FIRES CREEK, N.C. – A half-mile from the nearest road and up a slope steeper than any ski run, investigators believe suspected Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph (search) carefully constructed the campsite where he spent much of the five years he was a fugitive.
The campsite on a mountainside in Nantahala National Forest (search) includes a "patio" of meticulously laid, interlocking slate stones; a fire pit that still held ashes on Tuesday; and "pantries" dug into the ground that held large plastic containers of corn, beans and other grains.
The camp sprawls among trees and rocks over at least an acre of angled mountainside terrain.
Federal investigators removed several pieces of key evidence from the site Monday. They returned Tuesday with a chain saw that they used to remove pieces of plastic that had been nailed around tree trunks, part of a contraption Rudolph may have used to keep food suspended, away from animals.
The pieces of tree trunk -- and more significantly, the nails pounded into them -- were taken away as possible evidence.
Nails were used in several of the bombs that federal prosecutors say Rudolph detonated in Birmingham, Ala., and the Atlanta area between 1996 and 1998.
Rudolph was caught early Saturday behind a western North Carolina grocery store where he was believed to be scrounging for food. He pleaded innocent Tuesday in the Birmingham bombing and is scheduled for trial in that case on Aug. 4, although the judge said it will likely be delayed.
The mountain campsite where Rudolph was believed to be hiding occupies high ground in the national forest, a spot where Rudolph would hear anyone approaching from the nearest road in plenty of time to escape.
"By the time anybody came up the side of the mountain, he could have been all the way down the other side," said an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (search) who worked at the site Tuesday. He asked that his name not be used.
The site has another advantage: It is beneath a canopy of trees, rhododendron and mountain laurel that stay green year-round, offering full-time cover.
Victor O'Korn, the FBI's No. 2 agent in North Carolina, said U.S. Forest Service agents who first examined the site Monday think Rudolph had not been there in months.
Investigators have also examined a campsite closer to the town of Murphy where Rudolph was believed to have stayed more recently.
"We're going to try to piece together where he's been the last 5 years and what, if any, assistance he's received from citizens in the area," O'Korn said.
Dried corn, beans and other grains were scattered near deep holes -- one 2 feet, another over 5 feet deep -- where they had been hidden underground, investigators said. The provisions apparently were stored in plastic garbage cans, then covered with rocks to keep out bears.
The stores raised an obvious question for investigators: Where did Rudolph get all those supplies, and how did he get them up the mountain?
Another unanswered question was whether Rudolph had the campsite ready when he went into hiding, or constructed it during his years on the run.
Rudolph told his jailers over the weekend that he struggled to stay alive during his nearly five years as a fugitive, Cherokee County Sheriff Keith Lovin said Tuesday.
"The first winter he about starved. He said, 'It's kind of hard to live on acorns and lizards,'" Lovin said. "He talked about foraging for supplies and hunting. Turkeys, wild boar, bear, deer."