America - Andrew Stephen profiles a terrifying folk hero

Eric Rudolph is alleged to have bombed abortion clinics, a gay club and the Olympic Games. So why do

You can always judge the mood of the people of the South - south of the Potomac, that is, the traditional dividing line between the two Americas - by looking at the boards in small cafes that usually feature menu specials, but which in special times spell out topical messages. "Nuke the bastards," was one that I saw at the beginning of the Iraqi invasion. "Pray for Eric Rudolph," says a sign now at the Peach Tree restaurant in North Carolina.

Having been on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list for five years, Rudolph, 36, was finally arrested on 31 May. His arrest created enormous publicity in the US: the FBI list is featured on a popular television programme, and there was a $1m reward for Rudolph. By last Tuesday, he had been charged with 23 separate offences in Alabama and Georgia - some of which carry the death penalty.

"Bless his heart," said a woman none the less, near the scene of his arrest. "I didn't see him bomb nobody," a 77-year-old man, Hoke Henson, was quoted as saying. "You can't always trust the feds."

Yet Rudolph is accused of committing peculiarly heinous hate crimes. The first was at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, on 27 July 1996, when he is alleged to have left a nail-filled pipe-bomb in a knapsack among the crowds. A 44-year-old mother, Alice Hawthorne, was killed and more than 100 were badly injured by shrapnel. Six months later, two bombs went off outside a building in Atlanta that housed an abortion clinic, injuring four people.

Then on 21 February 1997, a bomb exploded at the Otherside Lounge gay nightclub in Atlanta; a second was found before it detonated. Less than a year later, a bomb disguised as a pot plant went off at the New Woman All Women Health Care Clinic - another abortion clinic - killing a man.

A part-time security guard, Richard Jewell, was widely accused by the media as well as by the authorities of committing the Olympic Games bombing, and his life was ruined as a result. Despite intensive questioning by the FBI, detectives could not pin Jewell down and the crime went unsolved. But after the 1998 bombing in Alabama, anonymous letters were sent to the news media claiming the attacks were the work of the "Army of God".

A student noticed a man in a white wig leaving the scene of the last bombing in a 1989 Nissan pick-up truck with North Carolina licence plates, and took down the numbers. Police closed in on Rudolph - who had been working as a carpenter, roofer and handyman - and found that nails used in the bombings matched those found in storage space Rudolph rented near his home on the south-western tip of North Carolina, near the border with Tennessee.

It was enough to place the elusive Rudolph on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list. He was considered a skilled "survivalist", and the FBI used hundreds of agents to scour the 530,000 acres of the Nantahala National Forest on the edge of the Appalachians, where he was thought to be hiding out.

The agents spent millions, using bloodhounds, helicopters with heat-seeking equipment, and infra-red motion-seeking devices - but there was no sign of Rudolph. The search was gradually scaled down, and many FBI officers became privately convinced that Rudolph was dead.

That was the widespread view until Saturday 31 May, when he was caught delving into a skip outside the Save-a-Lot supermarket in Murphy - a tiny town of 1,568 in a valley surrounded by the Appalachian foothills - by a 21-year-old trainee policeman.

Rudolph's only words in a court hearing last Monday were: "Yes, your honour", delivered in a quiet but respectful voice. He pleaded not guilty on Tuesday. Rudolph was the second-youngest of six children - one of his brothers is gay and Rudolph himself is said to have difficulties making relationships with women. His father died when he was 14. That is when his mother, now 75, introduced him to the "Christian Identity" movement of which the "Army of God" is supposed to be an offshoot. Christian Identity, a profoundly un-Christian movement that derives from Victorian Britain, believes that Anglo-Saxons today are offshoots of one of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel.

Sheltering under that Christian Identity label, members are anti-gay, anti-Semitic and anti-foreigner (hence the antipathy towards the Olympic Games); they are basically anarchical, believing that all government is bad. Such is the white supremacism involved that they are opposed to abortion because they believe too many white foetuses are being aborted, and that whites will soon be overrun by blacks and Latinos.

Rudolph made it to Western Carolina University, then dropped out to join the army as an airborne soldier - to learn, apparently, about explosives and "survivalist" techniques.

Following two years in the military (from 1987-89), he received a less-than-honourable discharge after being caught smoking marijuana, and then drifted into what seemed his relatively innocuous living as carpenter, handyman and roofer. Until he became the most wanted American on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list, that is.

What is so remarkable about Rudolph's sad saga is not so much that he is a hate-filled white supremacist who did what he did, but the reaction of the ordinary white people deep into the moonshine country of western North Carolina.

To them, he became a folk hero. "Run Rudolph Run," read car bumper stickers before his arrest. "My heart aches for him," said one woman. Crystal Davies, 25, was quoted as saying about Rudolph's crimes: "These are our values. These are our woods. I don't see what he did as terrorist attacks."

Detectives have concluded that such was Rudolph's folk-hero status among the supposedly ardent Christians of rural North Carolina that he must have been at least partly sheltered by local people, and certainly given aid and succour.

Rudolph and the large number of apparently respectable, decent, hard-working white people who support him thus stand as metaphors for the dangerous chasm that still exists between the two Americas.

Rudolph's horrible crimes are considered if not the work of God, then certainly as well-meaning. Abortion, blacks, Jews, gays: all threaten the hegemony of the good white folk of North Carolina that allows them to lead their own lives, untroubled by the threats of encroaching government.

As though there is a subconscious awareness of Rudolph's folk-hero status, dozens of television satellite trucks invaded Murphy the day he was arrested. But it was the arrest of a man with a $1m bounty on his head that was the way the story played, not as one emblematic of a divided America. We are told that, in custody, Rudolph has been talking to local police - but not to the FBI, the despised feds.

The Bush administration's attorney general, John Ashcroft - himself a Bible-thumping, supposed Christian who is an ardent supporter of the death penalty but not, as far as we know, of Christian Identity - has ordered that Rudolph be first charged with federal offences in Alabama, where the evidence against him is stronger.

And so a squalid footnote in America's history is nearing the final chapter. Eric Rudolph may be a vicious murderer in the eyes of most Americans, but across swathes of the country he is still a legend.

That is how he will be seen, assuming an Alabama jury convicts him, when he is finally strapped down on the executioner's gurney: a dangerous and divisive symbol to the end.