“She was the real deal when it came to being a dedicated reporter,” said attorney and family friend Edward Tolley.
“She had a vulnerability about her,” said author Robert Coram, who once fashioned a fictional character after her.
“Kathy was a wild child,” said friend and former coworker Tony Kiss.
Hollywood's version of Scruggs appears in "Richard Jewell," coming out Dec. 13.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, the movie was filmed in Atlanta over the summer and is based on a Vanity Fair article titled “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell.” Paul Walter Hauser stars in the title role as the security guard who saved countless lives, only to become a suspect, after the deadly Centennial Olympic Park bombing.
Olivia Wilde plays Scruggs, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who broke the news that the FBI was focusing on Jewell. The movie captures the messy AJC newsroom well enough and managed a spot-on recreation of Centennial Olympic Park circa 1996.
"The portrayal of the explosion is one of the best scenes in any of the Clint Eastwood-directed films," said Atlanta Olympics enthusiast Nicholas Wolaver, who attended the Nov. 20 premiere in Hollywood and posted his review here. "My heart was pounding and there was an audible gasp in the packed theater."
But the film’s rendition of Scruggs veers from reality, according to people who knew and worked with her, in suggesting she landed scoops by offering to sleep with sources.
“That is complete horse (expletive),” said Tolley, who knew Scruggs personally and professionally. “If she’s being portrayed as some floozy, it’s just not true.”
Scruggs’s friends and coworkers remember her salty language, short skirts and occasional antics. Still, they say, it’s wrong to suggest she relied on illicit assignations to do her job.
“My concern is they’re going to turn her into some sort of femme fatale who would do anything to get a story,” said former AJC reporter Ron Martz. He is portrayed by name in “Richard Jewell” by actor David Shae, but no one from the production ever got in touch.
“If they had actually contacted me it might have ruined their idea of what they wanted the story to be,” Martz said. “It’s obvious to me they did not go to any great lengths to find out what the real characters were like.”
Martz was Scruggs’ reporting partner on much of the bombing coverage.
“She was one of the better reporters I ever worked with. She was really tough and hard-nosed,” he said. “When she went after a story she did what was necessary to get the story, within legal and ethical bounds.”
For years, the hard-charging Scruggs commanded the police beat like a bullfighter. She’d zoom to crime scenes in her Mazda Miata, sometimes arriving before authorities got there, and wouldn’t leave until her notebook was full.
“You rarely had to tell Kathy to go back and ask more questions,” said AJC retiree Mike King, one of Scruggs’ editors. She frequented precincts and burned up phone lines. She often treated cocktail hour at Manuel’s, the intown spot popular with journalists and people they write about, as an extension of the work day.
“She spent a lot of time talking to cops, attorneys, prosecutors,” King said. “When a crime took place, she would come back with the chatter. She was the ultimate reporter at working sources.”
Someone in Scruggs’ Rolodex led to the biggest story of her career, but those close to her say it was also her undoing. The report saying investigators were focusing on Jewell days after the bombing was accurate at the time. They questioned him, searched his belongings and kept him under surveillance for months. The AJC was among the media outlets sued after Jewell was exonerated, and the only one that didn’t settle.
Litigation naming the 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,” but Scruggs didn’t live to see her name cleared. Stress over the case contributed to her failing health, friends believe. She died in 2001, just shy of her 43rd birthday.
“She was never at peace or at rest with this story. It haunted her until her last breath,” Kiss said. “It crushed her like a junebug on the sidewalk.”
‘A Little Bit Rebellious’
Scruggs joined the AJC after stints at two other papers.
“She had an enormous personality,” said Kiss, who’d worked with her elsewhere and remained a close friend. Once, he rode along when Scruggs was reporting on a homicide in a rough Atlanta housing project. “That girl was absolutely fearless. Nothing would faze her at all. ”
Her friend Susan Parke recalled how Scruggs could turn any day into an adventure. She was riding shotgun when Scruggs nearly wrecked her Miata, and once helped her deal with a wardrobe malfunction in a cemetery. Surely the dead wouldn’t mind the sight of a busted zipper.
“Kathy was just luminous,” Parke said. “She was so, so alive.”
Scruggs was born Sept. 26, 1958 into a prominent Athens family. Her father, Lewis “Bubber” Scruggs Sr., was a Gridiron Secret Society member at the University of Georgia and a pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He founded Athens Insurers Inc. with the late Bob Argo, who would become an influential Georgia legislator. Argo’s daughter Marty Kemp is now Georgia’s first lady.
Scruggs’ mother, Nancy Bentley Scruggs, was a UGA alumna who belonged to bridge and garden clubs and started a travel agency with Jeane Argo, Bob’s wife. Scruggs’ brother, Lewis Scruggs Jr., followed his dad into the insurance business after following his parents to UGA. Scruggs broke with tradition in attending Queens College (now Queens University) in Charlotte.
“She didn’t want to go to Georgia and do what the family did,” her brother said. “She was a little bit rebellious.”
Lewis and Kathy were 10 years apart so didn’t grow up as playmates. As adults, his little sister leaned on him as a confidante.
“Her choice of boyfriends was not great,” he said. “She spent all the money she had and more and would go into the depths of depression. The word ‘filter’ was not in her body. I loved Kathy, but she was crazy.”
An injury early in her career left her with chronic back pain for which she took prescribed pain relievers. Later in life she had Crohn’s disease, anxiety and other issues and with them, more prescriptions.
“She always drank a fair amount and smoked a fair amount and took drugs: Prozac for depression, Fen-Phen for weight loss, Lipitor for cholesterol, Xanax for anxiety,” Parke said. “She took all this stuff that interacted with each other.”
In the last year of her life, anguished over the ongoing legal action, Scruggs was on medical leave from the newspaper.
“My mother would go over there. (Kathy) would let her in the house and go into the bedroom and slam the door,” Lewis Scruggs said. “My father wouldn’t go over there because he wouldn’t put up with her treating my mother that way.”
Scruggs’ body was found in her Woodstock home.
“Her heart gave away. It was just hard living,” her brother said. “My mother reacted as if it was her fault. My father knew better. He came to terms with it. My mother never did.”
Family members gathered in 2011 to dedicate the writing center named in her memory at Athens Academy, where photos in old yearbooks show Scruggs as a striking beauty involved in a number of clubs. She is buried near her parents in the Scruggs family plot near Sanford Stadium.
“I’ll go out there periodically and there will be something on her headstone. It might be a rose, or a quarter,” Lewis Scruggs said. He is resigned at how Kathy is portrayed in the movie.
“The world needs to know she was as good a journalist as the world has ever seen,” he said. “Whenever something would happen, the police would call Kathy. They always trusted her to get the scoop because they knew it would be handled right. She was proud the FBI called her about Jewell. She was proud of the way she reported it to begin with.”
She never told him who her source was, and didn’t discuss the lawsuit in detail.
“It really, really bothered her. It was as much a contributor of her death than anything,” Lewis Scruggs Jr. said. “The thing she was always proud of was the newspaper stood by her. They had her back. She really always felt like they were supporting her.”
‘She lived hard, she played hard’
Scruggs has inspired characters in at least two works of fiction. The 2003 novel “Shikar” by the late Jack Warner, a former UPI and AJC reporter, concerns the hunt for an escaped, man-eating Bengal tiger in the hills of north Georgia. The husky-voiced “Kathleen Bentley” (Scruggs’ real first and middle names) stays ahead of other reporters, swears liberally and banters with the lawmen on the tiger’s trail. There are no scenes of romance.
She was depicted more vividly as “Kitty O’Hara” in “Atlanta Heat,” a 1997 novel by Robert Coram. Kitty flirts with the young detective assigned to a sensational homicide, shows up to a crime scene with what’s left of a six-pack and finds a clue by drunkenly stumbling onto it. There is no hint of a tryst between reporter and source.
Coram, who’s better known for his more recent biographies and a memoir, got to know Scruggs while researching police officers’ personalities over drinks and casual conversation.
“The homicide guys met once or twice a week at Manuel’s,” said Coram, who once worked for The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution, formerly separate entities. “Kathy came in and made herself a place at the table.”
Like others who knew her, he bristles at Hollywood’s treatment.
“She would be an easy person to caricature,” he said. “The essence of her, they could never portray in a movie.”
"The Suspect," a recently published nonfiction book about the 1996 bombing, is unsparing but not unfair.
“Law enforcement loved her, just loved her,” said co-author Kent Alexander, a former federal prosecutor. The book does note the time police responded at 3 a.m. when Scruggs refused to get out of a taxi outside a Buckhead hotel. She was drunk, naked and sitting in the driver’s seat.
“Kathy lived her life very fully,” said co-author Kevin Salwen. “She lived hard, she played hard.”
The exhaustively researched book, which also was used as source material for the film, describes Scruggs' professional dedication as well as her troubles. Her scoop about investigators focusing on Jewell came from working her beat, as the book details, not liaisons with sources.
“She was talking to the right people. They had the right information,” Salwen said. “Richard Jewell was indeed the lead suspect.”
As U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia at the time, Alexander was closely involved with the investigation.
“There’s nothing I would have changed about Richard Jewell being a suspect,” he said.
Jewell had 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.”
Investigators also drew on an incident with seeming parallels. At the 1984 Summer Games a Los Angeles police officer confessed to planting a device he later “found.”
When the entirely circumstantial case against Jewell fizzled, Alexander delivered a letter to Jewell’s lawyers stating he had been cleared.
Jewell married, traveled some and landed another law enforcement job after the ordeal, but died at 44. Heart failure due to complications from diabetes took him in 2007.
The hunt for the real killer nagged at Scruggs until the end. Serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph would eventually confess and draw four life sentences, but she didn’t live to see it.
“As the name of Eric Robert Rudolph fades from the lips and minds of the people in Western North Carolina, law enforcement remain convinced the accused bomber still is hiding under their noses, even as federal investigators all but end their presence in the area,” Scruggs wrote in a piece published on July 1, 2000. It was her second to last byline; her career ended late the following month with an article about renovating highway rest stops.
On Sept. 4, 2001, the AJC ran Scruggs’ obituary. The lawsuit was still ongoing at the time, and a Fulton County judge had ordered her and Martz to name their tipsters.
“She would say, ‘I will go to jail before I reveal my source.’ She never did,” lifelong friend Lisa Griffin said. “She was very determined.”
The case was on appeal, and Scruggs never wavered in her convictions. She died facing jail time.
Toward the end, Scruggs had fallen out of regular contact with most people.
“The last time I saw her was one of the times she came back to visit when she was on leave,” said AJC retiree Joey Ledford, one of her former editors. “She put on a happy face for me because we’d gone back such a long way. Her work was about her only anchor. Once she lost that she was rudderless, she was lost at sea.”
Griffin talked to Scruggs on the phone shortly before she died.
“It was like a vacuum,” she said. “Her soul was gone. She was so empty.”
Only Scruggs’ dog, Sadie, was with her when she died.
Ten days later, Kiss was watching television in horror after planes hit the Twin Towers.
“The first thing I thought about was calling Kathy,” he said. “She wasn’t on the line anymore.”
Scruggs has been gone for more than 18 years. The newsroom she once filled with sometimes manic energy and a sailor’s vocabulary now houses city offices, the AJC having relocated from downtown Atlanta. Many of her law enforcement sources have retired, moved on or passed away.
Manuel’s is still here, although its free, sumptuously large side parking lot is becoming the site of another mixed-used development. Still, the venerable spot felt like the right place to interview Salwen and Alexander about Scruggs and, later, to finish this story about her.
The day after the Hollywood premiere, I found a battered table near the bar, underneath two paintings of women hanging side by side. One is an alluring beauty striking a determined pose, her blond hair falling around her shoulders in soft waves. The other is out of focus and abstract. She stares at nothing with haunted eyes.
I thought of stories Parke and Kiss each told me about what happened after Scruggs’ funeral. They stopped for a drink after the service, and a truck pulled into the parking lot beside them. The logo said “Scruggs Towing Service” or “Scruggs Heating and Air,” something like that.
“Oh God, her spirit is following us!” Kiss remembered thinking.
“We just looked at each other and said, Kathy’s here and she wants to drink, too,” Parke recalled.
With that in mind I asked for a Johnnie Walker Red Label, Scruggs’ regular order, on my way out of Manuel’s. Not to drink, I told the server, just to photograph.
A guy at the bar with a beard and bowtie heard the odd request and handed over a business card, explaining that he represents the label. The transaction felt peak 2019 yet timeless.
I described the story I’d just finished in broad strokes and parked the Johnnie Walker Red next to the bearded guy’s PBR.
“We’re excited you’re showcasing our brand,” he said. “That’s awesome!”
He’d never heard of Kathy Scruggs.