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A hero in his own eyes 

The untold story of Eric Robert Rudolph

THE OWLS GATHERED in the trees around the silos because of the mice, which came because of the loose grain scattered on the ground. There were five silos, each 30 feet tall, standing together in the valley next to the Snowbird Mountain range. Nestled halfway between Murphy and Andrews in the very western corner of North Carolina, the area around the silos is a rich floodplain, thanks to the creeks and streams that feed into the Valley River, and the farmers there grow corn, soybeans and wheat.

click to enlarge END OF THE HUNT: Rudolph eluded capture for more than five years before he was caught Dumpster-diving in Murphy, N.C. - ERIK S. LESSER/GETTY IMAGES
  • Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images
  • END OF THE HUNT: Rudolph eluded capture for more than five years before he was caught Dumpster-diving in Murphy, N.C.

Like the owls and the mice, a gaunt and weary man emerged from the woods in the fall of 1999 and went to the silos on a quest for food. In the months leading up to the harvest, he'd methodically scavenged 170 trash bags from the Dumpster behind the McDonald's in Andrews, and cleaned each one of them in the Valley River. He figured if he double-bagged them, he could haul five gallons of grain, about 50 pounds, in each one.

The issue of how to protect his stash of grain from vermin was more problematic, but once he discovered the solution it seemed almost laughably simple. Of course. Where do trash bags go? Into herbie-curbies. Why? Because they have lids that close. Even better, they have wheels. Once the harvest was finished and the silos were bulging with grain and beans, he stole four herbie-curbies and carried them across the Valley River -- one at a time on his back as he trudged through the cold, groin-high water. He cleaned them out in the river, using leaves to scrub out the gunk, and rolled them a mile-and-a-half at night, past the little airport and down to his staging area. He stashed them in the bramble next to Oak Grove Baptist Church, across the road from the silos. During the day, he camouflaged them with white pine branches.

His camp was set up on the ridge above the silos, and he'd come down late at night, when traffic on Airport Road was almost nonexistent. Occasionally, a state trooper would park at the church and wait to catch speeders. And sometimes kids would park behind the silos to smoke pot or make out. One night he was trapped, lying face down on the ground, as a teenage couple had sex in a car parked barely 10 feet from him. It was the closest he'd come to being caught since he'd vanished 18 months earlier.

Every night for two weeks following the harvest, he climbed the silos using the steel ladder on the side. At the top was a small trap door that opened and gave him access to the fruits of the harvest. He would steady himself on the dew-covered metal, reach in and fill a bag with as much beans or corn or wheat as he could carry, and haul it on his back down to the ground. Then back up for more. Once he'd accumulated 50 pounds on the ground, he'd put the food into a doubled bag and lug it over to the herbie-curbies.

In the deep of the night, he liked to sit on top of the silo and rest, firing up the half-smoked Marlboro Lights he dug out of the trash behind the Gibson Furniture store in downtown Andrews. These were some of the best times -- sitting in the crisp autumn air, smelling the sweetly sour rotting corn stalks and getting so lost in himself that he could almost forget he was the most wanted man in the United States. In those moments, it was just him and the owls and the mice.

Eric Robert Rudolph was fascinated by the owls. Every night, he could hear their hoots in the distance. In the harvest moon, his eyes could pick up the round-faced birds as they gracefully flew from the trees and swooped down from the sky. He was so close to their killing field that he could see the cloud of dust the owls kicked up as they attacked their prey. Once the owl secured the mouse in its clutches, it would fly back to the tree line and celebrate its warm feast by hooting a little tune.

It seemed a perfectly natural synergy: The mouse got its food, the owl got its food and Rudolph got his. When he was finally finished, on Halloween, he stole a black Chevrolet Silverado truck from a used car lot and hauled the grain-filled herbie-curbies to a hiding place up in the Snowbird Mountains. With just two weeks' work, he had guaranteed his ability to survive in the wild: He had amassed a stash of food that would sustain him for years.

IN MANY NATIVE American cultures, the owl is the symbol of death. In statues and artwork, Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of death, is depicted with owls, and Native American lore says an appearance by an owl is a harbinger of death.

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