Winking at justice
Rudolph defiant and triumphant
By Henry Schuster
Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit, has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on the people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those. He is the author of the newly published book, "Hunting Eric Rudolph."
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The wink that Eric Rudolph gave prosecutors and federal agents as he walked into the Birmingham, Alabama, courtroom set the tone for a defining day in this terrorist's deadly story.
His words and actions there -- where he pleaded guilty to the fatal bombing of a women's clinic -- and later Wednesday in Atlanta, Georgia -- where he admitted to the Centennial Park bombing and two other blasts -- painted a picture of a defiant, arrogant, but oddly triumphant man.
When the court proceedings wrapped up, the exclamation point came in the form of an 11-page manifesto meant finally to explain why he committed those crimes.
But I'm not sure it did. His reasons don't add up, not when stacked against his past and previously stated beliefs, as recalled by investigators and those who knew him best.
Factor in his public smugness and statements, and Rudolph comes across as supremely confident and undeniably dangerous.
'I certainly did, your honor'
Rudolph stood at attention in the Birmingham court, arms behind his back and dressed in a two-piece red jail uniform, as Judge Lynwood Smith detailed the plea deal, including a sentence of four consecutive life terms with no right to appeal.
In exchange, Rudolph had given up the location of five sites in North Carolina where he had stockpiled 250 pounds of dynamite, bomb components and even one bomb.
Initially, Rudolph's answers were short, flat and unemotional. The atmosphere changed after prosecutor Michael Whisonant outlined the government's case against Rudolph in the Alabama clinic bombing.
"Do you admit that the government's evidence at trial would prove the facts just stated by Mr. Whisonant?" asked Smith.
"Just barely, your honor. That's sufficient," Rudolph replied, sarcastically.
Smith visibly stiffened, and his voice became icy: "Let me just cut to the chase. Did you plant the bomb that exploded at the New Woman All Women clinic here in Birmingham on January 29, 1998?"
In a forceful voice, Rudolph responded, "I did, your honor."
"And did you cause that bomb to detonate?" the judge followed.
Rudolph's voice seemed to swell with pride. "I certainly did, your honor."
About 150 miles and several hours later, in Atlanta, we braced for another dose of defiance.
But this time, when the prosecution presented the case and the judge asked Rudolph if he agreed, his lawyers didn't give him a chance to reply.
It didn't matter.
The why of it
Rudolph had much more to say, doing so in a written statement distributed by his lawyers right after the hearing. (Excerpts)
The first paragraph made clear who Rudolph's main enemies were, expressing satisfaction -- even a sense of victory -- in the plea deal.
"I have deprived the government of its goal of sentencing me to death," he wrote.
In the nine-page testimonial and two-page postscript, Rudolph claimed his opposition to abortion, homosexuality and the authorities who permitted both led him to undertake the four attacks, including the 1996 blast that killed Alice Hawthorne, then among thousands visiting Centennial Olympic Park.
Breathtaking was his claim that he had planned to detonate five bombs on five successive nights at the Olympics "to confound, anger and embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the world for its abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand."
So does this statement close the book on the Rudolph case, explaining why he went on his domestic terrorism spree?
Not in my mind. Having covered this story for nearly a decade, I still have questions.
I have deprived the government of its goal of sentencing me to death.
As I read the statement, I was struck by his insistence that his strong worldview mainly centered on abortion -- an assertion at odds with the words of his friends and relatives about Rudolph's beliefs.
A white supremacist or not?
Then I turned to the two-page postscript and found myself in the position of being denounced by a man who had just admitted to being a murderer and serial bomber.
Rudolph took issue with my recent book, "Hunting Eric Rudolph," claiming it was full of "lies and misconceptions."
He was not, he stated, a man who believed in Christian Identity or its underlying belief in white supremacy. Instead, he insisted, his views focused mainly on "the important conflicts in this world, and probably the next are about ideas, not flesh."
Rudolph conveniently glossed over his remarks to a sheriff's deputy the weekend he was captured after a five-plus year manhunt. Then, he claimed -- as he had done many times before -- his belief that the Bible justified the white man's superiority over all other races.
Despite repeated requests, I've never been able to talk to Rudolph. But my co-author and I spoke with dozens of people involved in the case, including his family. The portrayal of Rudolph -- his background and beliefs -- that we gleaned from this research did not track with his statement Wednesday.
Still, this manifesto may be as much of Rudolph's story, no matter how accurate or honest, that we'll be able to get. This may have been his only chance to speak before he is sentenced in July and sent to live in isolation in the Supermax prison in Colorado.
Rudolph survived five and a half years on the run, and he may feel that he will survive prison. Perhaps he believes that, by claiming it was all about abortion, he will somehow garner public sympathy.
Nonetheless, from his actions and statements Wednesday, Rudolph appears steadfast and proud, ready to carry on his terrorist campaign if just given the chance.
"By the grace of God," he wrote, "I am still here -- a little bloodied, but emphatically unbowed."