The saga of Olympic Park hero Richard Jewell remains a painful testament to what happens when a lone individual confronts the American Goliaths of law enforcement and media.
Jewell was the security guard who first noticed the explosive-filled pack in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Games. He alerted a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent and helped herd hundreds of people to safety — only to be treated as the FBI’s prime suspect and broadcast as a terrorist worldwide. Two deaths were attributed to the explosion. How many more would have been killed if Jewell hadn’t been on the alert?
The attack came in the midst of what was the world’s largest peacetime event and launched a vast and complex reaction animated by thousands of human decisions and failures. It was the 9/11 of its time.
Comes now an extraordinarily orderly book, “The Suspect,” by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen, that brings detail and context to an ordeal that captivated the nation and scarred Atlanta’s history. Alexander was the United States attorney during the bombing investigation, and Salwen is a former award-winning reporter with The Wall Street Journal.
Next month, director/actor Clint Eastwood will debut his major film about the bombing, “Richard Jewell,” which almost certainly will fuel fresh interest.
The book, on sale Tuesday, goes into (sometimes extreme) detail about the events and people involved in this saga, including a well-drawn biography of Jewell that makes it clear that his whole life prepared and propelled him towards that moment in Centennial Olympic Park. (I make an appearance in the book as an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor involved in the decision to name Jewell as the FBI’s suspect, and was one of the many sources the authors interviewed.)
If you — like me — were part of the story, the book is hard to put down. I’m less sure that its sometime dense retelling will appeal to readers less intimately involved with the Atlanta Olympics or the bombing.
That said, “The Suspect” is marvelously rich with fresh insights and authority.
Moreover, this tale from the dawn of the internet and 24/7 cable TV feels all the more urgent in a world of instant news and spontaneous notoriety. It still holds lessons for us all.
Rise and fall of the case
Under intense pressure to quickly solve the highest profile crime of its day, FBI agents zeroed in on the 33-year-old security guard. He was immediately under investigation with the full apparatus of the federal government.
A law enforcement source soon tipped an AJC reporter to the FBI investigation. I was the editor who received the call from the reporter, Kathy Scruggs. I was in the thick of it as we sought to verify her tip — which we did — and weigh what to do with the story. We decided to break the news that the hero was now a suspect on the AJC’s front page.
Jewell sued a number of news organizations for libel, but only the AJC refused to settle. The case was ultimately dismissed after Georgia courts ruled that our coverage was accurate even if the FBI was wrong to suspect Jewell.
While “The Suspect” does a laudable job of assembling the facts, it never really marshals them for any purpose other than clarity.
The authors offer no judgment of the FBI, for example, even as they lay out an astonishingly damning indictment of a few agents — one in particular — and their supervisors. Alexander kept a detailed journal, and his unique perspective powers the book’s methodical exposition of the rise and fall of the case against Jewell. This inside account is the book’s greatest strength.
One episode is particularly chilling. After satisfying themselves that Jewell was their guy, agents tried to dupe Jewell into what amounted to an interrogation by asking him to be videotaped for a training film. The FBI’s leadership became so alarmed by this that FBI Director Louis Freeh phoned during the taping to demand that the agents read Jewell his Miranda rights.
“The Suspect” also brings clarity to the origin story of the suspicions around Jewell. Agent Don Johnson, one of the book’s three main characters, drives the Jewell theory. As he gathered information about Jewell’s background, particularly a stormy period for Jewell at Piedmont College in North Georgia, Johnson begins to wonder.
When he returns to Atlanta headquarters, he is handed a copy of a profile from the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. The analysis focused solely on the guard turned hero. “Jewell is a ‘wanna be cop’ … He also gives every indication of suffering an inadequate personality and requires the trappings of a law enforcement officer (badge, uniform, etc.) to command respect … Fortunately, for him, along comes the Olympics…”
The center’s report suggests that the Games presented an ideal opportunity for Jewell to gain recognition and maybe to land a real police job. “What better way than to become a hero. The bigger the threat, the bigger the hero.”
Agent Johnson was so convinced of Jewell’s guilt that he never really let go of his suspicions, even after Jewell was cleared and then vindicated by the arrest of the actual bomber, Eric Rudolph, seven years after the bombing.
Rudolph’s story arises as a parallel narrative that dovetails in the later chapters when he is charged with the bombing — removing any lingering doubts about Jewell.
The AJC’s reporting
The book takes no position on the AJC’s decision to go with the initial story that identified Jewell. I believe we did the right thing by accurately reporting that the FBI had shifted its suspicions on Jewell at a time when the entire world was waiting on the FBI to solve the crime, and the book accurately comports with my memory of what happened in our newsroom.
The authors walk readers through the paper’s step-by-step efforts to verify the account of Scruggs’ primary source. The day after she learned the FBI was focusing on Jewell, Scruggs learned from other law enforcement contacts that they knew the information, too.
We dispatched a reporter to the apartment where Jewell lived with his mother. The reporter saw police cruisers sitting outside and observed what appeared to be FBI agents in unmarked cars, suggesting heightened scrutiny of Jewell. We were hearing that the FBI was preparing warrants to search Jewell’s apartment.
Finally, Scruggs’ reporting partner, Ron Martz, read the entire story to an FBI spokesman, who confirmed the important elements.
The book includes a brief account of our deliberations about identifying Jewell by name. We concluded we had no choice. We asked ourselves, did we have an accurate story? We did. Did we have an obligation to document the actions of law enforcement? We believed that, too. We also knew that any attempt to shield Jewell’s identity would be futile once the FBI knocked on his front door, which they did the day after we named him as a focus of the investigation.
Thankfully, the book does include an account of how the AJC was also the first to challenge the FBI’s narrative about Jewell. AJC reporters Martz and Bill Rankin traced the route from the payphone where the bomber anonymously warned authorities about the bomb, to Olympic Park where it was set to go off. Their story broke the news that it would have been impossible for Jewell to have been at the payphone and a few blocks away at the park at the same time.
The book contemplates the role of the media in Jewell’s story but makes no judgment.
For the rest of my career, however, the lessons of the Jewell story remained with me. The most important one is that journalists must never forget that we are writing about flesh-and-blood people whose lives may be changed forever. We owe them our best work.
The loyal, quirky side of Jewell
The book also helpfully provides solid biographical treatments of Jewell, Scruggs and Johnson.
Scruggs has sometimes been portrayed as a salty reporter who was tenacious in pursuit of a story. I knew and respected her as a driven and professional journalist. She developed sources everywhere, and many of her tips came from the cops she covered over late-night drinks at Manuel’s Tavern, the Atlanta watering hole favored by journalists. Irreverent and savvy, she was born to become a great cop reporter at a big city newspaper.
The authors treat her honestly, with respect and even sympathy. Her life turned tragic after the Olympics and she died in 2001 of an overdose of prescription drugs she was taking for chronic back pain. She was 42.
The book depicts Jewell in full. Wannabe cop? Sure. One of his best days was when he donned a law enforcement uniform for the first time, as a county jailer. Overzealous? Often. In 1990 he was arrested for impersonating a police officer.
But the authors also present a fresh side of Jewell, a deeply loyal and quirky friend whom some called “Radar,” after the M.A.S.H. character who seemed able to anticipate the needs of those around him.
Jewell died of heart failure in 2007 after landing his dream job as a police officer. He also fell in love and married.
Yet, for me the book’s best story about Jewell comes when he and his lawyer and friend Watson Bryant stop in Hawaii after a 1997 tour of Japan, where Jewell spoke about the pain of being falsely accused.
It was Halloween, and they wandered into a watering hole that was hosting a karaoke costume party. Even though he wasn’t wearing a costume, Jewell was allowed to compete after he convinced people in that he was THE Richard Jewell.
Jewell donned a pink lei and a straw hat. He took the mic and belted out Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” in a fine voice:
Lord I’ve been everywhere,
And still I’m standing tall
I’ve seen a million faces
And I’ve rocked them all
After all the terrors, indignities and humiliations he suffered, this joyous scene is what I hold onto when I think about Richard Jewell, the Olympic Park hero.
Bert Roughton, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an AJC consultant and its former senior managing editor. He retired in 2018.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.