Here's What Happened To The Rookie NC Officer Who Nabbed Bomber Eric Rudolph
On Dec. 13, the movie “Richard Jewell” will be released. It’s about the man who was wrongfully accused of setting off a bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. But the real bomber was a man named Eric Rudolph, and he was on the run in the mountains of North Carolina for five years before he was caught by a rookie police officer in the town of Murphy.
In 1996, when Eric Rudolph set off a bomb during the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Jeff Postell was still in high school in Andrews, North Carolina. He knew he wanted to be a police officer someday. But in 1998, when the search for Rudolph began and law enforcement officers swarmed the mountains around his town, Postell was still too young to be on the force.
"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, and so I remember all that," Postell said.
Skip ahead to 2003. Rudolph has been on the run for five years, and Postell is 10 months into his job as a police officer in Murphy, the westernmost town in North Carolina. He’s 21. He’s working the overnight shift, and he’s the only officer on duty. At 3:30 in the morning, he pulls into a parking lot behind a grocery store and he sees somebody.
"At the time I saw him, I startled him and he ran as he was running, I noticed that the individual had a very large object in his possession, and it appeared to be dark in color and it appeared to be a long gun," Postell said.
Postell corners the man behind a stack of milk crates, pulls his gun, and gets him on the ground. The thing he thought was a gun ends up being a flashlight. But something’s fishy. The man says he’s homeless, has no ID, and he says he doesn’t know his Social Security number. So, Postell decides to take the guy into custody to figure out what’s really going on.
"I can still to this day remember him sitting in the back of my police car and me viewing him through my rearview mirror and him having just a death stare at me and just seeing his eyes," Postell said. "He had the coldest eyes."
At the jail, another officer says that the man looks like Eric Rudolph. So, Postell pulls up a wanted poster on the FBI’s website.
"So as I'm sitting there reading these things, OK, you know: Brown hair — check. Blue eyes — check. Receding hairline — check. Attached earlobes — mmhmm, check," Postell said.
At this point, Postell and some other officers bring a wanted poster in. They put it next to the man’s face, and ask him who he really is.
"And with a little snicker he looked up and says, 'I'm Eric Robert Rudolph, and you've got me,'" Postell said. "Well, immediately, my knees knocked. My knees knocked so hard I about answered them. And I said, 'Oh, boy. Oh, boy. This is big.'"
By the morning, word gets out, and reporters want to talk to the man who caught Eric Rudolph.
Postell does not say much. At all, but he does tell reporters it was "all in a day's work" and that he didn't deserve any credit.
"I didn't realize what was gonna come after that," Postell said. "Naive me thought, well, you know, I did it — it's over. That was just the beginning."
But the news cycle continues, and Postell finds himself under an international spotlight.
"You know, 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," Postell said.
So, Postell gets fan mail. He gets interview requests. People magazine makes him one of its 25 hottest bachelors of 2003. He’s getting recognized everywhere-- which is a problem.
"I had people actually want me to write them tickets just to have my autograph," Postell said.
It takes a while, but finally, the attention dies down. In 2005, Rudolph is sentenced to life in prison.
Postell eventually moved on to Boston College, where he's been an officer since 2009.
He’s now a lieutenant, and head of the patrol officers on campus. His office is next to the chief’s office. That chief, Bill Evans, once led the search for the Boston Marathon bombers — meaning, the two men who ended two of the most intense manhunts in American history just happen — totally out of coincidence — to have offices next to each other.
And Evans says, Postell didn’t tell him about capturing Rudolph when Evans first became chief.
"Probably wasn’t until a week into it," Evans said. "Someone said to me, 'You know, he’s the guy who captured Eric Rudolph.' I says, 'You got to be kidding me.' And I said to him, I said, 'I didn’t know you did that.' He said, 'Oh, yeah.'"
So how did Postell end up there? Well, it all started when he came up to Massachusetts in 2008 to visit a cousin.
"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," Postell said. "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.'
"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."
And, they adopted a son, who’s 18 now. Postell himself was adopted by his grandparents, but he still refers to them as his mom and dad. And he says it was his late mother who inspired him to take on a new job.
"My mom worked full-time until she was 76, 77 years old," Postell said. "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."
Postell lives in Taunton, south of Boston, a town of about 55,000 people. And in 2017, he runs for City Council-- with 13 other candidates.
"So, I pounded the pavement," Postell said. "I met with people, I listened to people. And I worked hard. I worked my butt off."
And, on election night, Postell won.
"The unthinkable and the unimaginable happened," Postell said. "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."
Postell didn't use the Rudolph story to his advantage when he was campaigning.
"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," Postell said. "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."
Postell 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.
This story was adapted from an episode of Away Message, Our State magazine’s podcast about hard to find people, places, and things. You can listen to the full episode and hear more than 30 other stories from all around North Carolina at away.ourstate.com.