Television

Richard Jewell: The true story behind 1996 Olympic bombing and the ‘character assassination’ of a man who saved lives


A military vest stuffed with pipe bombs threatened the lives of hundreds of people at the Olympic Games in 1996. A security guard who spotted the pack and helped usher people out of a park before its lethal explosion was a hero, then a target.

The story of Richard Jewell‘s character assassination in the wake of the bombing is captured in director Clint Eastwood‘s film named after the Georgia man, who died in 2007.

Ten years before his death, he was considered an unlikely hero who saved hundreds of lives, only to endure several months of police investigation and intense media scrutiny as a suspected terrorist.


Mr Eastwood’s 2019 film is largely absent from this year’s list of Academy Award nominees, save for a supporting actress nomination for Kathy Bates, who also was nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Mr Jewell’s mother Barbara.

Based on Marie Brennar’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell”, the film struggled at the box office but received positive reviews for its retelling of the miscarriage of justice that clouded the life and career of the title character.

 

Critics have given Mr Eastwood some of their best reviews for the filmmaker in recent years, although his conservatism bleeds through the screen as an indictment of journalism and the FBI, Donald Trump’s latest enemies.

The film also has been criticised for its portrayal of journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), who appears to exchange sex to get information from an FBI agent. Ms Scruggs died in 2001.

In a letter published in The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, the newspaper and its parent company Cox Enterprises said that “such a portrayal makes it appear that the AJC sexually exploited its staff and/or that it facilitated or condoned offering sexual gratification to sources in exchange for stories. That is entirely false and malicious, and it is extremely defamatory and damaging.”

Warner Bros., which produced the film, stood behind its film and called the accusations “baseless”.

“It is unfortunate and the ultimate irony that The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, having been a part of the rush to judgment of Richard Jewell, is now trying to malign our filmmakers and cast. ‘Richard Jewell’ focuses on the real victim, seeks to tell his story, confirm his innocence and restore his name.”

In 1988, Atlanta, Georgia was selected as the host city for the 1996 Summer Olympic games, defeating five other cities to host the international spectacle, and returning the Olympics to the US for the first time since the 1984 games in Los Angeles.

That year, boxing legend Muhammed Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. On 19 July 1996, he carried the Olympic torch and lit the symbolic cauldron to mark an emotional opening at the event.

At the games, French track and field Olympian Marie-José Pérec, who won the gold medal in the 400m sprint in 1992, became the first athlete to win that race twice.

US champion Michael Johnson set a world record in his gold-winning 200m sprint, which he completed in a breathtaking 19.3 seconds.

Clint Eastwood directed the Richard Jewell film, which was largely ignored during awards season. (AFP/Getty)

Richard Jewell — who sought a career in law enforcement and was previously employed as a campus security guard — picked up temporary work for the games and was assigned to the security team at Centennial Olympic Park.

On 27 July 1996, the band Jack Mack and the Heart Attack performed as a crowd filled the bustling Olympic village.

There, Mr Jewell noticed an unusual bag — a green military-style field pack — that was abandoned under a bench and leaning against a sound tower.

Mr Jewell immediately alerted officers at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Nine minutes later, 9-1-1 call operators received a warning that a bomb would explode within 30 minutes.

Mr Jewell and other security guards helped evacuate the area as a bomb squad prepared to enter the building.

But only a few minutes into the evacuation, and 19 minutes after that 9-1-1 call was made, the pipe bombs inside the 40-pound bag exploded.

The bombs were rigged with an alarm clock and powered by nitroglycerin dynamite in plastic containers filled with three-inch-long masonry nails, spraying into the crowd as deadly shrapnel.

The explosion injured 110 people and killed one woman, Alicia Hawthorne, who had travelled to attend the games with her daughter.

A cameraman, Melih Uzunyol, died from a heart attack while running to film the scene.

Despite the dangerous shadow left in the bomb’s wake and the lingering tragedy that echoed through the games, Mr Jewell — a soft-spoken, heavy set Georgia man with a small moustache — was lauded for his heroism as the games continued.

But the short-lived hero’s welcome soon turned to law enforcement surveillance and media attention after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed police were considering Mr Jewell as a possible suspect. On the front page, the headline read: “FBI SUSPECTS ‘HERO’ GUARD MAY HAVE PLANTED BOMB”.

The story made international news. Tom Brokaw appeared on NBC News and said: “They probably have enough to arrest him right now, probably enough to prosecute him… but you always want to have enough to convict him as well. There are still holes in this case.”

On The Tonight Show, Jay Leno joked that Mr Jewell had a “scary resemblance to the guy who whacked Nancy Kerrigan”.

The ultimately destructive decision to publish the stories relied on a tip to the FBI from Mr Jewell’s former employer. There was no evidence to suggest he was responsible, and he was never arrested.

Police searched his apartment, and before he knew he was as suspect, the FBI asked to speak with him for what they said was a training film about bomb detection — their attempt to get a videotaped confession.

The agents didn’t advise Mr Jewell of his rights or his ability to retain a lawyer until the interview had already begun. He was told that he was an actor in the video and was being read his right “just like it’s a real official interview”, according to a Justice Department report.

A few months after the bombing, the multi-agency investigation from local, state and federal law enforcement groups was dropped.

On 26 October 1996, nearly three months to the day of the attack, Mr Jewell was formally cleared by US Attorney Kent Alexander, who wrote in a letter that “based on the evidence” Mr Jewell was “not considered a target of the federal criminal investigation” into the Centennial Park attack.

Despite law enforcement formally dismissing Mr Jewell as a suspect, he felt there was a cloud of suspicion hanging over him throughout the rest of his life.

Eric Rudolph was arrested on 31 May 2003 while rifling through a rubbish bin behind a grocery store in Murphy, North Carolina.

He was living in the mountains after carrying out four bombings, including an attack on an abortion clinic in Alabama. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to the Atlanta bombing.

Former FBI executive Chris Swecker said his motive was inspired by ideas be “borrowed from a lot of different places” that “formed his own personal ideology” that was “anti-government and anti-abortion, anti-gay, ‘anti’ a lot of things”.

His decision to bomb bombings “sprang from his own unique biases and prejudices”, Mr Swecker said.

Rudolph is serving a life sentence.

Meanwhile, Mr Jewell went on to work for several law enforcement agencies in Georgia, most recently as a sheriff’s deputy in Meriwether County.

Though Mr Jewell won settlements from CNN and NBC after filing lawsuits against several news outlets, his libel case against the media company Cox Enterprises cycled through the courts before it eventually collapsed years after his death.

In 2011, a Georgia court sided with the newspaper, which a judge ruled had accurately reported the facts as available at the time the story was published.

Mr Jewell died on 27 August 2007. He was 44.

In 2006, then-Governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia marked the 10th anniversary of the bombings by issuing a commendation to Mr Jewell, who the governor said “deserves to be remembered as a hero”. 

“The bottom line is this”, Governor Perdue said. “His actions saved lives that day. He did what he was trained to do.


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