Better than Barney Fife! Jeff Postell captured Eric Rudolph in a small mountain town in North Carolina on May 31, 2003
Note: An edited version of this story first appeared in the Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, edition of The Gaston Gazette newspaper in Gastonia, N.C.
By Michael Banks
Though he now patrols a college campus and makes his home in the Northeast, the man who put the handcuffs on Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph says North Carolina will always remain a part of who he is.
On the walls of Jeff Postell’s office at the Boston College Police Department are FBI wanted posters, one of them “the size of a Volkswagen bug,” showing Rudolph, who in the spring and summer of 2003, was one of America’s 10 most wanted criminals after being identified in 1998 as the person responsible for the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics. Two people would die from the blast and 111 were injured.
“Richard Jewell,” a film that debuted Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, tells the story of Jewell, a Centennial Olympic Park security guard who came under FBI suspicion for involvement in the crime, becoming the prime suspect and an international news story.
Also hanging on those same walls in Postell’s office are limited-edition sketches of one of his favorite television programs, “The Andy Griffith Show” depicting scenes from the fictitious town of Mayberry that was similar in so many ways to the North Carolina mountain towns where he grew up and achieved worldwide fame.
Postell, who is now 38, is quick to name off some of his favorite “Andy Griffith” episodes – the time a goat swallowed dynamite and diminutive deputy Barney Fife’s attempt to join the state police – as he grew up watching the show with his grandparents, who adopted and raised him and are the people he refers to as mom and dad.
“It really taught you about being a good person, being humble and being an individual who is willing to take care of people and help people with their problems and doing the right thing.”
He is quick with a loud laugh when asked if Barney Fife would have ever been capable of catching one of America’s most wanted.
“If you’re comparing me to Barney Fife, I might take offense to that,” he said laughing. “Do I think Barney could have done it? Perhaps. He had a niche for stumbling upon things very similar to what I did, I guess.”
But Postell, who was a 21-year-old rookie cop 10 months into his first job when he made his most famous arrest, is quick to point out he was out there just doing his job that fateful night.
“The one thing that really irritates me over the years is when people say that I got lucky,” he said. “You only need luck when you go to a casino.
“I think the arrest of Eric Rudolph had nothing to do with luck. It was being vigilant, it was being responsible, being in the field, being on the job, doing what people expected me to do, what people hired me to do.”
I think the arrest of Eric Rudolph had nothing to do with luck. It was being vigilant, it was being responsible, being in the field, being on the job, doing what people expected me to do, what people hired me to do.”— Jeff Postell
Encounter of a lifetime
Postell credits the training he received in the police academy and field training program for preparing him for his encounter with Rudolph, who in May 2003 was a subject of a nationwide manhunt and was believed to be hiding in the Appalachian wilderness.
“Louis Pasteur said ‘chance favors a prepared mind,’” Postell said of the motto that was ingrained in him by his field training officer. “Always be prepared for what you may engage in, be ready, always know where you’re at.”
In keeping with his training, Postell had been changing up his routine during his first few months on the job with the Murphy Police Department.
“I never had a set pattern and routine, there was no trend he could follow,” Postell said of Rudolph, who, as investigators would later find out, was monitoring police movements from atop his perch on a nearby mountain.
Rudolph would even mention later to police that Postell had nearly caught him a few months prior, thanks to his altered patrols and never following the same routine. Rudolph told investigators that things might have gone differently that night as he had a gun.
It was around 3:30 in the morning on May 31, 2003, when Postell was making his usual patrol as he was the only officer on duty within the town limits at that time of day.
Driving around the back of a Sav-A-Lot located in a strip mall, the rookie officer noticed an individual near a trash bin behind the building. When he spotted the police car, the person then tried to run and Postell noticed the subject had a long, dark object that he thought could be a gun, but which later proved to be a flashlight.
“I knew there was something definitely drastic that was going on,” Postell recalled. “I had no idea who he was.”
Postell was able to corner the man behind some milk crates and then get him onto the ground and handcuff him. The man told Postell he was homeless and that he had hitchhiked from Ohio. He had no identification, saying he had never had the need for a Social Security number, and then gave a fictitious name.
“That raised a red flag in my mind,” Postell said.
He said a deputy sheriff, who was one of the backup units that had arrived, had known Rudolph from many years prior when they attended school together. Upon seeing the man handcuffed, he pulled Postell to the side and said, “You know, he kind of has a weird resemblance to Eric Rudolph.”
Postell didn’t believe it.
“I was like, ‘Ha, you’re being funny.’ No way.’”
It was only when they had taken the man to jail and then pulled up a wanted poster on the FBI website that things began to become clear. While the person before them had little resemblance to the sketch provided by the FBI, a physical description of Rudolph was provided.
“I’m getting the hair color right, I’m getting the eye color right, I’m getting the attached ear lobes,” Postell said. “And then on the FBI poster, it said there was a little scar on his chin.”
He peered closely at the man who sat across from him in the jail cell.
“His head was tilted back and he was kind of staring at the ceiling and the scar on his chin was staring me right in the eye,” Postell recalled. “That’s when the butterflies in my stomach really started churning.”
The officers printed out the pictures and walked over and surrounded the man. They held the pictures behind his head so he couldn’t really see what they were looking at, comparing the pictures and the man before them.
They asked him to tell them who he was. The man didn’t reply. They asked him again.
“And he says, ‘What does that paper say,’” Postell recalled. “I remember one of the officers said, ‘Listen, that’s not what you were asked. Tell us who you are.’ And that’s when he kind of laughed a little bit and in the darkest, deepest, coldest tone he said, ‘I’m Eric Robert Rudolph and you’ve got me.’”
Postell and the other officers were stunned.
“My knees knocked so much that I answered them,” he said. “The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up and I said, ‘Oh, boy!’”
“I can remember being very nervous and very anxious to see him. Eric Rudolph had the coldest eyes I’ve ever seen in an individual. His eyes were so cold and so dark,”— Jeff Postell
The next hours and days would be a whirlwind of activity for Postell and the town of Murphy.
Media descended on the area, seeking the story of how a rookie cop and a small town police force, numbering just 10 full-time officers, had captured the man who had eluded the FBI for seven years.
There were interviews and fan mail. People magazine made him one of its 25 hottest bachelors of 2003. He was getting recognized everywhere.
“It was just crazy,” recalls Postell.
But through it all, he was able to remain who he was – a humble, down-to-earth guy.
“If it did anything, it made me even more humble,” he said. “I am just Jeff Postell.”
Postell credits his upbringing for staying true to himself.
“I did nothing special, I was just doing my job,” he said, crediting the other officers who assisted him that night after he had handcuffed and brought in Rudolph.
“It wasn’t about Jeff Postell. This was hundreds of people, thousands of people who had been impacted by his acts. Having that opportunity to help close that chapter and help provide them a sense of comfort and closure. To me, that’s what was important.”
There was a $1 million reward offered for information leading up to the arrest of Rudolph. And while the mayor of Murphy pushed for Postell to receive the reward, he never received a dime.
“If you’ve ever met a screwed-out-of-a-million-dollar guy, then I’m the guy. I say that jokingly,” he said. “If I had a nickel for every time somebody asked me about the million dollar reward, that million dollars would be pocket change.”
Postell says he never feels he was entitled to the reward.
“I was on duty, acting in my capacity as a police officer doing the job I was hired to do,” he said. “The million dollar award never crossed my mind. That money was not worth it to me.”
Postell said had he got the reward he would have donated it to charity, the city of Murphy and the police department.
Postell admits that he’ll forever be connected with Rudolph, but it’s something that he never brings up, only responding when questioned about it.
He would have a few interactions with Rudolph over the days and years following his arrest. He would lead the convoy to take Rudolph to the airport where he would eventually be placed in the federal penitentiary system.
“I watched him come out of the jail. He saw me. I saw him,” he said of the glare he received from Rudolph.
And it would be during Rudolph’s trial in Birmingham, Ala., a few years later where they would have a final interaction.
“I can remember being very nervous and very anxious to see him. Eric Rudolph had the coldest eyes I’ve ever seen in an individual. His eyes were so cold and so dark,” Postell recalled.
“I believed that he wanted to intimidate me. I walked into that courtroom and I sat very close to where he was sitting and I did not take my eyes off of him. And I do not believe that he did not look at me once. And that said a lot to me about who he is as a person.”
In order to avoid the death penalty, Rudolph would accept a guilty plea for the murder of a police officer in 1998 during the bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, as well as the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta and the bombing of a lesbian bar and an abortion clinic in Sandy Springs, Ga.
Rudolph, 53, is serving his life sentence at the federal Supermax prison in Colorado.
Postell did say he’d read the book that Rudolph published in 2013 titled “Between the Lines of Drift: The Memoirs of a Militant.”
“There was no surprise to me to what was included in the book. I would say it was not one of the New York Times’ best-sellers.”
Impact of “Richard Jewell”
With the debut of the movie “Richard Jewell,” Postell said there has been renewed interest in his story. There have been multiple interviews, including one with Fox News.
He planned to watch the movie Friday night with his family. He did not expect to see his name or role mentioned in the arrest of Rudolph as he was not consulted by the filmmakers.
“This movie is not about me,” Postell said. “This is about Richard Jewell, who was wrongfully accused and paid dearly for it.”
He said he believes the film will generate some questions and interest, but he worries about the impact on the families of those who were injured or killed in the explosions in Atlanta and Birmingham.
“I just hope the movie’s been done tastefully for the people who were impacted by the bombings,” Postell said. “When you witness something traumatic and you have a loved one that dies or get seriously injured, that does not ever go away.”
While he will forever be associated with Rudolph that does not define who Postell is.
After becoming assistant chief of the Murphy Police Department and serving as a campus resource officer in Jackson County, Postell made the move to Massachusetts after a visit in 2008.
Since 2009, he has worked with the Boston College Police Department, which keeps watch over some 14,500 students. He started out as an officer, became a sergeant in charge of community policing and, in 2014, was promoted to lieutenant in charge of a 40-officer patrol division.
He and his partner make their home in Taunton, Mass., a town of nearly 60,000 residents just south of Boston. They have an 18-year-old son, who they adopted when he was 13.
He was elected to the City Council in 2016 and is just finishing up his first term as the council president. He will be serving another two-year term starting in January after winning re-election in November.
While he’s embraced life in the Northeast, Postell says North Carolina will forever be his home.
“I’m very proud of my background and my heritage,” said Postell, who grew up in Andrews. “I think the people of North Carolina are wonderful, amazing people.
“If you venture out from North Carolina for any extended period of time, you start to miss it. You start to realize how important the people are, how important the values are there and just the way of life. It’s a different way of life.”
His last visit to Gaston County was in 2015 and he says he’ll always include stops at the Shrimp Boat and Tony’s Ice Cream during his trips here. He’s grateful for his family that includes his sister-in-law, Shirley Postell, who makes her home in Gastonia, as well as numerous cousins that live in Gaston and Cleveland counties.
“My entire family means so much to me. I’ve been blessed to have a great family, a supportive family and a family that I’ve been able to make proud,” Postell said.