"I hope and pray that no one else is ever subjected to the pain and the ordeal that I have gone through," said Richard Jewell after the FBI publicly cleared him. "I am an innocent man."
In 1996, Richard Jewell became a hero after he successfully evacuated visitors before a bomb exploded in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park. But after media reports surfaced that the FBI had made Jewell a prime suspect in the bombing, all hell broke loose, and the onetime hero turned into the villain.
Media outlets across the country — from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to CNN — painted Jewell as a pitiable wannabe cop desperate to play the hero, who would go so far as kill to cement his own enviable reputation.
But, in reality, the FBI quickly stopped investigating him, and years later another man pled guilty to the crime. But it was all too late for Jewell, whose reputation was irrevocably tarnished.
The infamous case was made into a feature film directed by Clint Eastwood with the eponymous title, Richard Jewell, as a reminder of how rushing to judgment can ruin lives.
Who Was Richard Jewell?
Before he jolted into the public consciousness, Richard Jewell led a fairly mundane life. He was born Richard White in Danville, Virginia, in 1962, and was raised in a strict Baptist home by his mother, Bobi.
When he was four, his mother left his philandering father and soon married John Jewell, who adopted Richard as his own son.
When Richard Jewell turned six, the family moved to Atlanta. As a boy, Jewell didn’t have many friends but the military-history buff kept busy on his own.
“I was a wannabe athlete, but I wasn’t good enough,” he told Vanity Fair in 1997. When he wasn’t reading books about the World Wars, he was either helping out teachers or taking volunteer jobs around school, like working as the school crossing guard or running the library’s projector.
His dream was to be a car mechanic, and so after high school he enrolled in a technical school in southern Georgia. But three days into his new school, however, Bobi found out that Jewell’s stepfather had abandoned them. Jewell dropped out of his new school to be with his mother.
After that, he worked all sorts of odd jobs, from managing a local yogurt shop to working as a jailer at the Habersham County Sheriff’s Office in northeastern Georgia.
“She became overly protective of me. She looked at it that I was going to do the same thing that my dad did. I was 18 or 19. I was working,” Jewell said of his mom. “She never liked my dates, but I never held that against her. We have always been able to lean on each other.”
Soon enough, he thought about going into law enforcement. In 1991, after a year working as a jailer, Jewel was promoted to deputy, and as part of his training he was sent to the Northeast Georgia Police Academy, where he finished in the top quarter of his class.
From then on, it seemed Richard Jewell had found his calling.
“To understand Richard Jewell, you have to be aware that he is a cop. He talks like a cop and thinks like a cop,” said Jack Martin, Jewell’s attorney during the Olympic bombing investigation. Jewell’s commitment to upholding the letter of the law was obvious from his speech and the way he talked about things related to police work — even after his mistreatment by the FBI.
Sometimes Jewell’s overzealousness led to unnecessary arrests. He was arrested for impersonating a police officer and was placed on probation on the condition that he seek psychological counseling. After wrecking his patrol car and being demoted back to jailer, Jewell quit the sheriff’s office and found another police job at Piedmont College, a tiny liberal arts school.
Jewell’s heavy-handedness policing students caused tension with the school’s administrators. According to school officials, he was forced to resign from his post at Piedmont College. Jewell’s intense regard for law enforcement was later painted as an obsession, one that might motivate him to take extreme measures to achieve recognition.
The 1996 Olympic Park Bombing
With the buzz around the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, just a 90-minute drive from Habersham County, Jewell figured there was a security job waiting for him there.
It seemed like an opportune time since his mother, who still lived in Atlanta, was planning on undergoing foot surgery. He landed a position as one of the security guards working the 12-hour night shift. Little did he know that his new gig would soon throw his life into disarray.
On July 26, 1996, according to Jewell, he left his mother’s house for the Olympic Park at 4:45 p.m. and arrived at the AT&T pavilion 45 minutes later.
His stomach was acting up so he took a break to go to the bathroom at around 10 p.m. Because of his terrible stomach cramps, Jewell used the closest bathroom, which was off-limits to staff, but the security guard gave him a pass.
When he came back to his station near the sound-and-light tower by a music stage, Jewell noticed a group of drunks littering all over it. He later told an FBI agent that he remembered being annoyed at the group because they had caused a mess and were bothering camera crew.
Being the vigilante he was, Jewell promptly went to report the drunken litter bugs. On his way, he spotted an olive-green military-style backpack that had been left unattended under the bench. At first, he didn’t think much of it, even joking about the contents of the bag with Tom Davis, an agent with the Georgia Bureau Of Investigation (GBI).
“I was thinking to myself, ‘Well, I am sure one of these people left it on the ground,'” Jewell said. “When Davis came back and said, ‘Nobody said it was theirs,’ that is when the little hairs on the back of my head began to stand up. I thought, ‘Uh-oh. This is not good.'”
Both Jewell and Davis quickly cleared spectators out of a 25-square-foot area around the mystery backpack. Jewell also made two trips into the tower to evacuate the technicians.
At about 1:25 a.m. on July 27, 1996, the backpack exploded, sending pieces of shrapnel onto the surrounding crowds. In the aftermath of the bomb, investigators found the perpetrator had planted nails inside a pipe bomb, a sinister creation meant to inflict maximum harm.
Richard Jewell: Hero Or Perpetrator?
Not long after the explosion, Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park was swarming with federal agents. Richard Jewell, who spoke with the first agents to arrive at the scene, vividly remembered the chaotic scene following the bomb’s detonation, even a year later.
“It was like what you hear in the movies. It was, like, kaboom,” Jewell said, noting the dark morning sky turned a grayish-white because of the smoke. “I had seen an explosion in police training… All the shrapnel that was inside the package kept flying around, and some of the people got hit from the bench and some with metal.”
Later reports revealed a 911 call from a nearby phone booth had tipped dispatchers off to the threat: “There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have 30 minutes.” It had likely been the bomber.
The Centennial Olympic Park explosion killed one woman and injured 111 others (a camera man also died of a heart attack while rushing to film the scene), but the casualties could’ve easily been much worse had the area not been partially evacuated.
Once the press caught wind of Richard Jewell’s discovery of the bag and his preemptive efforts to steer the crowd to safety, he became a media fixture and was hailed as a hero.
But his fame turned to infamy after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a front-page story with the headline, “FBI Suspects ‘Hero’ Guard May Have Planted Bomb.”
Kathy Scruggs, a police reporter at the publication, had received a tip from a friend in the federal bureau that the agency was looking at Richard Jewell as a suspect in the bombing investigation. The tip was confirmed by another source who worked with the Atlanta police.
Most damaging was one specific sentence in the piece: “Richard Jewell… fits the profile of the lone bomber,” despite no public declarations by the FBI or criminal behavior experts. Other news outlets picked up the bombshell story and used similar language to profile Jewell, painting him as a loneman bomber and wannabe cop who wanted to be a hero.
“They were talking about an FBI profile of a hero bomber and I thought, ‘What FBI profile?’ It rather surprised me,” said the late Robert Ressler, a former FBI agent from the Behavioral Science Unit who interviewed notorious killers like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer during his career.
According to Ressler, who co-authored the Crime Classification Manual used by the FBI, the “hero bomber” profile does not exist.
Ressler suspected the term was a bombastic spin on “hero homicide,” which refers to an individual who is hungry for recognition but wouldn’t kill anyone.
For 88 days following the report of the FBI’s investigation into Richard Jewell, Jewell and his mother were engulfed in a media storm. Investigators searched his mother’s apartment and brought Jewell in for questioning while news vans staked outside his mother’s residence and news helicopters hovered above.
In October 1996, after exhaustive probes suggested Richard Jewell could not have planted the bomb based on his whereabouts that night, the U.S. Justice Department formally cleared him as a suspect in the Centennial Park bombing investigation. But the damage to his reputation was irrevocable.
“You don’t get back what you were originally,” Jewell said. “I don’t think I will ever get that back. The first three days, I was supposedly their hero — the person who saves lives. They don’t refer to me that way anymore. Now I am the Olympic Park bombing suspect. That’s the guy they thought did it.”
In 2005, Eric Rudolph pled guilty to the bombing after authorities found 250 pounds of dynamite he’d stashed away. Sadly, Richard Jewell died from complications from diabetes two years later.
A Rush To Judgement
The mishandling of the Richard Jewell investigation is a case study in irresponsible reporting by the press and reckless investigation by the FBI.
“This case has everything — the FBI, the press, the violation of the Bill of Rights, from the First to the Sixth Amendment,” Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant, said of his client’s infamous case.
The catalyst of the inquiry into Jewell’s innocence was a phone call made by Piedmont College President Ray Cleere, Jewell’s former boss who told the FBI about the security guard’s alleged overzealousness and his forced departure. But no one else can be held accountable for the mismanagement of the investigation except the bureau.
A Vanity Fair report a year after the bombing revealed internal tensions stemming from toxic rivalries and a micromanaging leadership, specifically from then-FBI Director Louis Freeh, within the agency. The FBI’s treatment of the case was so bad that an inquiry was made, and Richard Jewell was invited to testify at congressional hearings over the bureau’s conduct.
It was revealed Richard Jewell had been interrogated as a suspect under false pretenses by FBI agents directly handling the bombing case. On July 30, 1996, FBI agents Don Johnson and Diader Rosario brought Jewell to the agency’s headquarters for questioning under the guise of helping them make a training video for first responders.
Reexaminations of the reporting surrounding the case also revealed egregious journalistic mistakes. The tone of the coverage insinuated Jewell’s guilt despite lack of evidence to support the claim and painted him as a fame-hungry wannabe cop.
Dave Kindred, a columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, compared Richard Jewell to convicted murderer and alleged child serial killer Wayne Williams: “Like this one, that suspect was drawn to the blue lights and sirens of police work. Like this one, he became famous in the aftermath of murder.”
The New York Post, meanwhile, called him “a Village Rambo” and “a fat, failed former sheriff’s deputy.”
Jay Leno teased Jewell, saying he “had a scary resemblance to the guy who whacked Nancy Kerrigan… What is it about the Olympic Games that brings out big fat stupid guys?” (Coincidentally, Paul Walter Hauser, the actor who plays Jewell in Clint Eastwood’s film, also played Tony Harding’s bodyguard in I, Tonya.)
Jewell sued several news outlets for libel and won settlements from Piedmont College, the New York Post, CNN and NBC (the latter for a reported $500,000) but lost a decade-long battle with Cox Enterprises, the parent company of the Atlanta paper.
His libel case against the Journal-Constitution continued years after his death in 2007 and went all the way up to the Georgia Supreme Court. But the Court ruled that because the paper’s reporting was true at the time – that he was indeed an FBI suspect in the days after the bombing — it didn’t owe Jewell or his family anything.
The mishandled case has become so infamous that Jewell’s story was adapted to the big screen in the 2019 film Richard Jewell, starring A-listers like Kathy Bates, Sam Rockwell, and Jon Hamm.
Nevertheless, no amount of reparations could ever give Jewell back what he lost: his dignity and peace.
“I hope and pray that no one else is ever subjected to the pain and the ordeal that I have gone through,” he said through tears during a press conference after the Justice Department cleared him of the bombing.
“The authorities should keep in mind the rights of the citizens. I thank God it is ended and that you now know what I have known all along: I am an innocent man.”
After reading about the wrongfully accused Richard Jewell, read about two actual bombers: Ted Kaczynski, the serial-killing Unabomber, and “Mad Bomber” George Metesky, who held New York City hostage with his bomb attacks for 16 years.