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FBI cuts search for accused Olympic bomber

Eric Robert Rudolph  

From Henry Schuster and Brian Cabell

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- After a nearly four-year, more than $30 million manhunt, the FBI is scaling back its search for suspected 1996 Olympic bomber Eric Robert Rudolph, according to officials in the case.

Rudolph has been on the FBI's Most Wanted list since May 1998 for a string of bombings in Atlanta, including the bombing in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics, and an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama.

At one time, more than 200 agents from the FBI and other federal and state agencies were combing the hills of western North Carolina looking for Rudolph, but the search was cut back years ago.

Recently, the Southeast Bomb Task Force had about one dozen agents operating out of an annex to the FBI field office in Atlanta and had an agent on duty full-time in Andrews, North Carolina. Now, even that presence is to be cut back, an FBI official said.

"We are pretty much done," said Todd Letcher, who runs the Southeast Bomb Task Force. The task force has also finished compiling evidence to be turned over to a defense team, should the case against Rudolph ever reach court.

CNN's Art Harris talks with surviving daughter of an Olympic park bombing victim (July 27, 2001)

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While Letcher said no final decision has been made, the fugitive part of the investigation will probably be transferred to the FBI's field office in Charlotte, North Carolina. That is most likely to happen in June, he said.

"We will continue to look until we find him or find evidence that he is dead," a senior FBI official told CNN. "But basically, it is a fugitive case."

The official said it made more sense to have that probe run out of North Carolina.

Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms assigned to the task force have been asked to work on other cases, especially in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Letcher himself ran the FBI's operation to receive tips on the terrorist attacks for several weeks.

The first bombing Rudolph is accused of was the Centennial Olympic Park blast, which killed one person and wounded more than 100 others. He also is charged with carrying out 1997 bombings at an abortion clinic and a gay-oriented nightclub in Atlanta.

Rudolph disappeared after the 1998 bombing of a Birmingham abortion clinic that killed a police officer and seriously injured a nurse, Emily Lyons. Lyons said she understands the decision to scale back the task force, but said she wonders if Rudolph will ever be caught.

Nurse Emily Lyons was seriously injured in the 1998 bombing of a Birmingham abortion clinic.  

"If he's like the Unabomber that took so long to be caught, I may be gone by then. I'd love to have it happen while I'm still alive and fairly young. Reality? I'm not sure if that will happen," said Lyons, who was maimed and blinded in one eye in the explosion at the New Woman All Women Clinic in Birmingham.

Rudolph was living in a trailer on the outskirts of Murphy, North Carolina, where investigators tracked him the day after the Birmingham bombing in January 1998. By the time federal agents moved in, he had disappeared.

The last known sighting of Rudolph was in July 1998, when he surfaced to get supplies from health food owner George Nordmann.

Investigators believe Rudolph is still alive and he is hiding somewhere nearby, possibly in one of the hundreds of caves and abandoned mines in the region or in the Nantahala National Forest, which covers about 500,000 acres.

Rudolph and his family moved to the area when he was a teenager. Investigators and those close to Rudolph said he would occasionally disappear into the woods for weeks on end and that he grew marijuana in the woods.

"I still believe Eric is in western North Carolina, I believe he's still alive and I believe one day he'll be caught," said Charles Stone, a retired Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent who was a task force supervisor.

By June, only a very small group of people will be maintaining the case files and coordinating with prosecutors, federal officials said. The group could disappear entirely as time goes on if Rudolph remains at large, said one senior official.




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