Steered to Extremism at an Early Age

Jun 05, 2003 02:08 PM EDT

Eric Robert Rudolph was a stoner who lolled at his sister-in-law's Nashville home in the early '90s, eating pizza and watching Cheech and Chong movies on television, which he called "the electronic Jew."

He was a Nietzsche-reading Western Carolina University dropout who had traveled to Amsterdam to procure high-quality marijuana seeds for the crops he raised behind his mother's western North Carolina house, on land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

He was one of six children who, after losing a father to cancer in 1981, was steered by his mother into an anti-Semitic religious movement. He adopted an anti-government survivalist as a surrogate father figure and wrote a ninth-grade class paper denying that the Holocaust happened.

Until yesterday, he was a shadowy figure in the woods, a loner outdoorsman appearing only through occasional sightings, the last of which came five years ago. He was an Appalachian yeti checked out of a system he believed was poisoned by multiculturalism, embracing ideologies that celebrated his stew of cross-pollinating extremist beliefs.

To the FBI, he was one of the nation's 10 most wanted fugitives. He is charged with committing four bombings throughout the Southeast, including one at the 1996 Summer Olympics, which Rudolph likely regarded as "an erosion of the sovereignty that protects America as a fortress of white Christians," said Brian Levin, a terrorism expert who has extensively studied Rudolph.

"In his mind, Eric believes that what he's doing is right," former sister-in-law Deborah Rudolph told the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Intelligence Report" in a 2001 interview, "just like Osama bin Laden thinks what he's doing is right."

To Levin, a former New York City police officer who now is a professor of criminal justice at California State University at San Bernardino, Rudolph was a damaged child. He was shuttled from Florida to North Carolina, then to Missouri and back to North Carolina, as his mother sampled the extremist Christian Identity movement, which was founded in England in the 1840s and holds that Anglo-Saxons are the lost tribe of Israel. Jews are portrayed as the offspring of Eve and Satan and controllers of media and thought, Levin said. The movement predicts an apocalyptic end time and advocates caching food and weapons.

Rudolph, 36, was 14 when his father, Bob, died of melanoma. His mother, Patricia -- a former novice who left the Roman Catholic church before taking her vows -- moved her five sons and a daughter to Topton, N.C., near the far western tip of the state. They set up what Deborah Rudolph described as a "charming, neat, self-sufficient" home on a mountaintop, packed with books on philosophy and evolution, among other topics.

Tom Branham, a friend of Patricia Rudolph's from Florida, lived on the adjacent hilltop property. Branham, a sawmill owner, was arrested in 1984 after federal agents found weapons and explosives in his cinderblock-and-steel home. A weapons conviction was later overturned; Branham referred to the federal government as "causing tyranny and despotism" in court papers.

Adherents of the Christian Identity movement -- including white supremacist groups -- separate themselves from the "sodomites" and "mud people" of mainstream culture, Levin said, which aided Rudolph's fugitive run. Because Rudolph shunned conveniences such as credit cards, he was able to elude the electronic snares that frequently trip up criminals.

"These are people who have had dysfunctional and problematic families," Levin said. "They get the anesthetic of a religious movement that tolerates and justifies their flaws and failures and even glorifies them.

"They say, 'You're not just a loner, you're a loner for a cause that's bigger than what other people understand,' " Levin said.

Rudolph enlisted in the Army in 1986 and was discharged after 18 months, after failing to become a Ranger. His former sister-in-law said the family believed he signed up to learn about explosives but soured when he encountered the military's multiracial makeup. "I can't see Eric standing there with some black guy telling him what to do," Deborah Rudolph told the Intelligence Report.

Rudolph is also charged with bombing a gay club and an abortion clinic, both of which fit into his evolving orthodoxy in the '90s, his sister-in-law said. If white babies are aborted, whites will eventually become a minority, he believed. And Rudolph frequently railed against homosexuality, though one of his brothers is gay, she said.

But there are competing theories on Rudolph. A retired investigator who worked the Rudolph case told the Associated Press yesterday that "the antiabortion, anti-gay thing was a smoke screen."

Former Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Charles Stone said he and other investigators interviewed Rudolph's family and friends, who suggested that his rage was directed toward the federal government, which he blamed for his father's death.

Rudolph's father sought laetrile, banned in the United States, to fight his cancer. He eventually obtained it illegally in Mexico, but died soon after. Deborah Rudolph told the Intelligence Report that Rudolph's wife and children believed he would have survived if he had had earlier access to the apricot-pit treatment.

Another of Rudolph's brothers, Dan, cut off his left hand with a radial-arm saw in 1998, shortly after Rudolph was charged by federal authorities.

He made a videotape of the grisly act, in which he said, "This is for the FBI and the media."

The fact that Rudolph remained at large for so long is a testament to his resourcefulness, Levin said. "He's not brilliant, but he'll make up for it by being methodical," he said. "There was a method to his war."

By Albert H. Lee
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