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Department Feature: North Carolina department recovers from months in national spotlight

October 07, 2001
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Department Feature: North Carolina department recovers from months in national spotlight

(MURPHY, N.C.) -- The tide of federal law enforcement receded last year in Cherokee County after two years in which the area was swarming with FBI and ATF agents, along with television satellite trucks and far-right activists.

The hunt for Eric Robert Rudolph put tiny Murphy, the county seat, in the national spotlight. Rudolph, a suspect in several bombings including one that killed a police officer at an Alabama abortion clinic and the fatal bombing at Centennial Park, was believed to be hiding in the Nantahala National Forest, a vast expanse of wooded mountains in western North Carolina. The FBI set up a command post in the area and combed the woods. He vanished in January 1998, leaving food on the table of his trailer home, after apparently seeing a news report that he was about to be arrested.p> Assistant Police Chief Jerry Trull said the experience was a nightmare – “we couldn’t walk down the street without a microphone stuck in our face.”

Trull said that traffic is so light in the area that some of the country roads get no more than five or six vehicles a day during normal times, if that many.

“There were hundreds of cars zooming up and down,” he said. “Some of them were agents, some of them were these bounty hunters. We had people like this Bo Gritz and Randy Weaver and their media entourages.”

Murphy has a 10-officer police department. The area’s residents include people whose ancestors have lived there since before the Civil War and former NASA employees who picked Cherokee County as a retirement spot. There are also Cherokee Indians, descendents of members of the tribe who resisted being forced out to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears.

Many locals were suspicious of the FBI, Trull said. He described the attitude as a legacy of the 1930s when some people lost their homes to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s reservoirs and of the era when illicit stills were common in the hills.

“The last time there were this many northerners down here the Indians got kicked out,” said Trull, who has relatives living on the Cherokee reservation.

He criticizes the national media, especially television, for giving a false picture of Murphy by ignoring the ordinary residents and looking for a “mountain man” wearing bib overalls with missing front teeth --“They’re talking about the area here like we’re all a bunch of backward hicks.” While Murphy is a lot quieter than it was before the FBI shut down its command center, Trull fears that the manhunt will continue to cause problems. He said that some right-wing broadcasters “have identified this area as having a sparse population and are basically advertising it as a place for these militia types to come.”

The police force has been busier in other ways. After no bank robberies for 30 years, the county has had five in one year, Trull said. Four were allegedly the work of one man, a Georgia mechanic suspected of doing the stick-ups to get the money to build a dragster. Last weekend, the area also had its first ever home invasion.

But Trull said that non-violent crime is more usual, with check forgeries common and internet crime becoming more of a headache. In western North Carolina, that usually means someone selling the same item several times to different people on line or taking customers’ money and not supplying the goods.

Another major headache are young people in their late teens or early 20s who “don’t see much of a future for themselves” in the area. Trull said that they tend to congregate downtown on weekend nights, making noise and blocking traffic.

The hunt for Rudolph continues, although the federal force has been scaled way back. Trull said that the county sheriff’s department is checking out remote cabins, trying to rule out the possibility that Rudolph has holed up somewhere without the owner’s being aware of it. Campers and picnickers have been told to report any cases of missing food.

. Most investigators believe Rudolph is still in western North Carolina, mostly because no sign of him has been reported anywhere else. Trull believes that Rudolph’s reputation as someone capable of surviving in rough country is overblown, and that he is dead, somewhere in the Nantahala Forest.

“This is not Central Park here,” he said. The area is rough with cliffs and swiftly flowing streams along with black bears, rattlesnakes and copperheads.

Trull was born in western North Carolina but lived all over the country while his father worked construction jobs and spent time in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. He said that in the end he discovered there was no place he would rather be than where he is now.

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