Eric Rudolph: Serial Bomber
Like most major cities, Atlanta has a large gay and lesbian population. There are 300,000 to 400,000 people in the city's gay community, according to Alan Thornell, executive director of Georgia Equality. "I think overall Atlanta is one of the better cities to live in for gay and lesbian people," Thornell said.
Craig Washington is executive director of the Atlanta Gay and Lesbian Center. He believes as Thornell does that the city is a good one for that community. "Overall there is a high level of acceptance," Washington said, "although there are still some conservative pockets within the city and some expression of homophobic attitudes." He says that the community's strengths are "our political clout, high visibility and the organizations and services that we have created within Atlanta within the past 20 years.."
Despite this growing acceptance, Atlanta suffered an apparent hate crime at one of its few lesbian nightclubs, the Otherside, located in midtown on Piedmont Road. A bomb went off on Friday, February 21, 1997 at about 9:50 p.m. It exploded close to the club's patio area. No one was killed, although five people were injured.
Jimmie Scott, Georgia Equality's director of political outreach for people of color, was bartending at the Otherside that night.
"I'd been working there for a month and a half," he recalled. "It was fairly well crowded. We heard this big boom ... we didn't know if a speaker had blown or someone got in a fight and got shot. Of course, we called 911 right away and security swung into action. It was one of those things that it seemed like the world stood still for a minute. At first, the police didn't want us to leave right away because they wanted to question folks. Then they figured out it was a bomb and they got us out immediately — swoosh!"
Police found a second bomb outside and were able to defuse it.
The co-owners of the Otherside, Bev McMahon and Dana Ford were at home watching TV when they got a distressed phone call from someone saying that either a transformer had exploded or someone had been shot at the lounge. Ford, who worked as the Otherside's general manager, rushed to the nightclub. Police officers on the scene told her that the problem was not an exploding transformer or even a shooting. It was a bomb.
Law enforcement officials investigating the bombing came to believe that the attack was connected both with the July 27, 1996, bombing at Centennial Olympic Park and the January 16, 1997, bombing at the Sandy Springs abortion clinic. Several factors linked the explosions. In all three, nails were used. In both the Olympic bombing and the Otherside attack, the bomb was left in a knapsack. In both the Sandy Springs abortion clinic attack and the Otherside attack, a second device was planted. Police thought the second bomb was specifically intended to harm the police and medical personnel who would arrive at the scene because of the first device.
This last feature caused Beverly McMahon to question whether the bombing was a hate crime against lesbians and gays. However, others in Atlanta's gay and lesbian community were immediately convinced that the Otherside bombing was directed against them. Lobbyist for the Georgia Equality Project Larry Pellegrini was one of those. "The location is well-known as a lesbian and gay bar," Pellegrini explained, "and this was not a drive-by crime, not an impulse crime. It was planned. We feel quite clearly that it was a hate crime."
Philip Rafshoon, owner of Outwrite Bookstore and Coffeehouse at Piedmont Avenue and 10th Street, said, "As gays and lesbians, you never know when someone is going to attack you. All of hate violence is shocking and indefensible. All people of conscience should be horrified. I expect the same level of denunciation of the perpetrators of this crime as the denunciations that came forward on the clinic bombing and the church burnings."
Shortly after the Otherside bombing, the lesbian and gay community of Atlanta held a rally at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and was organized by the Georgia Equality Project. More than 1,000 people, gay and straight, were there to show their support to the victims of the bombing. A man who lost his wife, Alice Hawthorne, to the Centennial Olympic Park bomb, attended, saying, "It's heartening to see the diversity we have here."
Both of the Otherside's co-owners were at the rally. The Otherside re-opened, and McMahon said nothing would have stopped her from it. "I would have opened if I'd had to have a tent," McMahon told the crowd who cheered in response. "We've got to stay strong and together."
Atlanta's then-mayor, Bill Campbell, also spoke to the crowd. "From this evil," he claimed, "good things will emerge. We will be more united than ever before."
On February 24, 1997, some news media outlets in Atlanta received letters claiming responsibility for the Otherside and Sandy Springs clinic bombings. Signed "Army of God," the writer railed against "sodomites." The writer included details about the bombs that led investigators to believe he was indeed involved in the attacks.
According to Crosby, the "Army of God" is "not a particular group but a generic umbrella that doesn't have a structure. It's a name used by a number of different people in different contexts."
Eventually McMahon and Ford decided to close the Otherside, largely because of difficulties that followed the attack. The total cost of the damage was almost $700,000. Insurance paid less than a third of it. There were also many lawsuits filed by patrons who had been at the Otherside on that fateful night. According to McMahon, all the lawsuits were eventually dismissed by the courts or decided in the club's favor, but the court battles inevitably sapped money, time and energy. Also, the Otherside never was as well frequented after the bombing as it had been before.
McMahon and Ford made efforts to revamp and refocus their nightclub in the hopes of making it once again a viable business. They re-christened it Otherside Plus, then as a gay club called Rarity, and then as Club Rarity.
Finally, it closed. "I don't like to quit," McMahon commented, "but it's time to move on, take a new road."