Federal authorities have uncovered physical evidence that for the first time links the fatal bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta with bomb attacks at Atlanta-area abortion clinics in January 1997 and in Birmingham, Ala. last month, law enforcement officials said Thursday.
The evidence connecting the bombings includes new forensic information emerging from the inquiry. Investigators have concluded that small steel plates built into the Olympic bomb, apparently designed to force the blast in one direction, matched the metal plates in two bombs planted at an abortion clinic in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs, the federal officials said.
The investigators have determined that the plates were cut from steel found in a search of a metal-working plant in Franklin, N.C., that employed a friend of Eric Robert Rudolph, who is wanted in the Birmingham bombing that killed an off-duty police officer, officials said.
The prospect that the bombings are the work of a single individual or groups led to a meeting of top officials at FBI headquarters Wednesday. At the meeting, Director Louis Freeh assigned more agents and ordered a reorganization of the case. He placed the bombing inquiry under the command of the agent who led the FBI’s Unabomber investigation, Terry Turchie.
But the changes, which were scheduled to take effect immediately, were put on hold Thursday because of bitter complaints from officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that they had been pushed aside despite their lengthy involvement in what had been, until now, a largely cooperative investigation.
Federal officials said that Birmingham’s police department also objected, arguing that a reorganization would diminish the attention paid to the bombing there and the death of one of its officers.
The rift between the two federal agencies grew so hostile that Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder stepped in to mediate.
Law enforcement authorities have spent weeks searching for Rudolph, who has been charged only with the Birmingham bombing on Jan. 29. They said Thursday that they did not have enough evidence, at this time, to charge him with the other bombings. But the officials said that the new evidence of matching metal parts had persuaded them to intensify their manhunt for Rudolph.
So far, the search has has focused on the wilderness area of western North Carolina where Rudolph, a part-time carpenter, has sometimes lived. The officials said that Rudolph’s trail has grown cold and they suspected he might be hiding among the rural vacation cabins deep in the woods, perhaps in a house intended as a refuge from authorities.
Eleven days ago, federal agents connected one of the Atlanta abortion clinic bombs and the fatal bombing at a Birmingham clinic to Rudolph through an unusual type of one-and-a-half-inch flooring nail that matched nails found in a storage shed rented by Rudolph in North Carolina.
Investigators first linked Rudolph to the Birmingham bombing after witnesses saw a truck near the abortion clinic that was later traced to Rudolph through its license plate.
Authorities have theorized for weeks that a connection existed among the bombings, along with an attack at a gay night club in Atlanta.
The threads that weave the bombings together do not directly connect each bombing in a clear-cut serial plot. The metal plates link the first of the suspected series, the bombings at the Olympics, with two bombs that exploded at the Atlanta abortion clinic last year. They have not found similar metal fragments in the Birmingham case. The nails in the Birmingham and Atlanta abortion bombs do not appear to match nails used in the Centennial Park bomb at the Olympics, officials said.
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