A defiant Eric Rudolph pleaded guilty Wednesday to carrying out the deadly bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and three other attacks, saying he picked the Summer Games to embarrass the U.S. government in front of the world “for its abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand.”
“Because I believe that abortion is murder, I also believe that force is justified ... in an attempt to stop it,” he said in a statement handed out by his lawyers after he entered his pleas in back-to-back court appearances, first in Birmingham, Ala., in the morning, then in Atlanta in the afternoon.
Rudolph, 38, worked out a plea bargain that will spare him from the death penalty. He will get four consecutive life sentences without parole for the four blasts across the South that killed two people and wounded more than 120 others.
In the Atlanta courtroom, he sat stone-faced and answered questions calmly and politely. In Birmingham, though, he winked toward prosecutors as he entered court, said the government could “just barely” prove its case, and admitted his guilt with a hint of pride in his voice.
The statement marked the first time he had offered a reason for the attacks.
“The purpose of the attack on July 27th (1996) was to confound, anger and embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the world for its abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand,” Rudolph said in the statement, which quoted the Bible throughout.
“I am not anarchist. I have nothing against government or law enforcement in general. It is solely for the reason that this govt has legalized the murder of children that I have no allegiance to nor do I recognize the legitimacy of this particular government in Washington.”
Rudolph says he scaled back attack
The bomb that exploded at the Olympics was hidden in a knapsack and sent nails and screws ripping through a crowd at Centennial Olympic Park during a concert. A woman was killed and 111 other people were wounded in what proved to be Rudolph’s most notorious attack, carried out on an international stage amid heavy security.
Rudolph said that he had planned a much larger attack on the Olympics that would have used five bombs over several days. He said he planned to make phone calls well in advance of each explosion, “leaving only uniformed arms-carrying government personnel exposed to potential injury.” But he said poor planning on his part made that five-bomb plan impossible.
“I had sincerely hoped to achieve these objections without harming innocent civilians,” he said. He added: “There is no excuse for this, and I accept full responsibility for the consequences of using this dangerous tactic.”
He said he blew up four other bombs in a vacant lot in Atlanta and left town “with much remorse.”
Rudolph also admitted bombing a gay nightclub in Atlanta, wounding five people, in 1997, and attacking a suburban Atlanta office building containing an abortion clinic that same year. Six people were wounded in that attack, which consisted of two blasts, first a small one to draw law officers, then a larger explosion.
In Birmingham earlier in the day, Rudolph pleaded guilty to an abortion clinic bombing there in 1998 that killed an off-duty police officer and maimed a nurse. With his head tilted back, Rudolph looked down his nose slightly as U.S. District Judge Lynwood Smith in Birmingham asked whether he set off the blast.
“I certainly did, your honor,” Rudolph said.
With his admission, the nurse began weeping in the front row.
“He just sounded so proud of it. That’s what really hurt,” said Emily Lyons, who was nearly killed in the bombing and lost an eye.
Believed to be a follower of a white supremacist religion that is anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-Semitic, Rudolph hid out after the attacks for more than five years in the mountains of western North Carolina, apparently using the survival skills he learned as a soldier.
He was captured in Murphy, N.C., in 2003, scavenging for food behind a grocery store, after becoming something of a folk hero to some people in the countryside for his ability to elude an all-out manhunt by the government.
As part of the plea agreement, Rudolph told authorities where to find more than 250 pounds of dynamite buried in North Carolina. The government said some of the explosives were near populated areas and could have become unstable and blown up.
He offered no apology or explanation in either court appearance, waiting until later to issue his written statement.
Victim angry at plea deal
At times Rudolph rocked in his chair in the Atlanta courtroom but otherwise stared straight ahead as federal prosecutors detailed the Atlanta-area bombings down to the brand of nails, duct tape and plastic food containers used to make the bombs.
In court in Birmingham, he drummed his fingers on the side of a lectern as a prosecutor told of the Wal-Mart hose clamp that was found inside the body of the off-duty officer and the pieces of a remote control receiver in the nurse’s body.
Outside the courthouse, the nurse said she was “nauseated” that Rudolph’s plea will allow him to dodge the death penalty.
“We’ve always felt the death penalty is what he deserved. The punishment should fit the crime,” Lyons said. “It’s just a sickening feeling.”
‘Living under government control’
Deborah Rudolph, Rudolph’s former sister-in-law, said he is hardly getting off easy. She said being kept in solitary confinement with only one hour a day of fresh air is a fitting punishment for an outdoorsman who hated the government.
“Knowing that he’s living under government control for the rest of his life, I think that’s worse to him than death,” she said from her home in Nashville, Tenn.
In the Atlanta courtroom, as prosecutors read details about the bomb that killed 44-year-old Alice Hawthorne at the Olympics, Hawthorne’s daughter, Fallon Stubbs, 22, crossed her arms over her chest and looked at her feet. Hawthorne’s widower, John, rocked slightly and covered his head with his hands. Other family members wept.
Afterwards, Stubbs described the day as “exhausting, to say the least” and said she would address the court at Rudolph’s sentencing. “It’ll be my time to get it out,” she said.
Richard Jewell, the security guard who was initially hailed as hero for helping evacuate the park just before the blast, but was later reported to be under FBI investigation, was also in the courtroom but refused to comment on the plea.
Jewell was eventually cleared by the FBI and now works as a police officer.