ATLANTA — Security guard Richard Jewell was initially hailed as a hero for spotting a suspicious backpack and moving people out of harm’s way just before a bomb exploded, killing one and injuring 111 others. But within days, he was named as a suspect in the blast.
Though eventually cleared in the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing, Jewell, who was found dead Wednesday at 44, never recovered from the shame of being wrongly linked to the bombing in the news media. Finally, a year ago, he was again hailed as a hero.
Gov. Sonny Perdue commended Jewell at a bombing anniversary event. “This is what I think is the right thing to do,” Perdue declared as he handed a certificate to Jewell.
Jewell said: “I never expected this day to ever happen. I’m just glad that it did.”
It was one of his last good days. Jewell, who had diabetes and kidney problems and was recently on dialysis, was found dead in his west Georgia home.
An autopsy Thursday showed Jewell had severe heart disease and essentially had a heart attack, Dr. Kris Sperry said. Jewell’s diabetes contributed to the heart problems, Sperry said. He said toxicology tests would also be done because of the notoriety of the case.
Jewell's life was dissected
After the Olympics, Jewell worked in various law enforcement jobs, including as a police officer in Pendergrass, Ga., where his partner was fatally shot in 2004 during the pursuit of a suspect.
As recently as last year, Jewell was working as a sheriff’s deputy in west Georgia. He also gave speeches to college journalism classes about his experience.
For two days after the July 27, 1996, bombing, Jewell was hailed as a hero for shepherding people away from the suspicious backpack.
But on the third day, an unattributed report in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution described him as “the focus” of the investigation.
Other media, to varying degrees, also linked Jewell to the investigation and portrayed him as a loser and law-enforcement wannabe who may have planted the bomb so he would look like a hero when he discovered it later.
The AP, citing an anonymous federal law enforcement source, said after the Journal-Constitution report that Jewell was “a focus” of investigators, but that others had “not yet been ruled out as potential suspects.”
Reporters camped outside Jewell’s mother’s apartment in the Atlanta area, and his life was dissected for weeks by the media. He was never arrested or charged, although he was questioned and was a subject of search warrants.
U.S. apologizes to Jewell
Eighty-eight days after the initial news report, U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander issued a statement saying Jewell “is not a target” of the bombing investigation and that the “unusual and intense publicity” surrounding him was “neither designed nor desired by the FBI, and in fact interfered with the investigation.”
The episode led to soul-searching among news organizations about the use of unattributed or anonymously sourced information. Jewell’s name became shorthand for a person accused of wrongdoing in the media based on scanty information.
In 1997, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno expressed regret over the leak regarding Jewell. “I’m very sorry it happened,” she told reporters. “I think we owe him an apology.”
Eventually, the bomber turned out to be anti-government extremist Eric Rudolph, who also planted three other bombs in the Atlanta area and in Birmingham, Ala. Those explosives killed a police officer, maimed a nurse and injured several other people.
Rudolph was captured after spending five years hiding out in the mountains of western North Carolina. He pleaded guilty to all four bombings in 2005 and is serving life in prison.
Trial set for January
Jewell sued several media organizations, including NBC, CNN and the New York Post, and settled for undisclosed amounts. According to Lin Wood, Jewell’s longtime attorney, Jewell also settled a lawsuit against Piedmont College, a former employer. That amount was also confidential.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution never settled a lawsuit Jewell filed against it, and the case is set for trial in January.
“I expect to pursue it for Richard and his estate,” Wood said. “But that is a decision for a less sad day.”
A lawyer for the newspaper, Peter Canfield, has said that the newspaper stands by its coverage of Jewell. Publisher John Mellott declined to comment about the lawsuit on Wednesday but said that Jewell was a hero “as we all came to learn.”
“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,” Mellott said.
Jewell, in an interview with the AP last year around the 10th anniversary of the bombing, insisted the lawsuits were not about making money. He bought his mother a place to live and gave 73 percent of the settlement money to his attorneys and to the government in taxes. He said the cases were about ensuring the truth was told.
“I’m not rich by any means monetarily,” he said at the time. “I’m rich because of my family. If I never get there, I don’t care. I’m going to get my say in court.”
'She'll never get that back'
Jewell told the AP last year that Rudolph’s conviction helped clear his name, but he believed some people still remember him as a suspect rather than for the two days in which he was praised as a hero.
“For that two days, my mother had a great deal of pride in me — that I had done something good and that she was my mother, and that was taken away from her,” Jewell said. “She’ll never get that back, and there’s no way I can give that back to her.”
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