Eric Rudolph is one of the most notorious criminals in recent American history. He is also one of the most elusive. For several years, he was able to shake the authorities, but throughout his time on the run, he left behind a trail of evidence. Fortunately, Michael Ethridge and his team of forensic specialists were there to collect that evidence and use it to tighten the net around Rudolph and eventually build the scientific case that would help to convict this murderer.
During the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, a terrorist triggered a bomb that killed one and wounded 111 other spectators. The attack was the first in a series of bombings that shook the Southeastern United States and set the stage for one of the largest manhunts in law enforcement history.
A year after the Olympics attack, two more bombings – one at an abortion clinic and one at a nightclub – would again shake Atlanta to its core. Then, in January of 1998, an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed, killing a security officer and severely injuring a nurse. Vital clues connected this incident to the Atlanta attacks and law enforcement focused its investigation on Eric Rudolph as the serial bomber. Rudolph evaded immediate capture, fleeing into North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains.
Ethridge and his team at the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) collected evidence from each bombing site and the vast area of Appalachia where Rudolph was believed to be hiding. Over a period of seven years, Ethridge’s team compiled nearly 3,600 exhibits consisting of thousands of individual items, which were submitted to the ATF laboratories for analysis and cross-comparison to the bombing incidents. This crucial evidence linked Rudolph to all four bombings. He was captured on May 31, 2003, in Murphy, North Carolina.
During the two-year judicial process that followed Rudolph’s arrest, Ethridge’s team once again showed their determination and expertise. Their work during the defense discovery and trial preparations was critical to the case, especially during the Daubert hearing, which addresses the reliability of expert testimony.
Experts testified as to the technical details of Rudolph’s bomb devices. After days of rigorous scientific testimony, which included forensics specialists using a mock-up device from the Birmingham bombing, Rudolph agreed to plead guilty to all of the bombings and forgo a possible death sentence in a formal jury trial. The case marked the first Daubert challenge of explosives analysis in U.S. history.
The assistant U.S. attorney credited the laboratory work and testimony as being a primary reason for Rudolph’s guilty plea to all charges. Moreover, the successful defense of the basic science and chemistry of explosive analyses has had unprecedented significance throughout the national and international forensic science communities.
With 32 years of experience and a reputation as one of the leading forensic experts in law enforcement, Ethridge was uniquely qualified to lead this team of scientists in their efforts to carry this challenging case to completion.
For all of his individual accomplishments, Ethridge, who has been a member of the Senior Executive Service since 1999 and was a 2004 recipient of the Presidential Meritorious Award, is most proud of the accomplishments of the ATF laboratories. Not only are they leaders within their agency and the federal government, but they are also leaders in their profession.