent for several weeks, he had come to see him as a human and couldn't detonate the device.

What Rudolph wrote in his book in many ways validated for Schwein the success of the fugitive hunt: "Our investigation was spot-on."

___

Information from: The Birmingham News, http://www.al.com/birminghamnews



Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

Comments
(0)
Comments-icon Post a Comment
No Comments Yet
*We welcome your comments on the stories and issues of the day and seek to provide a forum for the community to voice opinions. All comments are subject to moderator approval before being made visible on the website but are not edited. The use of profanity, obscene and vulgar language, hate speech, and racial slurs is strictly prohibited. Advertisements, promotions, spam, and links to outside websites will also be rejected. Please read our terms of service for full guides