Richard Jewell found dead at 44

Richard Jewell, the former security guard once suspected of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing -- then cleared -- died at his home Wednesday morning in Woodbury.

For the past three years, Jewell, 44, worked as a deputy sheriff for the Meriwether County Sheriff's department, said Sheriff Steve Whitlock. He said Jewell had been out on medical leave.

Meriwether County coroner Johnny Worley said Jewell's wife, Dana, discovered him unconscious at about 10:30 a.m. Worley said an autopsy would be performed by the Georgia Bureau of Investiation to determine how Jewell died, but there was "no suspicion of foul play."

"He had been having some pretty serious medical problems, " Worley said.

He said Jewell had been diagnosed with diabetes in February and had a couple of toes amputated. "He had been going downhill ever since, " Worley said.

Whitlock described Jewell as "a good officer. A go-getter."

"You know how they say people live their work. Richard ate and drank his job. He loved it, " Whitlock said.

Jewell was initially lauded as a hero after a bomb went off on July 27, 1996, during an Olympic celebration in Atlanta. He called attention to the suspicious knapsack that held a bomb and helped evacuate the area.

Days later, he became the FBI's chief suspect, as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other media outlets reported. The FBI cleared Jewell of any wrongdoing. He was never charged with a crime.

"The fact that he was such a Boy Scout -- a by-the-book cop -- turned out to be the reason they were suspicious of him, " said attorney Jack Martin, who represented Jewell at that time.

Eric Robert Rudolph pleaded guilty to the bombing in 2005 and is serving life in prison for it and other attacks.

After he was cleared, Jewell sued the AJC and other media outlets for libel, arguing that their reports defamed him. Several news organizations settled, including NBC and CNN.

The Journal-Constitution did not settle. The newspaper has contended that at the time it published its reports Jewell was a suspect, so the articles were accurate. The newspaper also has asserted that it was not reckless or malicious in its reports regarding Jewell. Much of Jewell's case was dismissed last year.

However, Jewell's death Wednesday "is not a day to consider lawsuits, rather a day to pay respect, " said John Mellott, AJC publisher.

"Richard Jewell was a real hero, as we all came to learn, " Mellott said. "The story of how Mr. Jewell moved from hero to suspect and back in the Olympic Park bombing investigation is one the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported fully, even as it defended itself in a libel case brought by him."

After the initial furor settled down, Jewell worked his way through one small police department after another -- Pendergrass, Luthersville and Senoia. Jewell joined the Meriwether County Sheriff's Office three years ago.

"He was all about police work. He was a good man, " said Butts County Sheriff's Office Investigator Thomas Middleton, who worked with Jewell at the Luthersville Police Department. "He loved police work."

A year ago this month, Jewell was commended by Gov. Sonny Perdue at an event marking the 10th anniversary of the bombing.

"The bottom line is this: His actions saved lives that day, " said Perdue. "Mr. Jewell, on behalf of Georgia, we want to thank you for keeping Georgians safe and doing your job during the course of those Games."

Jewell, his voice choked with emotion, responded:

"I never sought to be a hero. I have always viewed myself as just one of the many trained professionals who simply did his or her job that tragic night. I wish I could have done more."

Coworkers and friends said Jewell rarely, if ever, talked about that time in his life, at least not without prompting.

Judy McDaniel, a clerk at the Phillips 66 station and snack bar on Roosevelt Highway, said Jewell came in every morning for a sausage biscuit. She described Jewell as a happy man who always loved to laugh and talk, and his favorite topic was fishing. He also told McDaniel he was writing a book about his life.

As for the drama he left behind, he "never mentioned it, " said Doris Smith, the clerk of court and the assistant city clerk in Luthersville. "He was just a down-to-earth country boy, " she said. "He was just a special person. And not everybody is going to tell you that because he did do his job and he did it right."

A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday in Atlanta at Brookhaven Baptist Church at 1294 North Druid Hills Road N.E.

Reporter Rhonda Cook contributed to this article.

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