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Jeff Postell was a 21-year-old police officer when he made an arrest in the middle of the night in a small North Carolina town. That arrest ended a five year manhunt for the Olympic Park Bomber, Eric Rudolph, and changed Postell’s life in an instant. In this season finale, we track him down to find out what happened to the soft-spoken North Carolinian who brought in a notorious fugitive.
Jeremy Markovich: producer, mixer, host
James Mieczkowski: producer
Elizabeth Hudson: editor-in-chief
Music in this episode:
- “Bright Direction (You’re A Dark Star Now)” by Hiss Golden Messenger
Special Thanks to Matthew Yates, Katie Killen, Bill Evans and the Boston College Police Department, and Charles Winokoor of the Taunton Daily Gazette.
Some archival audio courtesy of WLOS-TV.
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Photo by Reuters.
Jeremy Markovich: This is the season finale of Away Message, and so far, every episode that’s come before this one has had at least one thing in common. Every episode, in some way, is about North Carolina, about what it means to live here or to be a North Carolinian, about the things you know and don’t know about this state. This episode is no different. But…
Markovich: For this story, I didn’t drive off to some far-flung corner of North Carolina. I had to drive to the airport, get on a plane, and fly to Boston.
PA Announcement: Welcome to Boston’s Logan Airport. The local time is 10:39 and on-time arrival.
Markovich: Out on the curb, I found the car that had been sent for me, a police car.
Driver: Nice day here for you.
Markovich: Oh, my goodness, yeah.
Markovich: I rode in the front seat.
Driver: We had the Southern air yesterday.
Markovich: Oh, yeah?
Markovich: From the airport, we head west on Interstate 90, through downtown, then past Fenway Park along the Charles River, and wind our way out to Chestnut Hill until we arrive at our destination, Boston College. It’s there that I meet the man that I’d come all this way to see, Jeff Postell.
Lt. Jeff Postell: Hi, Jeremy.
Markovich: Hey. How are you?
Postell: How are you? Welcome.
Markovich: And his coworkers are like, “Who’s this guy with the microphone?”
Markovich: What do you know? Come back.
Coworker: Not much.
Coworker: Are you going to pay me?
Markovich: No! That’s not how it works.
Coworker: That’s how it works in my life.
Markovich: Now, four things you should know about Jeff, right off the bat.
Postell: My name is Jeff Postell.
Postell: I am a police officer.
Markovich: He’s lieutenant with the Boston College Police Department, where he’s in charge of the patrol officers on campus.
Officer 1: I can add color to this story of Jeffrey.
Markovich: Oh, yeah?
Officer 1: I got to fill in some blanks.
Markovich: And those officers just love to give him a hard time.
Officer 1: What’s some questions that you need answered about Jeffrey?
Markovich: Just… Who is he? Do you like him? Do you not like him?
Officer 1: Do I like Jeffrey?
Officer 1: Of course I like Jeffrey.
Officer 1: Jeffrey’s a good guy. He’s…
Markovich: Now give me the dirt.
Officer 1: You want dirt?
Markovich: Two, Jeff is not from around here.
Postell: I love telling people I’m from North Carolina, and I get the opportunity up here to tell a lot of that.
Markovich: He’s 38 now, but he spent most of his life in North Carolina. Now, there are some small clues in his office, like the Andy Griffith Show pictures on his wall. But the biggest clue…
Postell: My mom always said I was country as cornbread.
Markovich: … is the way he talks.
Postell: And I am. I’m country.
Markovich: That brings us to number three.
Postell: I’ll never forget my little old mother.
Markovich: Jeff talks about his mom.
Postell: My mom always said you can attract more flies with honey than you can with soured milk.
Markovich: A lot.
Postell: My mom, she was something else.
Markovich: And number four… When Jeff was 21, still living in a small town in Western North Carolina, he did something pretty remarkable. A thing that made national headlines, a thing that I came all the way here to ask him about, and a thing that he doesn’t really bring up a whole lot.
Postell: I never, ever really liked talking about it.
Markovich: In fact…
Postell: I didn’t want it to make it seem like I was bigger or better or badder than anyone else.
Markovich: … to get an idea of how much he doesn’t talk about it…
Postell: I’m just an average person.
Markovich: … I talked to this guy.
Bill Evans: Bill Evans.
Markovich: Jeff’s boss…
Evans: I was Commissioner of the Boston Police Department for almost five years.
Markovich: … who himself has quite the backstory.
Evans: Totally on the Boston Police Department for 38 years.
Markovich: Evans is also a hardcore runner, and he’s finished the Boston Marathon 21 times. In fact, he was on the course in 2013 when a bomb went off at the finish line.
Reporter 1: You see the scene right there, explosions right by the finish line.
Markovich: After that, Evans organized a massive search for the bombers, one of the most intense manhunts in American history. Five days afterward…
Reporter 2: The hunt is over. The search is done.
Markovich: … he was the first on the scene when that manhunt ended, when officers cornered and got into a shootout with the brothers who had planted the bomb.
Reporter 2: And the FBI and the Boston Police have captured him.
Markovich: Evans went on to become Boston’s Police Chief, but about a year ago, he took a new job running Boston College’s Police Department.
Markovich: How did you meet Jeff?
Evans: Well, when I came here, Jeff was more than welcoming. Couldn’t understand, with that accent, what a guy like that’s doing in Boston. You know, people always say I talk funny, having the city accent. But when I heard him, I was like, “Holy Jesus, what’s he doing here in our city with that Carolinan accent?” Believe it or not, so… But we got to be good friends, and he does a great job.
Markovich: How did you learn about his background?
Evans: Probably wasn’t until a week into it. Someone said to me, “You know, he’s the guy who captured Eric Rudolph.” I says, “You got to be kidding me.”
Reporter 3: It was one of the largest searches of its kind. Where was Eric Robert Rudolph?
Markovich: Eric Rudolph, one of our country’s most notorious criminals, the man who’d set off a bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta…
Pres. Clinton: The bombing at Centennial Olympic Park this morning was an evil act of terror.
Markovich: … and then more across the South.
Pres. Clinton: We will spare no effort to find out who was responsible for this murderous act. We will track them down. We will bring them to justice. We will see that they are punished.
Markovich: Eric Rudolph, the man who’d been on the run for half a decade…
Reporter 4: Federal investigators have been hunting for Eric Rudolph for four years now.
Reporter 3: Search teams comb the mountains of North Carolina looking for any sign that Rudolph was there.
Markovich: … the man who some people thought might never be caught.
Resident: He can live up there forever.
Markovich: And then…
Reporter 5: Again, the FBI now confirms that one of its 10 Most Wanted, fugitive bombing suspect Eric Rudolph, is under arrest.
Reporter 3: One of the FBI’s Most Wanted, now no longer on the run.
Markovich: Jeff? Jeff is the guy who captured him.
Evans: And I said to him, I said, “I didn’t know you did that.” He said, “Oh, yeah.” You know, here’s two guys who didn’t know each other, who are in the office adjacent to each other, yet who played a role in the capture of two real villains out there.
Markovich: I just want to stop here and repeat that. The two men who are responsible for ending maybe the two biggest and highest-profile manhunts in modern American history… they just happen, totally out of coincidence, to end up with offices next to each other, at the same college police department in Boston. I did not know that before I came here. In fact, the whole reason why I jumped on a plane and flew up to Boston was because there were a lot of things that I didn’t know about Jeff. Which is pretty remarkable, because the story that Jeff was involved in doesn’t ever seem to go away.
Speaker 17: There is a bomb in Centennial Park.
Markovich: It shows up on crime shows all the time.
Speaker 18: Boom! We have a mad bomber out there.
Markovich: And in about a month’s time…
Jon Hamm: I want you to say into this phone, “There’s a bomb in Centennial Park. You have 30 minutes.”
Markovich: … Clint Eastwood is releasing a feature film about the man who was wrongfully accused of having planted the bomb, Richard Jewell.
Speaker 20: Move away from the tower! Come on!
Markovich: Every time the story is told, Jeff Postell is depicted as sort of a minor character, if he is depicted at all. He is relegated to a few moments of screen time, or maybe a paragraph if he’s lucky. The story is almost always the same, and it goes like this.
Reporter 6: Rookie officer Jeff Postell was on a routine patrol at the Save-A-Lot when he arrested Rudolph.
Reporter 7: Rudolph is captured and arrested in North Carolina by a rookie 21-year-old police officer.
Speaker 23: … by a local rookie police officer…
Speaker 24: It was a young rookie officer, Jeff Postell.
Speaker 25: Eventually, he was finally arrested by a rookie policeman in Murphy, North Carolina.
Markovich: For the most part, after the capture, after the initial headlines… Jeff Postell sort of falls off the radar and exists really as an amusing plot point in a much bigger story. I wanted to know, what’s it like to be that guy, the guy who’s responsible for the conclusion of a story that gripped an entire country for years? Whatever happened to that skinny, soft-spoken 21-year-old from Western North Carolina who captured a notorious fugitive? What did that sudden fame do to him, to his career, to his life?
Markovich: Could you have foreseen something like that happening to you 10 months into the job?
Postell: That, no. Something that would change the course of my career, yes.
Markovich: And so, in this season finale, we are bringing you the story of a man whose full story really hasn’t been told. It’s the story of a man who always wanted to be a police officer, a man who loved his mother more than anything in this world, a man who left the state and the place he loves and set out to find a new beginning… and a man who remembers exactly what it was like when he’d just made an arrest that would put his career and his life on a different path.
Postell: I immediately called my mom. I woke her up and I said, “Mom.” I said, “I can’t tell you what’s going on right now.” I said, “But I am okay. I am safe. I am not hurt. But I’m not going to be home anytime soon.” And automatically, mother instincts pops in. “Oh, my God, are you okay?” I said, “Mom, I need you to just turn the news on. Just stay on the news and you’ll see.”
Markovich: From Our State Magazine, this is Away Message, a podcast about what you find in hard-to-find places. I’m Jeremy Markovich.
Markovich: Not long after I arrive, Jeff and I hop in his cruiser and drive around Boston College’s campus.
Postell: And then you come up and to the Gasson Hall, and it’s just an absolute beautiful, beautiful building.
Markovich: Not to sell it short, but yeah, it does kind of look like… a little Duke-y. You know? Looks kind of like it would be on… Something out of Duke’s campus.
Postell: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Markovich: It’s its own thing, though.
Postell: It is its own thing. We don’t compare ourselves to Duke.
Markovich: Jeff doesn’t get in the cruiser much these days, since he’s a supervisor. But I get a sense of what being a police officer is like here. Jeff checks on my door alarm. There’s a parking issue. At one point, he kicks on the siren.
Markovich: What’s going on?
Postell: An elderly female has taken a fall up here on the ground.
Markovich: She ended up being okay. It’s nothing like you see on Cops, and that’s fine by Jeff.
Postell: To me, to be a good police officer, to enjoy my job, wasn’t to go on the high adrenaline pumping calls or the dangerous calls. To me, it was about being visible and about being a presence in the community.
Markovich: That was the job that Jeff has wanted to do pretty much since he was born.
Postell: In fact, I laugh and say I think my first words was “po-po,” because I have never wanted to do anything other than be a police officer. I was born and raised in Andrews, North Carolina, which is over in the western part of the state, out in the Cherokee County, which is the very furthest point of North Carolina you can go into the west around the North Carolina/Georgia/Tennessee border. It was a small community. Wasn’t necessarily the size of Mayberry, but it was very rural. Everyone knew everybody.
Markovich: This whole time that Jeff is coming of age, he’s seeing a really optimistic version of what it means to be a police officer, from television…
Postell: I grew up watching CHiPs. I grew up watching Lady Blue. I grew up watching Starsky & Hutch. I grew up watching Adam 12. I actually grew up watching Car 54, Where Are You?
Markovich: … and from real life.
Postell: One thing about living in a small town is, you know the people. I knew the police. I knew the police officers. My family knew the police officers. My pastor growing up was a police officer.
Markovich: Jeff has, by his account, a pretty normal childhood. But as he becomes a teenager, he realizes that something doesn’t quite add up.
Postell: I kind of had thought that my parents were a little different, because they were both significantly older than my friends’ parents.
Markovich: One day, he’s poking around the house.
Postell: I was prowling through some drawers and found some paperwork, began reading it and putting two and two together.
Markovich: What he found were his own adoption papers. The people he thought were his parents were actually his grandparents.
Postell: I had the knee-jerk of kind of feeling like I was not loved. I was dirty. I wasn’t wanted. I felt betrayed. I felt like I was let down, and I felt like I might have let down my parents. I felt like I didn’t know these people now, that had raised me as my mom and dad for 12 or 13 years.
Markovich: But pretty quickly, Jeff sees a silver lining.
Postell: For folks to give birth to their child, you kind of get what you get. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but you’re kind of stuck with it. I got chosen. My grandparents saw something in me. They wanted to keep me. They wanted to keep me in the family. They wanted that to happen because they wanted me to sur… It’s no discredit to my parents. But I’m where I’m at today because of that. I value that my biological parents, if you will, were reasonable enough to recognize that at their age. They were younger and just not ready.
Markovich: And so, the people that Jeff has called his mom and dad for his entire life… he still calls them his mom and dad. They both decide that they do not want Jeff to go into law enforcement.
Postell: I believe being a law enforcement officer is a calling. I’ll tell you right now, my mom and dad, more so my mom, never wanted me to be a police officer. Hated the fact that I wanted to be a police officer, because of the dangers that are associated with it.
Markovich: While he’s in high school, something really big happens a few hours south of his hometown.
Reporter 8: An explosion rocked through the city of Atlanta at approximately 1:20 AM Eastern Time on Saturday morning.
Reporter 9: An act of terror in Atlanta early this morning during a concert in the Centennial Olympic Park.
Reporter 10: 110 people have been injured. Two have been killed.
Pres. Clinton: It was aimed at the innocent people who were participating in the Olympic Games.
Swecker: Between 1996 and 1998, Eric Rudolph had conducted a series of bombings in Georgia and Alabama.
Markovich: This is Chris Swecker.
Swecker: Back in the day, I was the special agent in charge of the North Carolina FBI operations.
Markovich: How did this manhunt start?
Swecker: Well, it started when a bombing took place in Birmingham, Alabama, at an abortion clinic. I think this was his fourth bombing.
Markovich: Swecker says it’s at that bombing in Alabama where someone watches a man walking away from the blast and getting into a car with North Carolina license plates.
Swecker: Based on that information, he was identified as Eric Robert Rudolph.
Markovich: Not long after, police swarm Rudolph’s home in Cherokee County.
Swecker: Unfortunately, he had been watching TV when he got back to his house and saw that he had been identified and there was a manhunt for him. Law enforcement got there literally probably minutes after he fled.
Markovich: That began the longest, most intense manhunt in American history.
Swecker: Well, the initial manhunt was more like an occupation of Western North Carolina.
Reporter 13: This 550,000-acre area…
Speaker 33: The Nantahala National Forest…
Reporter 13: … is where FBI agents say Eric Rudolph has been hiding.
Swecker: I mean, there were literally hundreds of officers from all these different departments.
Speaker 35: I remember a time you couldn’t get a motel room in this town for two years.
Swecker: Camped out…
Speaker 37: There’s a job that we have to do.
Swecker: … walking the trail, searching the mountains…
Speaker 37: It’s our assignment and we have to carry it out until it’s over.
Swecker: … chasing down leads, of which there were very few…
Speaker 38: You’d have to have every troop in the US Army to search one acre apiece, and then you’d need 3,500 more additional troops just to cover that area.
Swecker: We put cameras up in the mountains on the trails. We hired people from the Cherokee Indian Reservation to walk the trails.
Reporter 13: It is dense and deceiving.
Swecker: You know, searching a mountain is a lot different from searching flat land. You’ve got a lot more square footage, a lot more acreage.
Reporter 13: On one side, a jagged rock wall goes straight up.
Swecker: There are caves. There are little crevices. There are hills and valleys.
Reporter 13: On the other side is a thick gray tangle of tree limbs.
Swecker: There’s extremely dense underbrush. Even a small animal has trouble fitting into some of these rhododendron thickets.
Bill Hughes: So the manhunt went on, and they brought tracking dogs in from Georgia. They looked for him for about a total of five years.
Markovich: That is Bill Hughes.
Hughes: Mayor of the town of Murphy for 20 years, Police Commissioner during that time for 10 years. Now you know as much about me as I do.
Markovich: Bill says, as the five-year search went on, people started looking at his corner of North Carolina and stories started to emerge.
Reporter 13: The worst fears of law enforcement agents were realized when they say Rudolph became a local folk hero for a time.
Hughes: That is totally and completely false. Everyone in this area was hoping for his capture very soon, because they knew who he was, he had killed twice before and they knew he was quite capable of killing again. So he was looked upon as one to be feared.
Markovich: But even so…
Swecker: It really was a fugitive hunt or manhunt with very few leads.
Reporter 13: The search began with more than 200 agents and has dwindled to a handful.
Hughes: This was over a period of five years that they were actually looking for him.
Markovich: Did anybody really think that he was going to be found after all that time?
Swecker: Well, our agents knew he would be found. The analysis that came out of our Behavioral Science Unit was, this guy is going to stay close to home. He is going to stay with what he’s familiar. This is where he’s established his hiding places. He is still up there somewhere.
Postell: I was still in high school when the bombings happened in 1996. I remember, I was working at McDonald’s in Andrews when the federal investigators and everyone swarmed the city and set up a command post. So I remember all that.
Markovich: Jeff Postell sees all of this in a glass-half-full sort of way. He knows he wants to be a police officer, and just out of the blue, he gets a front-row seat to a very big, very intense manhunt.
Postell: For a young kid like me that was interested in law enforcement, it was a pretty cool thing to see.
Markovich: At age 20, he goes to the Police Academy at Southwestern Community College, graduates in April of 2002, and lands his first official police job… which he can’t actually start for three months because he’s not 21 yet.
Postell: I wasn’t sworn in with the Murphy Police Department until I was… I think it was July the 8th.
Markovich: What was it like to get that job?
Postell: I wanted it. I wanted a taste of it. I wanted it so bad. Because it’s all I ever wanted to do, and there was nothing else that I had any interest in.
Markovich: But Jeff’s dad doesn’t see him sworn in. He died about a year before in 2001. Even though Jeff is now in the police force, he’s still living at home with his mom. Plus, he’s working the overnight shift. Sometimes he’s the only police officer on duty in Murphy, a sleepy little place with only about 1,600 people, the westernmost town in North Carolina.
Postell: I’m not ashamed to say, but I hated those hours. It just tears on you. I hated it. 4:00 was my witching hour. You don’t want to be around me.
Markovich: Finally, one day, Jeff has had enough.
Postell: I walked into the Chief of Police Office and I said, “Chief, you got to get me off the third shift. Nothing ever happens. I can’t take it no more. I’m going crazy. Nothing happens.” I was in the process of being moved off the third shift and being brought onto the second shift so I could get more involved and active and engaged.
Markovich: But Jeff still has to work the overnight shift over Memorial Day weekend, 2003.
Postell: It was any other night. It was going into a Saturday… It was a Friday and a Saturday, so it was on a Saturday morning. Again, we typically work… dealing with, as I call them, the normal downtown cruisers that we dealt with every weekend. I’m trying to recall if I’d even had dinner that night. On the midnights, I’d usually go down to the Waffle King or stop by the 24-hour gas station down Highway 64 at some point. But I know that it was pretty much any other average night.
Markovich: At 2:00 AM on May 31st, 2003, the only other officer on duty in Murphy clocks out.
Postell: After 2:00, I would always kind of sneak off to the other parts of the city and just make some checks, go through some neighborhoods, be visible in some of the areas.
Markovich: 2:30 rolls past, then 3:00 AM. At 3:30, he heads out toward the northeast edge of town.
Postell: I went into the Valley Village Shopping Center, which was a shopping center there that had Save-A-Lot grocery stores. It had Family Dollar in it. It had a couple other shops and stores in it. I remember cutting across the parking lot, around 3:30 in the morning. As I pulled into the parking lot off of Old Andrews Road, I turned off my headlights and proceeded in around the left side of the building. As I turned the left side of the building, I activated my right alley light on my police car, which was a spotlight on the light bar that shined off to the right, so it would hit the rear of the building as I went by to illuminate that area. As I turn the corner of the shopping center there, I observed an individual that was kind of crouched down in the middle of the road and behind the building. He was wearing heavy clothing, looked to be a camouflage jacket. At the time I saw him, I startled him and he ran.
Postell: As he was running, I noticed that the individual had a very large object in his possession. It appeared to be dark in color, and it appeared to be a long gun, some sort of a weapon, a long gun. Not knowing exactly what it was, I immediately radioed dispatch and said I potentially had an individual, a B&E in progress, and I was at gunpoint with a man. He had ran to the rear of the building. There was a stack of milk crates that were on the loading dock, and he had concealed himself behind that. I had exited my patrol car, took cover behind my driver’s door, and began giving commands to the individual to come out. He eventually emerged from behind the milk crates, came off the loading dock with his hands up, and I had him on the ground.
Markovich: Do you remember exactly what you said to him?
Postell: The definite tone of voice was to… “Show me your hands. Come out with your hands up.” I certainly… The tone of my voice was a tone of… authoritative, as well as fear. I would be lying to say if I wasn’t scared. I’d been on the force 10 months. I began to approach him, as I could hear sirens in the background coming. I didn’t know where my backup was coming from, but I knew that I had called for help and that they could tell in my voice that I was in a serious situation.
Markovich: The other officers arrive, and they get the man in handcuffs. It’s only then that Jeff starts to get a good look at him.
Postell: I had already began a field interview with him, pat-frisking him down for safety, discovered that what I’d thought to be a long gun was actually a large, black Maglite. You know, very much similar to what the troopers would carry, very long. It was slung over his body with a homemade sling. He was carrying it as if it looked like a short-barreled long gun. He certainly appeared to be disheveled, appeared to be as living out… not necessarily in the element for a long period of time, but you could tell he was certainly not coming from a residence. He wasn’t clean-shaven.
Markovich: The officers ask for ID. The man says he’s homeless and doesn’t have any. They ask for a name and date of birth, but when Jeff runs them through a criminal database, nothing comes up.
Postell: He made a comment that “I don’t have a Social Security number.” He quickly recanted his statement and said, “Well, I haven’t had a need for one in some time.” That was another one of those red flags that said, “You know what? I’m going to take him in.” I can still, to this day, remember him sitting in the back of my police car, and me viewing him through my rear-view mirror, and him having just a death stare at me. Just seeing his eyes, he had the coldest eyes.
Markovich: They get to the jail, and Jeff and the other guys are like, “Wait a minute.”
Postell: The deputy says, “You know, he’s got a real uncanny resemblance of Eric Rudolph.” Here I am, a 21-year-old rookie police officer, working by myself in Murphy, North Carolina. Even though it’s in the area that the manhunt had occurred, I sat there thinking to myself, “There’s no way that this is who that is.” Funny thing enough, I asked, when we got to the jail, “Do we have an FBI wanted poster or anything on Rudolph?” And we couldn’t find one. So I went on the FBI’s website, and I pulled up his FBI wanted poster. As I’m sitting there reading these things, you know, “Okay. Brown hair, check. Blue eyes, check. Receding hairline, check. Attached earlobes… Hmm, check. Scar on the chin…”
Postell: And then I sat back in my chair and I looked across the hall. He was sitting, still handcuffed, with his hands behind his back. His head was leaned back in the chair and he was staring at the ceiling. The scar on his chin was staring right smack-dab at me. That’s when I started getting… And to this point, I get a little fidgety with it. That’s when I started saying, “Um, we may have something here.”
Postell: I remember Officer Bandy from the TV police take the FBI wanted poster and hold it up to his face. We all sat there and looked at it, as I’m doing right now with you. Now, he had no idea what we were doing. He had no idea what was on this paper. But we have it behind him so we can kind of look at both. I can remember having it asked, of saying, “Tell us who you are.” He responded by saying, “Well, what does the paper say?” We said, “Well, that’s not what we asked. Tell us who you are.” With a little snicker, he looked up and says, “I’m Eric Robert Rudolph, and you’ve got me.”
Postell: Immediately, my knees knocked. My knees knocked so hard I about answered them. I said, “Oh, boy. Oh, boy. This is big.” I’ll never forget how he said it. It was in the most coldest, coldest way of saying it, when he said, “I’m Eric Robert Rudolph and you’ve got me.” I can remember backing out of the room and going into the office again, and getting on the phone and calling the chief of police. I can actually remember the chief saying… You know, calling him up, and I said, “Chief, I think you might need to come in for this.” He thought I was joking. He thought I was being funny at 3:30 in the morning, 4:00 in the morning, waking him up. I said, “Chief, I think I’ve got Eric Rudolph here and you need to come in.”
Postell: When he realized that I wasn’t laughing or having a fun time telling him this, he realized I was being serious. Once I got off the phone with him, I immediately called my mom. I woke her up. I said, “Mom, I can’t tell you what’s going on right now.” I said, “But I am okay. I am safe. I am not hurt. But I’m not going to be home anytime soon.” And automatically, mother instincts pops in. “Oh, my God. Are you okay?” I said, “Mom, I need you to just turn the news on. Just stay on the news and you’ll see.”
Markovich: Coming up, the moment when the world learns about Jeff Postell, and the moment that Jeff learns about what he’s meant to be. That part of the story, when Away Message continues.
Reporter 5: This is a CBS News Special Report. The FBI now confirms that one of its 10 Most Wanted, fugitive bombing suspect Eric Rudolph, is under arrest.
Swecker: One morning, I got a call that they thought they had him.
Markovich: This is Chris Swecker again, the FBI agent in charge of the search for Eric Rudolph.
Swecker: He was caught basically dumpster diving by a young officer with the Murphy Police Department.
Hughes: The chief told me, “Mayor, we arrested Eric Rudolph last night.”
Markovich: That’s Bill Hughes, who was mayor of Murphy at the time.
Hughes: And I said BS, except I said the words. He said, “No, for sure, we’ve got him. Jeff caught him dumpster diving.” I said, “You got to be kidding.” He said, “No. He’s in jail now.”
Swecker: So I got in my car, and I got from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Murphy in about two and a half hours, which is warp speed.
Hughes: The FBI had guards with machine guns on top of most of the tall buildings here in town. You could walk under the buildings, look up, see a gun barrel sticking over it. That was something to which we were unaccustomed, but…
Markovich: So the sun comes up the next day, and… what happens?
Postell: Well, I looked like crap for one.
Markovich: Jeff has a few minutes to run home, freshen up, and head back to work for what’s going to be a long day.
Markovich: Did your mom know yet what you had done?
Postell: I think there was initial reports hitting the CNN and all the news stations, that there was some breaking news. But there was not a whole lot on release. I was able to just very briefly tell her, she just needed to keep watching TV. Mom got mad. Boy, she was mad. I said, “It wasn’t my place to tell you.” But she got mad at me for a little while. She got over it.
Markovich: By the time Jeff gets back to Murphy, there are dozens of reporters, cameramen, and satellite trucks parked downtown. The FBI is there, Eric Rudolph is being questioned, and inside the police department, everybody’s trying to figure out what they can tell to all of the reporters outside.
Swecker: We all gathered in a room, and Officer Postell was waiting outside. We said… You know, we established what we were going to do.
Markovich: And they decide they’re going to let Jeff talk.
Postell: I remember them saying, “They’re going to want to ask you some questions.” I said, “Oh, boy. Here it goes.” I can remember sweating like nobody’s business. When you walked into that press conference…
Postell (2003): How you doing? How are you?
Postell: … there was so many people, so many cameras, and so many lights that I thought I was going to get a sunburn.
Postell (2003): I was under the impression I had a potential breaking and entering.
Postell: I had never been thrown in front of cameras or anything like that before.
Swecker: He was not a talker. He said very little at the press conference, very unassuming. He basically said, “I was just doing my job.”
Postell (2003): It’s just in a day’s work. I don’t really deserve any credit.
Swecker: It was bedlam chaos and he did a fantastic job.
Postell: Leaving that press conference, I didn’t realize what was going to come after that. Naïve me thought, “I did it. It’s over.” That was just the beginning.
Reporter 6: Rookie officer Jeff Postell was on a routine patrol at the Save-A-Lot when he arrested Rudolph, but had no idea he’d captured one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted until his backup arrived.
Swecker: The primary story was Officer Postell.
Reporter 13: A rookie cop with less than a year on the job, just a 21-year-old local boy raised by his grandmother, suddenly thrust into the international spotlight.
Swecker: I mean, he was the story. Here’s a young officer, captures the most wanted fugitive and probably one of the most extensive manhunts short of Patty Hearst.
Reporter 13: Now months later, the hype still has not died down.
Postel (2003)l: I get it everywhere I go. Whether I go… You know, if I’m on duty, whether I’m out with family, people recognize me. They come up, they shake my hands. I’ve received a large, enormous amount of fan mail.
Swecker: He was exactly what they were looking for.
Postell: At one point, we ended up not talking so much about the actual incident itself and more in terms of who I am as the person. Because we didn’t want to jeopardize the investigation.
Hughes: He was just walking public relations for the police department.
Markovich: How’s that?
Hughes: Everybody liked and respected him.
Reporter 13: Postell has become a poster boy for local police across the country…
Postell (2003): I catch a lot of stuff for being a young officer.
Reporter 13: … though he says he doesn’t deserve that recognition, or the $1,000,000 the FBI promised to the person who caught the fugitive.
Postell (2003): From day one, the $1,000,000 was something that was not a priority of mine and that… It was something that I didn’t feel that I needed or deserved.
Hughes: I felt like he certainly deserved it, but through one legal maneuver, another legal maneuver, this, that, the other, being on duty, being paid… All that played into it and he didn’t get it. I always felt he was very short-changed on that. But it didn’t bother him. He told me, he said, “Mayor, that doesn’t bother me one bit.” He said, “I’ve never been rich, so you never miss something you never had.”
Postell: It had a impact on my work. I actually couldn’t work the road for a few weeks, because everywhere I’d go, I couldn’t get away from the cameras. I couldn’t get away from people. I had people actually want me to write them tickets, just so they’d have my autograph.
Hughes: We stopped at Asheville coming back from Raleigh to have dinner. All the little waitresses… One said, “There’s Officer Jeff Postell.” We looked around, and all the little waitresses were behind a table. There they had squatted down. They were looking over the top of the table. Jeff looked down and said, “Well, come on out.” [inaudible 00:37:18] came back, and they wanted to hug him and get his autograph and all that. Of course Jeff was just absolutely delighted. Incidentally, after that, he was voted one of America’s most eligible bachelors.
Markovich: You’re in People Magazine, being listed as one of 2003’s 25 hottest bachelors. Which is on your desk, which you were just rolling your eyes at right now. Because you’re there, there’s Ashton Kutcher and Prince William, and then there’s you. You’re flipping through there now… I actually haven’t seen the picture, but we’ll… Okay, now you got to do it.
Markovich: Oh, look at you. That smoky look there, like looking off camera.
Postell: Yeah. Apparently it was a slow news day when they selected me for this. It was challenging. I mean, I was a 21-year-old police officer. I wasn’t a 21-year-old celebrity. I wasn’t a 21-year-old movie star, wasn’t a 21-year-old baseball or football player. I was a 21-year-old police officer. Now I’m… for lack of a better word, somewhat of a celebrity, and I just never saw myself as a celebrity.
Markovich: But there was one part of the story that did get underneath his skin a little bit. In some accounts, he was portrayed as lucky, as if any officer who would have been on patrol that night would’ve caught Eric Rudolph.
Postell: It was nothing about luck. It was about being in the right place at the right time. It was being vigilant and being visible and working through the incident.
Markovich: When you say, “I was just doing my job,” or, “I was doing my job and I caught him,” how would you describe that phrase when you say it about this case?
Postell: Well, exactly the way it sounds. Going back to my field training officer, Mitch Boudreau,and one of the things he always taught me was to change up my patterns and not set a… not get into a standard pattern. Because that’s what will get you hurt and killed in this line of work, is if you have a pattern. You become complacent. What he meant by that was, do your job differently every night. Don’t do the same thing every night. Don’t go check the same building at the same time in the same manner every night. Change it up. Because people watch the movements of the police, especially if they’re doing something where they don’t want to get caught.
Markovich: It turns out that Rudolph had been watching the movements of the Murphy police very closely.
Postell: He had mapped out for months, if not maybe the past year or so, a pattern that the police officers would check that building. Over the last 10 months, he couldn’t keep track of the patrols that would come through there. He actually said this in his report. He could not put a pinpoint on when a patrol car was going to come through there, over the last 10 months to a year that I had been on the force. Because I didn’t have a pattern. I had almost caught him once before. Had it happened that night, he had a gun, and it could have ended differently. And so chance favors the prepared mind. Training pays off. That’s what the success of this was from.
Markovich: Eventually the media’s attention shifts back to Rudolph, who, in 2005, pleads guilty and is sent to a maximum security prison for life.
Reporter 13: With this chapter behind him, Postell looks forward. He has aspirations to join the FBI or become a police chief one day.
Postell (2005): You know, I’m on my way to a good start.
Reporter 13: Now Officer Jeff Postell’s name is tied forever to a fugitive.
Markovich: That is where the story of Eric Rudolph ends, but Jeff Postell’s story, it goes on. That’s the story that put me on a plane to Boston, because really, Jeff could have chosen a different path. He could’ve decided to lean into his fame. Instead, life calls him somewhere new, to a new job and to a new calling in a place that he now calls home, Taunton, Massachusetts. It’s a small town, an hour and a half south of Boston, a town 1,000 miles away from Murphy. That’s really why I came. I wanted to know how he got from there to here.
Postell: I realized that I needed to kind of expand myself. I needed to grow. I needed to develop more of myself. I needed to become who I am as a person, and follow my interest and follow where I could be who I wanted to be, do what I wanted to do. My cousin was living up in Massachusetts, and he said, “Why don’t you come up and visit?” So I say, “Oh, it wouldn’t hurt. I’ll come up and visit.” I hadn’t seen him in a while, so I came up and visited. Fell in love with the area. Met a very special person up here. And I said, “You know what? I’m at a unique point in my life, where I need to think about my future and what makes me happy.” So I moved up to Massachusetts. I became a Boston College police officer in December of 2009, and I’ve been at Boston College since. I was able to finally be happy with who I am as a person, and not have to hide who I am as a person and be worried about who I am as a person.
Postell: When I came up and vacationed, I was able to meet a… Well, he was a young fellow. Not no more, he’s old. He and I both are old. We hit it off. It’s somebody that I decided I want to spend my life with. It’s just like if it’s any other relationship. Since ’08, we’ve had our family. We have been a family. And you know what? When Mom came up here in ’09, she had no clue. Well, she had a clue. She didn’t have a clue. And we finally told her. It was a little bit of a shock at first for her, little bit of a shock. She quickly got over it and she loved him like a son. I have served as an LGBT liaison for this department to the LGBT community here for several years. But I have sat down with several individuals, young people, and said, “Listen. If a little 70-year-old woman from Western North Carolina can accept that fact of who her son is, then anybody can.”
Postell: I try not to get emotional. You never really ever stop caring about your parents, especially when you realize everything they did for you and they didn’t have to do it. The pride that they instilled in me and the values they instilled in me has led me to where I’m at. It’s led me to realize how important it is to give back to people and to give people a chance. That’s what led me to adopting my son. My son is 18. Strangely enough, my son was adopted when he was 13, at the same age that I found out that I was adopted. He was adopted in June of 2014, the year my mom passed. She did get to meet him, so that was kind of fun. They hit it off. Looking back, I think my mom was very proud that we were able to do what she was able to do for a individual who deserved to have a good life.
Markovich: Just spending time with you over the last couple days, it’s easy to see the outsize influence that she had in your life. Now that she is gone, how much of an influence does she have in the life of you and your family today, in the job that you are in today, the person that you are today?
Postell: Absolutely everything. Every bit of me. My mom worked full-time until she was 76, 77 years old. She had COPD. She had emphysema. She just couldn’t continue working that full-time. She did caretaking, she worked in the food services, she did everything she could to make ends meet. Finally she couldn’t do it anymore, and she had to swallow her pride and go ask for some help. And she got very little. Very little help. I then realized that there was a problem with our system, that the people that needed help aren’t getting help, that people that need a voice don’t have a voice. Like my mother. I said, “You know what? If she’s hurting like that, then there has to be other people.” And so I decided to run for office.
Markovich: There’s a City Council race going on in Taunton in 2017. Jeff puts his name in, along with 13 other candidates.
Postell: I’m not from Taunton. I wasn’t known in Taunton. I don’t sound like anybody from Taunton. But I hit the pavement. I try to represent everyone fair and equally and impartially, because that’s what they deserve. So I pounded the pavement, I met with people, I listened to people. And I worked hard. I worked my butt off. People up here think I have a real strong Southern accent. Like, I’ll say “reckon.” You know, “I reckon I’ll do this.” Or I’ll say “y’all,” or “I’m going to go home and fix dinner.” “Fix dinner” is one of those. And they’ll look at me cross-eyed and say, “Is it broke?” That’s a way that I utilize being a North Carolinian up here. It’s a icebreaker, because people want to know where you’re from. You’re able to get the conversation started, and then you start getting more conversation. Once people up here start feeling comfortable, talk to you, they can kind of relate. [inaudible 00:48:39], they talk.
Markovich: That brings us to election night, 2017.
Postell: When the votes were counted on that night, the unthinkable and the unimaginable happened. An outsider… young fellow that grew up and was raised in North Carolina, had no connections to the city of Taunton, talked funny to their standards… came in first place out of a field of 14 candidates, none of which were incumbents. I was elected City Councilor in 2017. I’ll never forget the feeling. Very much similar to the night that Eric Rudolph was arrested. I removed myself from the excitement. I sat down, began reflecting and preparing myself for what was going to come.
Markovich: I watched Jeff at a City Council meeting on a Tuesday night in Taunton. He was thorough, thoughtful. He talked to almost everybody that showed up. Shook hands, smiled, listened. When I saw a local reporter hanging around, I asked him a question. Did Jeff ever use the Rudolph case to his advantage during the campaign?
Charles Winokoor: I don’t believe so, and I don’t think he tried to exploit that. When I met him for the first time, I asked him about his background, and he described that to me, the Olympic bombing case and how… I believe he made the arrest. That’s how I found out about it, but I don’t think he was trying to use that to gain any popularity.
Postell: I don’t like talking about the Rudolph case unless it’s something like this, because I don’t feel like I did anything special. I was just doing what I supposed to be out there doing. I don’t believe it defines who I am as a person, and I don’t believe it defines what I would have accomplished in my career or in my life. Had it been someone else, my hope would have been that they would have remained as humble as I was and still am, and not forgotten who they are as a person, as a professional, and maybe where they come from. I still stand by my comments that morning. Folks, I’m just doing what I was hired to do.
Markovich: Jeff made the arrest of a lifetime, 10 months after he became a police officer. He could have spent the rest of his life being the guy who caught Eric Rudolph. Instead, he’s just trying to be Jeff Postell.
Markovich: Away Message is a production of Our State Magazine, an employee-owned company that’s been celebrating North Carolina for more than 85 years. You can get $5 off a year’s subscription to the magazine. Just head over to OurState.com, click on Subscribe, and use the promo code AWAY to get $5 off a year’s subscription. Now, I know I’ve said this in every episode, but I mean it. It is our thank you for listening to this show, and I cannot thank you enough for your support, your emails, and everything you do just by listening. Without you, we could not do this.
Markovich: Special thanks to Matthew Yates, Katie Killen, Bill Evans and the Boston College Police Department, and Charles Winokoor of the Taunton Daily Gazette. Some of the archival audio you hear comes courtesy of WLOS-TV in Asheville. Our closing song this week is Bright Direction by Hiss Golden Messenger from Durham, which comes courtesy of Merge Records, also from Durham. A playlist of the North Carolina-based musicians we’ve featured over all three seasons is available at Away.OurState.com.
Markovich: A few quick notes about some of the names that I’ve said during the credits over this season. James Mieczkowski helps me produce these episodes. He has reported a few of them. He is talented. We argue about structure and plot points. He nitpicks things. He makes me go back and change things. He’s very mean. He’s not very mean. But he does make everything much better with each and every episode, and I cannot thank him enough. Elizabeth Hudson is our editor-in-chief, and she has gone from not really knowing much about podcasts to being one of our biggest supporters and advocates. And Todd Dulaney, the managing editor here at Our State who I constantly annoy with my constant updates on things. But he’s an Ohioan, and so he’s a fellow traveler, and he gets me out of a lot of jams. Also, just a big thank you to everybody on staff here at Our State Magazine, and a big, big, big-big-big-big-big thank you to my wife Kelsey and my two kids, Charlie and Holly. Back when I started this, Holly was an infant, and Charlie was two and a half.
Markovich (2017): What else does Daddy use to go on a trip?
Charlie (2017): A granola bar.
Markovich (2017): A granola bar?
Charlie (2017): Granola bars, Dad.
Markovich: Now, Holly, how old are you?
Markovich: Charlie, how old are you?
Markovich: And, well, we still all like granola bars. What is a podcast?
Holly: I don’t know.
Markovich: I’m Jeremy Markovich, and that’s a wrap for season three, but do not worry. We will be back for season four next year, and we’ll head back out on the trail… literally, in a very big way.
Markovich: Okay, I guess this part counts.
Hiker: Yeah. Here we go, right?
Hiker: Well, I’m getting tired.
Markovich: Half mile in, 1,200 to go.
Markovich: What it takes to hike the mountains to Sea Trail, from one end of North Carolina to the other. Next season on Away Message.