BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Eric Rudolph (search) led authorities to a hidden stash of dynamite in the North Carolina mountains as part of a plea deal allowing him to avoid the death penalty for a series of bombings, including a deadly blast at the Atlanta Olympics.
The Justice Department said Friday that the alleged anti-government extremist will plead guilty to the 1996 Olympics (search) bombing and three other blasts as part of the deal. Two people were killed and more than 120 injured in the explosions.
"The many victims of Eric Rudolph's terrorist attacks ... can rest assured that Rudolph will spend the rest of his life behind bars," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (search) said in a statement from Washington.
That may be the harshest punishment of all for a man who thrives in the outdoors, said Charles Stone, a retired Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent who helped oversee the bombing probe.
"He'll be caged for the rest of his life, and from a retribution aspect, that's probably worse than a death sentence for him," Stone said.
Rudolph, believed to be a follower of a white supremacist religion that is anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-Semitic, was charged with carrying out bombings in Georgia and Alabama over three years ending in 1998.
The former soldier and survivalist evaded capture for more than five years, hunkering down in the woods of North Carolina and living off the land as federal agents carried out a massive manhunt. He was caught in May 2003 after being seen scavenging for food near a grocery store trash bin in Murphy, N.C.
He is scheduled to plead guilty Wednesday. The plea deal calls for four consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Defense lawyer Bill Bowen did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
As part of the deal, Rudolph provided authorities with the location of more than 250 pounds of dynamite he stashed in the woods while he was hiding out.
A Justice Department statement said the dynamite was found in five locations, three of them "relatively near populated areas, including one location where Rudolph buried a fully constructed dynamite bomb with a detached detonator." The bomb, with about 20 to 25 pounds of dynamite, was disposed of safely, the statement said.
Family members of bombing victims — though angry Rudolph will escape the death penalty — said they grudgingly went along with the deal, in part to protect others from the explosives.
"I just didn't want anybody else to have to deal with that," said Emily Lyons, a nurse critically injured in an Alabama clinic bombing. She lost an eye and still bears scars from where nails used as shrapnel tore through her body.
That bombing killed Robert Sanderson, an off-duty police officer working a security detail on Jan. 29, 1998. The blast occurred about 1 1/2 years after the Olympic park bombing — in which Alice Hawthorne of Albany was slain — and in between explosions outside a women's clinic and a gay bar in Atlanta.
Linda Bourgeois, administrator at the New Woman All Women Health Care clinic in Birmingham, said a couple of employees "jumped up and down and screamed" at the news of the plea deal. "We think it's a victory for all women everywhere," she said.
After the bombings, someone sent letters claiming credit for the blasts on behalf of the "Army of God," a shadowy group that opposes abortion. Two witnesses spotted Rudolph's truck in Birmingham after the clinic bombing, but authorities couldn't find him until 2003.
In the interim, Rudolph became an almost mythic figure to some residents of the region. A search across 550,000 acres of Appalachian wilderness at one time involved 200 agents.
Yet many mocked the government's inability to root Rudolph out, and he inspired two country-western songs and a top-selling T-shirt that urged: "Run Rudolph Run." A $1 million reward offer from the government went unclaimed.
Investigators suspect sympathizers may have assisted Rudolph during his time on the run, but no one was ever charged.
"I'm just glad that it's come to an end," said Murphy Police Chief Mark Thigpen, whose office would have had to deal with out-of-state trials without the plea deal. "I'd kind of like for things to get back to normal."