“A cautionary tale.” Authors to discuss new book about Richard Jewell

Atlanta History Center hosts an event tonight

Richard Jewell saved countless lives only to have his turned inside out.

Investigators assigned to the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing diligently followed promising leads and wound up focusing on the wrong guy.

Journalist Kathy Scruggs, unparalleled at cultivating sources, worked tirelessly on the story. The biggest scoop of her career, friends and family believe, was her undoing.

More than 23 years later, the saga of the heroic security guard authorities came to consider a suspect continues to fascinate and disturb Atlanta.

The Atlanta History Center hosts a discussion of “The Suspect,” a new book about the case, at 7:30 p.m. tonight. See this link for tickets. Interest in the event prompted the History Center to move it from McElreath Hall's Woodruff Auditorium to the much larger Grand Overlook Ballroom.

Joining the book’s authors - Kent Alexander, who was the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia during the time of the bombing and subsequent aftermath; and journalist Kevin Salwen - will be retired Atlanta Journal-Constitution senior managing editor Bert Roughton. Longtime Channel 2 anchor John Pruitt, who retired in 2010, will moderate.

Kevin Salwen, left, and Kent Alexander are co-authors of "The Suspect," and served as consultants for "Richard Jewell," the Clint Eastwood-directed movie due out next month. AJC photo: Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/robert.andres@ajc.com

“The fact that you can now put a very human name and face on a very abstract concept of rush to judgment makes it a cautionary tale in law enforcement and the media,” said Salwen, a longtime reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal who previously wrote, with his daughter, “The Power of Half: One Family's Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back.” 

“The Suspect” is out about a month ahead of “Richard Jewell,” the movie directed by Clint Eastwood. If the film’s two-minute trailer is a guide, both the law enforcement and media communities come across as sinister forces capable of crushing innocents in the pursuit of arrests and headlines. The meticulously researched and powerfully written book, on the other hand, deftly plumbs the nuances.

“It’s a story with plenty of gray,” Salwen said. “We didn’t write this book as an ethics lesson or as a work of moralizing. We wrote this book as a work of narrative nonfiction to tell the story of an unsung hero, a man who deserves a statue in the city of Atlanta, and the case that brought him down.”

At the time, agents drew on incidents from Jewell’s past in developing him as a suspect. He’d been arrested for impersonating an officer while on duty as an apartment complex courtesy guard. His tenure as an officer at a small, private college in north Georgia ended after repeated clashes with the administration. He wrecked a patrol car attempting a prank. Tipsters told authorities Jewell seemed to crave attention and was obsessed with the show “Cops.”

Plus, a Los Angeles police officer who had confessed to planting a device he later “found” and defused during the 1984 Summer Games was fresh enough in investigators’ minds that scrutinizing the person who spotted the ticking knapsack in 1996 made sense.

“There’s nothing I would have changed about Richard Jewell being a suspect,” Alexander said.

Jewell sounded the alert when he spotted a knapsack under a bench that didn’t seem to have an owner. It contained a bomb that killed Albany resident Alice Hawthorne and left many others injured. Turkish cameraman Melih Uzunyol had a fatal heart attack while rushing toward the scene.

The casualties would certainly have been higher if not for Jewell’s sharp eye and quick work hustling scores of spectators to safety. Within days, though, agents turned their attention to him. Tipped by her trusted law enforcement sources, Scruggs accurately reported that Jewell had become the focus of the investigation.

“There is no doubt that the sourcing that Kathy Scruggs had for her original story was almost impeccable,” Salwen said. “She was talking to the right people. They had the right information. Richard Jewell was indeed the lead suspect.”

AJC reporter Kathy Scruggs, who died in 2001, was assigned to cover the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. Photo courtesy of Lisa Griffin

Jewell was cleared after 88 agonizing days and confessed serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph will die behind bars. As the book illustrates, though, anguish over the case followed Jewell to his death. Heart failure due to complications from diabetes took him at 44.

Scruggs died young, too. An injury early in her career left her with chronic back pain and she suffered from Crohn’s disease. Unrelenting stress from litigation brought by Jewell’s legal team exacerbated her medical woes.

“Whatever the medicines were that she needed she was just taking in excessive amounts,” said Scruggs’ brother, Lewis Scruggs Jr. The suit against AJC was dismissed in 2011, when the Georgia Court of Appeals concluded “the articles in their entirety were substantially true at the time they were published.”

Scruggs didn’t live to see her name cleared. She died in 2001, just shy of her 43rd birthday.

“The fascinating and tragic thing about Kathy is the story that she breaks is a well-sourced, accurate story,” Salwen said. “It ends up completely undoing her life.”

Salwen and Alexander consulted on the upcoming movie and worked on the book for about five years.

“It’s an important cautionary tale. I think it should be taught in every single journalism school in the country,” Salwen said. “Certain things aren’t knowable immediately. When we demand from our news media providers that they give us an answer right now, we are feeding that beast. In the social media community we become participatory, we become the conduit.”

Alexander put it this way: “Slow down. Don’t rush to judgement. Accuracy is more important than speed.”

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