Before he entered the military, before being implicated in homegrown terrorism that cost two people their lives, Eric Rudolph had a life on a downward spiral, a descent into a free-floating anger that developed over time, an intolerance of differences in race and gender preference that was festering years before the attacks of which he stands accused.
Numerous published reports, and an interview with a former girlfriend, reveal a portrait of a disaffected, angry man who trusted few, a dutiful son who deeply mourned the death of his father, a man who sought refuge in an embrace of drugs, the army, racial intolerance, and an all-consuming rage.
The man who pleaded guilty to four bombings between 1996 and 1998 had an upbringing that predisposed him to the subculture of intolerance long an undercurrent of American life.
The former soldier and survivalist accused of killing two people and injuring at least 100 more in bomb blasts had a checkered past: according to one former member of his extended family, Rudolph espoused anti-Semitic and racist views as a teenager.
The young man described as quiet and shy was a classic stoner with a lucrative business selling marijuana; he reportedly wrote a high school paper denying that the Holocaust ever took place; and the quiet young paramour with a Southern accent harbored anger and sadness, life's twists and turns leading him to beliefs that may have metastasized into hatred.
'Memories of what he was'
Eric Rudolph was born in Florida on Sept. 19, 1966, one of six children of Robert and Patricia Rudolph. Patricia, who hailed from Philadelphia, left a convent where she was training to be a nun. They moved to Homestead, Fla., south of Miami.
“He was a high school sweetheart of mine,” said Cathy, a former Rudolph girlfriend when he attended Homestead Senior High School. For Cathy, a single mother living in Florida who insisted that only her first name be used here, the past week has been a challenge attempting to reconcile the gentle southern soul she knew in high school with the lean, taciturn, mustachioed man who took the perp walk on television in June, a man repeatedly characterized as a monster.
“I knew the guy when he was 14, 15 years old,” she told MSNBC.com. “I have a hard time seeing his face on the television and knowing he was someone very different. He was a really well-mannered guy, it's kind of a strange thing considering what they're saying he believes in now. I can't put that together. It's hard for me to think of him in a bad way. I have the memories of what he was.
“This was like in the ‘Urban Cowboy’ days and people were following the whole country-music thing,” Cathy said, referring to the 1980 John Travolta-Debra Winger movie that popularized cowboy-bar chic. “I thought he was that type of persona. He assumed the whole country-boy thing. I never thought he would be a redneck or a skinhead type of guy. I was attracted to him because he was quiet and shy. He had the southern accent, he spoke like a country boy. I remember him being a smoker, or chewing tobacco. He introduced me to chewing tobacco!”
The ‘N’ word, out of the blue
But behind the aw-shucks facade lay opinions that she had problems with. “He had some pretty radical views regarding race. It's one of the reason why I was estranging myself from him. He was quiet and shy and respectful to me, but that was one of the things we had a really big difference of opinion on. I remember him being a little prejudiced, and I was not comfortable with that.”
“Things came out in casual conversations,“ Cathy said. “ ... And I heard the word that turned me off.”
The “N” word.
“I was totally caught off guard,“ she said. “It was something I didn't expect to come out of his mouth.”
It wouldn't be the last, or the worst, evidence of Eric Rudolph's volatile interactions with the world at large.
Deborah Rudolph, who in 1985 married Joel Rudolph, one of Eric's older brothers, was interviewed for a 2001 intelligence report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups and crimes in the United States. She said that Eric disliked television, which she said he called “the electronic Jew.”
Aspects of Eric Rudolph's survivalist identity appear to have developed early. In the SPLC interview, Deborah Rudolph noted that the Rudolph family “had a charming little house on eight-and-a-half acres on one of the highest peaks in North Carolina.
“It was something to realize how self-sufficient they were, how they had a generator in case the electricity went out. They had a wood-burning stove that heated water inside a radiator. They had a distiller for their water that steamed the water so you wouldn’t have to drink faucet water and its fluoride.”
In 1981, Eric Rudolph's father died of cancer; it was a passing that apparently traumatized Eric. Charles Stone, a former Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent, told The Associated Press how investigators thought Rudolph acted out of anger with the government because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration refused to approve the drug laetrile, the controversial, highly suspect concoction made of apricot pits that was officially discredited as a cancer treatment in 1982. Rudolph is said to have believed the drug could have saved his father.
“They have hard feelings [about Bob’s death],” Deborah Rudolph told the SPLC. “They think that if Pat could have given him laetrile, he wouldn’t have died.”
A vagabond life
Shortly after that, Eric Rudolph began what by all accounts was an itinerant life. His mother, Patricia, bundled her sons Eric and Jamie into a station wagon and drove them from Homestead, Fla., to a home near the scenic but remote 500,000-acre Nantahala National Forest of North Carolina.
While attending the K-12 Nantahala School, Eric reportedly wrote a high school essay that contended the Holocaust was a hoax. Other actions presaged the future. The Asheville, N.C., Citizen-Times reported that Nantahala residents recalled Rudolph “going to camp in six inches of snow equipped with nothing but a poncho, leading some to speculate he prepared a hiding spot — perhaps a bunker — many years ago.”
When Eric was 18, Patricia Rudolph briefly took Eric and two of her other children to the Church of Israel in Schell City, Mo., Dan Gayman, a leader in the church, took them in.
By all accounts, Gayman was a father figure to the young Rudolph. Deborah Rudolph told the Joplin (Mo.) Globe in January 2001 that “Eric ... always seemed to be in a great deal of pain because of his father's death and the family's loss of the American dream. Eric Rudolph idolized Dan Gayman ... and soon came to regard the charismatic minister as a foster father.”
Gayman was known to be a leader in Christian Identity, which despite its benign name has attained a reputation as perhaps the nation's most dangerous hate movement, according to the FBI.
A University of Virginia Web site that monitors religious movements found that Christian Identity's “most fundamental teaching pivots on the idea that Anglo-Saxons, are the direct descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel and, thus, are the 'true chosen people' of God.”
Christian Identity appears to be more a movement — fluid, amorphous, adaptable — than a specific organization. Some groups — Aryan Nations, Confederate Hammerskins; the American Nazi Party, National Association for the Advancement of White People, The Order, White Aryan Resistance — have agendas and strategies that differ slightly, some more confrontational than others.
But all adhere to Christian Identity's core tenet: the anthropological supremacy of the white race.
Eric’s excellent adventure
Reports vary on how passionately Rudolph adopted the Christian Identity philosophy. What is known is that he drifted for a time.
He dropped out of high school, but eventually got his GED. The Citizen-Times reported that he attended Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., but quit after only two semesters. Rudolph enlisted in the U.S. Army in August 1987, and served at Fort Benning, Ga. He lasted only 18 months before his discharge; some reports say it was for using illegal drugs; others claim it was for insubordination.
Deborah Rudolph told the SPLC that Rudolph frequently visited her and his brother Joel in Nashville in the early 1990's. “Eric stayed in my home a lot,” Deborah Rudolph said. “He would sleep all day, then stay up all night and eat pizza and smoke pot and watch movies by Cheech and Chong. I mean, what do I not know about the guy? If you were to walk into my house, you’d see him hanging out with his brothers, talking about an issue they were discussing on TV with a joint hanging out of his mouth. They’d say, “Hey dude, let’s eat a pizza.” It was like [the movie] “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”
Deborah Rudolph recounts that “[A]t one point, he was probably making $60,000 a year selling pot. ... he had already been growing pot out on Army Corps of Engineers land behind the house.”
But even during that furry, freaked-out phase of existence, there were ominous overtones. “You could be watching a 30-minute sitcom and the credits would roll and there’d be Jewish names and, excuse my expression, but he would say, ‘You f—king Yids.’ Any little thing and he would start,” she said.
“Friends said he worked in North Carolina and Tennessee and may have done construction work elsewhere. He earned a reputation as a meticulous, talented craftsman,” the Citizen-Times reported.
After acquiring sole ownership of the family's home in the Nantahala region, Rudolph sold the home in 1996 for $65,000 and began what some say was the pivotal transformation. With money came options. He reportedly began to adopt aliases. The Citizen-Times reports that a favorite moniker was “Bob Randolph,” though he had others.
Rudolph moved to Cherokee County, N.C., where he apparently lived in rental properties, hunkering down in a trailer from November 1997 to February 1998.
In July 1998, Newsweek magazine interviewed another Rudolph girlfriend saying that he acted mysteriously, and that he lied about traveling to the western United States to fight forest fires.
She reported met Rudolph in a grocery store in December 1997. “I stopped and asked him, 'Whatcha been doin'?' But he just started at me real strange,” Newsweek reported. The bombing of the New Woman All Women Health Care abortion clinic in Birmingham, Ala., took place the following month. An off-duty police officer was killed in the blast, a nurse critically injured.
There are curious disconnects in the follow-through of Rudolph's beliefs:
He is accused of the February 1997 bombing of the Otherside Lounge, an Atlanta nightclub frequented by lesbian patrons, but apparently held his younger brother, Jamie, close despite Jamie's coming out that he was gay. “Jamie and Eric were pretty close,” Cathy said. “He was his shadow.”
Deborah Rudolph recalled a similar dichotomy of mind for the SPLC report. “He never talked about it,” she said of Jamie's disclosure. “But boy, let somebody else be gay and he was very verbal, calling them sodomites and faggots.”
His distrust of authority had its limits as well. Sources told NBC News in May 2003 that after his capture in Murphy, N.C., Rudolph refused to talk to federal officials, even though he had spoken to local police — a sign, they said, of his disdain for the federal government.
The differing sides of Eric Rudolph remain the case's most intriguing aspects.
Whatever more is learned about the enigma of his life, it's already known that the life of Eric Rudolph has had parallels with lives of other disaffected Americans who've found a haven in extremism.
Perhaps unintentionally, Deborah Rudolph invoked a disturbing parallel of her own.
“In his mind, Eric believes that what he’s doing is right,” she said. “Just like Osama bin Laden thinks what he’s doing is right.”