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Rudolph agrees to plea agreement

Deal would allow accused bomber to avoid death penalty

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CNN's Kelli Arena reports on the Rudolph plea deal.
• Indictment:  U.S. v. Rudolph  FindLawexternal link
Excerpts: "Hunting Eric Rudolph" 
• Part 1: High Times
• Part 2: Life in the Wild
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Accused serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph will avoid a possible death sentence by pleading guilty to a string of attacks in Alabama and Georgia, including a deadly blast during the 1996 Olympics, the U.S. Justice Department announced Friday.

Rudolph, 38, will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in exchange for guilty pleas to all charges against him.

As part of the deal, Rudolph told investigators where in western North Carolina he had stashed explosives, which were found and destroyed, the Justice Department said.

The survivor of one bombing called the deal disappointing, and the family of another victim said it accepted the agreement reluctantly. The deal drew mixed reactions from former federal prosecutors.

According to the Justice Department, Rudolph will enter his first guilty plea Wednesday morning in Birmingham, Alabama, where jury selection began this week for what was to have been his trial in the January 1998 bombing of a women's clinic. (Background)

Rudolph will then be transferred to Atlanta, Georgia, where he will plead guilty to the attack at a concert in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympics; two bombings an hour apart at a suburban women's clinic in January 1997; and a bombing at a lesbian nightclub in February that same year.

The clinics in Atlanta and in Birmingham both performed abortions.

The Olympic Park bombing July 27, 1996, killed Alice Hawthorne, 44, an Albany, Georgia, woman, and wounded more than 100 others, including her teenage daughter. Another 11 people were wounded in the 1997 Atlanta attacks.

The Birmingham blast killed Robert Sanderson, 35, an off-duty police officer guarding the New Woman All Women Clinic, and maimed a nurse, Emily Lyons, who was 41 at the time.

Lyons, who lost an eye in the bombing, said she and her husband were "extremely disappointed" by the agreement.

"We felt that the crime fit the punishment of death," she told CNN. But she added, "We knew it was the best choice to protect others."

Lyons said she was about to have her 20th operation to remove shrapnel from her face and neck, and could have to undergo many more surgeries.

"As far as closure, there isn't any," she told CNN affiliate WBRC. "Even though he goes away to prison, I'm still here every day. I see myself every day. I look in the mirror; I know what I can't do anymore. You can't forget it, and there's no closure if you can't forget it."

Lyons said she would want to ask Rudolph, "How could you do something like this and why?"

Alice Hawthorne's daughter, Fallon Stubbs, who was 14 at the time, was one of those wounded by flying screws and nails in the Olympic Park bombing.

Stubbs and her mother's husband, John Hawthorne, issued a statement Friday saying they supported the plea agreement "in the interest of preserving and protecting the lives of other citizens."

"It was not easy to accept, but looking at it from an unselfish standpoint, if I were holding rigidly to the death penalty, it would result in other innocent people potentially being killed or seriously injured," Hawthorne said.

"If I had a chance to talk to him at this particular point in time, I would just ask him one simple question: Why?"

Rudolph was a follower of the white supremacist Christian Identity movement, but investigators have never ascribed a motive for the attacks to him.

A group calling itself the Army of God claimed responsibility for the Birmingham blast and the Atlanta bombings that followed the Centennial Olympic Park attack.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended the plea agreement, saying it served "the best interests of justice.

"The many victims of Eric Rudolph's terrorist attacks in Atlanta and Birmingham can rest assured that Rudolph will spend the rest of his life behind bars," Gonzales said in press release.

Two federal law enforcement sources told CNN the catalyst for the agreement was Gonzales' appointment as attorney general.

He reversed predecessor John Ashcroft's insistence that prosecutors seek the death penalty whenever possible.

Defense attorneys in the Rudolph case had said they would not discuss any guilty plea as long as the government sought death.

Kent Alexander, the U.S. attorney in Atlanta at the time of the bombings, said he was "surprised" by the agreement.

Alexander said he believed the Bush administration wanted to secure a death sentence in a domestic terrorism case, but acknowledged that the government "wouldn't necessarily want to make a martyr out of Eric Rudolph."

Doug Jones, the former U.S. attorney in Birmingham, said he was "ecstatic" about the agreement.

He said he never had any doubt Rudolph would be convicted, but he said "cultural factors," such as opposition to abortion among jurors, could have made a death sentence difficult to obtain.

Rudolph pointed to explosives

A witness spotted a man leaving the scene of the Birmingham blast and gave police the license number of a gray pickup registered to Rudolph.

Rudolph disappeared from his home in Murphy, North Carolina, and remained a fugitive for more than five years before agents of the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives picked him up on May 31, 2003.

Rudolph was arrested after a Murphy police officer spotted him about to go into a trash bin behind a grocery store in a search for food.

Based on the information Rudolph provided during plea negotiations, FBI and ATF agents found bomb-making materials at several locations in the mountains near Murphy, the Justice Department said.

The caches included 250 pounds of dynamite and an assembled but inert bomb, it said.

The materials were considered unsafe to move and were destroyed in a series of five explosions over the past two days, a senior law enforcement officer said.

One site included bomb components that matched parts recovered after the bombings, the officer said.

"Three of the locations were relatively near populated areas, including one location where Rudolph buried a fully constructed dynamite bomb with a detached detonator," according to a Justice Department press release.

CNN's Henry Schuster, Terry Frieden and Kelli Arena contributed to this report.

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