Federal officials announced the merger Tuesday of their investigations into three Atlanta bombings with the probe of a blast at a Birmingham, Ala., abortion clinic.
The announcement made no mention of Eric Robert Rudolph, who is charged with bombing the Birmingham clinic, but the now-superseded Atlanta Bomb Task Force had been looking into whether he might also be responsible for the Atlanta attacks, which began with a blast in Centennial Olympic Park in July 1996.
Officials say they have found some tenuous links between Rudolph and some of the Atlanta bombs, but not enough to charge him in those blasts.
The new Southeast Bombing Task Force will encompass the work in Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina on all four attacks, Attorney General Janet Reno, FBI Director Louis Freeh and John Magaw, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, announced.
The new task force will include the FBI, ATF, Alabama Bureau of Investigation, Birmingham Police Department, Georgia Bureau of Investigation and North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. Some state and local law enforcement officers will be deputized to carry out certain operations of the federal task force.
The new arrangement was the product of more than two weeks of negotiations among various federal and state agencies under the supervision of Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder.
Doug Jones, U.S. attorney in Birmingham, and Birmingham Police Chief Mike Coppage had objected in late February when Freeh ordered FBI inspector Terry Turchie, who led the successful Unabomber investigation, to Atlanta to coordinate a combined effort.
As a result of Holder’s mediation of the new task force structure, Turchie instead will head a command post in North Carolina where the search for Rudolph has been concentrated, officials said, requesting anonymity.
The command structure of the old Atlanta task force will continue to head the merged operation.
Investigators are trying to determine whether Rudolph was in Atlanta at the time of three earlier bombings in that city.
Links between Rudolph and the Atlanta bombings so far could be merely coincidences, said a senior agent on the case, who requested anonymity. “But in this business if you can pile up enough coincidences, sometimes you get somewhere,” the agent said.
Rudolph, a 31-year-old part-time carpenter, is a fugitive charged with January’s Birmingham clinic bombing that killed an off-duty police officer who was working there as a security guard.
Investigators have been trying to learn if Rudolph was in Atlanta when bombs exploded at Centennial Olympic Park, at an abortion clinic in January 1997 and at a gay nightclub in February 1997. Agents hypothesize that the same person or people were behind all three.
The Olympic and Atlanta abortion clinic bombs had one-eighth-inch-thick steel plates, designed to direct the blasts. These plates were long ago found to have the same general formulation of steel, the agent said. Some of the manufacturers who make that type of steel sold it in the Southeastern states, including to a metalworking plant in Franklin, N.C., where an associate of Rudolph worked, the agent added.
Another federal agent said lab analysis showed that 1-1/2-inch flooring nails used in the bombs in Birmingham and at the Atlanta abortion clinic came from the same batch as nails found in a storage shed rented by Rudolph. The batch of nails “was produced and sold in a small area,” this agent said.
Similarities between some of the Atlanta bombings and the Birmingham bombing include letters signed “Army of God” claiming responsibility.