April 14, 2005
Student revealed as unsung hero in Rudolph case
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Confessed serial bomber Eric Rudolph might still be on the loose without the quick thinking of a student who was praised Wednesday as the unsung, long-anonymous hero of the bombing investigation.
Jermaine J. Hughes, who was attending the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1998 when Rudolph detonated a deadly bomb outside a local abortion clinic, was lauded as the person who did the most to help authorities crack the 1996 Olympics bombing case and other blasts set off by Rudolph.
“If there was anyone in this who is a hero, it was him,” said Michael Whisonant, the lead federal prosecutor in the Birmingham bombing, which killed a police officer and critically injured a nurse.
In 1998, prosecutors said, Hughes was 20 years old and in a dormitory laundry room after a late night of studying when he heard a loud boom around 7:30 a.m. and looked out a ground-floor window toward the clinic.
Hughes, a Mobile native who had been a top student leader and physical fitness fanatic at Marion Military Institute in west Alabama, was intrigued by what he saw: A lone man walking away from a scene that everyone else was running toward.
Prosecutors said Hughes got in his car and followed Rudolph through a residential neighborhood, stopping at one point to feign engine trouble so he could get a closer look at the suspicious character, who appeared to either don or remove a disguise while fleeing.
Hughes eventually lost sight of the man, but he went to a McDonald’s restaurant to call police. There, he again saw Rudolph across the road and excitedly gave a description to police, drawing the attention of another previously unidentified witness, attorney Jeff Tickal.
Getting in separate cars, Hughes and the lawyer went in different directions in search of the man, who had disappeared into the woods.
U.S. Attorney Alice Martin said Tickal turned off a main street and saw a man standing behind a parked Nissan truck with the North Carolina license plate KND 1117. She said the attorney later identified the man as Rudolph after seeing a photo in the newspaper.
Tickal wrote down the license plate number on a coffee cup from McDonald’s and moments later saw the truck with Rudolph behind the wheel. Both Tickal and Hughes lost sight of the truck at an intersection, but the vehicle was later found in woods near Murphy, N.C. The license plate number led police to Rudolph.
Rudolph spent the next five-plus years on the run, ending with his capture near a grocery store trash bin in Murphy in 2003. He pleaded guilty in the clinic bombing, the Olympics blast and two others Wednesday in a plea bargain that will give him four life sentences.
While Rudolph’s defense attacked Hughes’ credibility in pretrial maneuvering, authorities described him and Tickal as almost perfect witnesses: cool-headed and not afraid to get involved.
“On that morning, they became a two-man neighborhood watch,” Martin said.
Hughes graduated from UAB in June 2000 with a psychology degree and now is attending law school elsewhere. Authorities protected his identity for years for fear someone might try to harm him while Rudolph was on the lam and awaiting trial.
Ron Machen, an attorney representing Hughes, said he had no comment on his client’s role in the investigation.
Tickal, who now practices law in a small Alabama town, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Authorities offered a $1 million reward for Rudolph’s capture, but Martin said no one has asked for the money.
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