On July 27, 1996, a security guard named Richard Jewell discovered a bomb in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park during the Summer Olympics. Jewell's quick thinking allowed him to evacuate dozens of people just before the bomb exploded, saving countless lives.
However, a few days later, news reports stated that Jewell had been designated as the FBI's top suspect in the bombing. In the public eye, the hero quickly changed into the villain. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to CNN, media outlets from all over the nation painted Richard Jewell as a wannabe police officer who was so eager to play the hero that he was prepared to kill people for it.
Richard Jewell was never even formally charged with a crime, but for a torturous 88 days, everyone seemed to agree that he was guilty. In actuality, the FBI quickly gave up on Jewell's case after realizing that he wasn't the person they were looking for. And in 2005, a different man by the name of Eric Rudolph admitted to detonating the bomb.
Richard Jewell's reputation was irreparably damaged, but it was too late. Later, the notorious case was examined in the 2019 film Richard Jewell. This Clint Eastwood-directed movie was made to serve as a warning about how hasty conclusions can lead to the death of an innocent person. The real account of Richard Jewell's events, however, is even more tragic.
Richard Jewell: Who Was He?
Prior to his ascent into the public eye, Richard Jewell lived a fairly ordinary life. On December 17, 1962, in Danville, Virginia, he was given the name Richard White. His mother, Bobi, brought him up in a strict Baptist family.
Richard's mother left his philandering father when he was four years old and soon after married John Jewell, who raised Richard as his own son.
The family relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, when Richard Jewell was six years old. Even though Jewell had few friends as a young boy, he managed to stay busy on his own.
"I was a wannabe athlete, but I wasn't good enough," he admitted to Vanity Fair in 1997. He either volunteered at the school or assisted teachers when he wasn't reading books about the World Wars.
After high school, he enrolled in a technical college in southern Georgia because he wanted to pursue his dream of becoming a car mechanic. However, Bobi learned about Jewell's stepfather abandoning the family three days into the semester. Jewell left his new school in order to be with his mother.
After that, while continuing to live with his mother, he worked a variety of odd jobs, from running a neighborhood yogurt shop to serving as a jailer at the Habersham County Sheriff's Office in northeastern Georgia.
Soon enough, he began to consider joining the police. After serving as a jailer for a year, Richard Jewell was elevated to the position of deputy in 1991. He was also sent to the Northeast Georgia Police Academy as part of his training, where he graduated in the top 25% of his class.
Richard Jewell appeared to have discovered his vocation at that point.
"You must be aware that Richard Jewell is a police officer in order to comprehend him. During the Olympic bombing investigation, Jack Martin, one of Jewell's attorneys, remarked that Jewell "talks like a cop and thinks like a cop." Even after being mistreated by the FBI, Jewell's dedication to upholding the law was evident in the way he spoke about matters relating to police work.
Jewell's excessive passion occasionally put him in danger. He was even once detained for pretending to be a police officer and put on probation with the requirement that he get counseling. Jewell left the sheriff's office and took a job as a police officer at Piedmont College after wrecking his patrol car and being relegated to the position of a jailer.
Conflict arose between Jewell and the school's administrators as a result of her harsh student policing methods. Officials from the school claim that he was ultimately pressured into leaving his position. In a cruel irony, Jewell's admiration for law enforcement was later portrayed as obsessional, suggesting that he might resort to drastic measures in an effort to gain attention.
Richard Jewell's Valor in the 1996 Olympic Park Bombing
Jewell reasoned that there was probably a security job waiting for him at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta given all the publicity surrounding them.
Since his mother, who still lived in Atlanta, was preparing to have foot surgery, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. And in the end, Jewell was hired to work the 12-hour night shift as one of the security officers. He had no idea that his new job would soon cause chaos in his life.
He reportedly left his mother's home for the Olympic Park at 4:45 p.m. on July 26, 1996, according to Jewell. and 45 minutes later arrived at the AT&T pavilion. Around ten o'clock he stopped to use the restroom.
Jewell noticed a group of inebriated people littering all over the sound-and-light tower by a music venue when he returned to his station nearby. He later admitted to being irritated with the group because they had made a mess and were bothering the camera crew to an FBI agent.
As the vigilante he was, Jewell went right away to report the drunk litterbugs. But on the way, he noticed a military-style backpack in an olive green color that had been abandoned under a bench. He initially didn't give it much thought and even made light of the bag's contents with Tom Davis, an investigator with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI).
"Well, I am sure one of these people left it on the ground," Jewell said as she reflected. The little hairs on the back of my head started to stand up when Davis returned and said, "Nobody said it was theirs." "Oh no," I thought. This is not a good thing.
Jewell and Davis swiftly ordered onlookers away from the vicinity of the mysterious backpack. In addition, Jewell made two trips up into the tower to alert and then evacuated the technicians.
approximately 1:30 a.m. The backpack exploded on July 27, 1996, scattering shrapnel onto the crowds of onlookers nearby. Investigators discovered that the attacker had inserted nails inside a pipe bomb, a menacing device designed to cause the greatest amount of damage, after the attack.
Why Did Many People Believe Richard Jewell Was Guilty?
Soon after the explosion, federal agents flooded Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park. Even a year later, Richard Jewell, who spoke with the first agents to arrive at the park, had a clear memory of the chaotic scene that followed the bomb's explosion.
It sounded just like what you hear in movies. In a 1997 interview, Jewell remarked, "It was like kaboom. "All of the shrapnel that was inside the package kept flying around, and some of the people got hit from the bench and some with metal."
According to later reports, dispatchers were alerted to the threat by a 911 call from a nearby phone booth that said, "There is a bomb in Centennial Park. It was probably the bomber who said, "You have 30 minutes."
One woman was killed and 111 people were injured in the Centennial Olympic Park explosion; a cameraman also passed away from a heart attack while trying to capture the event. However, the number of fatalities could have easily been much higher if Richard Jewell hadn't partially evacuated the area.
Richard Jewell was immediately hailed as a hero by the media after they learned about his discovery of the bag and the action he took to evacuate the crowd.
However, his notoriety quickly faded after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a front-page article with the headline "FBI Suspects 'Hero' Guard May Have Planted Bomb," which implied Richard Jewell might have been responsible for organizing the attack in the first place.
The newspaper's police reporter, Kathy Scruggs, reportedly received information about Richard Jewell's potential involvement in the bombing investigation from a friend who works for the federal bureau. Another source who was affiliated with the Atlanta police confirmed the tip.
The most damaging part of the article was one sentence: "Richard Jewell... fits the profile of the lone bomber," which was printed despite neither the FBI nor experts in criminal behavior making any public statements. Other news organizations that covered the bombshell story described Jewell in a similar manner, portraying him as a one-man bomber and wannabe police officer.
"They were talking about a hero bomber's FBI profile, and I was like, 'What FBI profile?The late Robert Ressler, a former FBI agent from the Behavioral Science Unit who interrogated notorious murderers like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer during his career, said, "It rather surprised me.
The "hero bomber" profile does not exist, according to Ressler, who co-wrote the Crime Classification Manual used by the FBI.
Ressler had a sneaking suspicion that the phrase was a bombastic take on "hero homicide," which describes a person who craves attention but wouldn't kill anyone.
He and his mother were the subject of a media frenzy for 88 days after the FBI's investigation into Richard Jewell was reported. News vans staked out in front of his mother's apartment as investigators searched it and brought Jewell inside for questioning.
The United States announced in October 1996 that Richard Jewell could not have detonated the bomb based on his whereabouts that evening. He was formally exonerated by the Justice Department of being a suspect in the Centennial Park bombing investigation. However, his reputation had already been irreparably harmed.
You don't revert to your original state, Jewell said. "I seriously doubt I'll ever get that back. I was supposed to be their hero during the first three days—the one who saves lives. They no longer refer to me in that way. I now stand accused of bombing Olympic Park. They believed that individual was responsible.
The Aftermath Of A Tumultuous “Trial By Media”
The incident involving Richard Jewell has become a case study in careless FBI investigation and careless press reporting.
According to one of Jewell's lawyers, Watson Bryant, "this case has everything — the FBI, the press, the violation of the Bill of Rights, from the First to the Sixth Amendment."
A phone call from Jewell's former employer, Piedmont College President Ray Cleere, who informed the FBI about the security guard's alleged overzealousness and his forcible departure from the school, served as a catalyst for the investigation into Jewell's innocence. However, aside from the bureau, no one else can be made to answer for the investigation's poor management.
One year after the bombing, a Vanity Fair story exposed tensions within the organization brought on by toxic rivalries and micromanaging leadership, particularly from then-FBI Director Louis Freeh. Due to the FBI's handling of the case, an investigation was launched, and Richard Jewell was requested to testify at congressional hearings regarding the bureau's actions.
Then it became known that Richard Jewell had been questioned by FBI agents who were directly involved in the bombing case under false pretenses as a suspect. Under the pretense of working with them to create a training video for first responders, FBI agents Don Johnson and Diader Rosario brought Jewell to the agency's headquarters on July 30, 1996, where she was questioned.
Reexaminations of the case-related reporting also uncovered terrible reporting errors. Despite the lack of supporting evidence, the tone of the reporting implied that Richard Jewell was guilty and portrayed him as a fame-obsessed wannabe hero.
He was referred to in the New York Post as "a Village Rambo" and "a fat, failed former sheriff's deputy." Jay Leno said that Jewell “had a scary resemblance to the guy who whacked Nancy Kerrigan,” and questioned, “What is it about the Olympic Games that brings out big fat stupid guys?”
According to Dave Kindred, a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Richard Jewell was drawn to the blue lights and sirens of police activity, just like Wayne Williams, who was convicted of murder and is suspected of killing multiple children. He also rose to fame after a murder, like this one.
What happened to Richard Jewell? His tragically early death and settlements with media outlets
Following an investigation, Richard Jewell filed libel suits against several media organizations and was successful in obtaining settlements from Piedmont College, the New York Post, CNN, and NBC (the latter for an alleged $500,000). He did, however, lose a 10-year battle with Cox Enterprises, the Atlanta newspaper's parent company.
After Richard Jewell passed away in 2007, the libel case against the Journal-Constitution persisted for years and even reached the Georgia Supreme Court. However, the Court ultimately decided that the newspaper owed Jewell and his family nothing because its reporting was accurate at the time of publication—that is, that he was in fact an FBI suspect in the days following the bombing.
However, Richard Jewell lost two significant things that no amount of settlements could ever bring them back for him: his dignity and peace.
After the Justice Department exonerated him of the bombing, he broke down in tears and said, "I hope and pray that no one else is ever subjected to the pain and the ordeal that I have gone through."
"The government should be mindful of citizen rights. I'm grateful that it's over and that you now understand what I already knew: I'm an innocent man.
The real bomber, Eric Rudolph, admitted responsibility for the attack as well as three other bombings in 2005, years after Richard Jewell was cleared of all charges. Sadly, Richard Jewell passed away only two years later.
Richard Jewell passed away on August 29, 2007, as a result of complications from diabetes and heart disease. He was only 44, so after the bombing and the ensuing media frenzy upended his life, he had very little time to enjoy it.