Richard Jewell’s fortunes changed in a split second.
The security guard was initially hailed as a hero for spotting a suspicious backpack in a park and moving people out of harm’s way just before a bomb exploded during a concert at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Then the media called him a suspect and he became a public spectacle.
As the 10th anniversary nears of the July 27 blast that killed one and injured 111 others, the episode is still fresh in Jewell’s mind.
“The heroes are soon forgotten. The villains last a lifetime,” Jewell told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview. “I dare say more people know I was called a suspect than know I was the one who found the package and know I was cleared.”
Jewell, 43, who now works as a sheriff’s deputy in a rural county, says he never considered himself a hero for warning people.
“All I did was my job,” said Jewell, who is trimmer than the burly man caught in the media’s glare a decade ago. “I did what I was trained to do.”
The frenzy that changed Jewell’s life started three days after the bombing with an unattributed report in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that described him as “the focus” of the investigation.
Other media, to varying degrees, also linked Jewell to the investigation. “There were thousands of reporters from all over the world here,” he said.
He was never arrested or charged, although he was questioned and was a subject of search warrants.
Eighty-eight days after the initial news report, then-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.”
Eventually, it turned out the bomber was anti-government extremist Eric Rudolph, who also planted three other bombs in the Atlanta area and in Birmingham, Ala., that killed a police officer, maimed a nurse and injured several others. Rudolph was captured after spending five years hiding out in the mountains of western North Carolina, pleaded guilty to all four bombings last year and is serving life in prison.
‘I’m a different person’
Jewell said Rudolph’s conviction helped, but he believes 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.”
He said the experience has made him distrustful of people and he rarely gives interviews.
“I can tell you for sure I’m a different person,” Jewell said. “I’m paranoid. I’m cynical.”
Since the Olympics, Jewell has worked in various law enforcement jobs, including as a police officer in Pendergrass, Ga., where his partner was killed in 2004 while pursuing a suspect. Jewell’s lawyer, Lin Wood, confirmed that his client was honored by the city for bravery during the chase.
He gives speeches to college journalism classes about his experience with the media.
Issues with the media
“I hate knowing what’s happened and then reading about it and seeing it on the news and it being wrong, because of what happened to me,” Jewell said.
He sued several media companies and settled for undisclosed amounts, but his lawsuit against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is still pending.
Peter Canfield, a lawyer for the Journal-Constitution, said the paper to this day stands by its coverage of Jewell and it has not offered him a settlement.
“The investigation did target him and the Journal-Constitution accurately reported that,” Canfield said. “There’s no question but that he was the focus of the investigation and its principal suspect.”
Jewell insists the lawsuits were not about making money — he bought his mother a place to live and 73 percent of the settlement money went to his attorneys and taxes — but about making sure the truth was told.
“I’m not rich by any means monetarily,” he said. “I’m rich because of my family. If I never get there, I don’t care. I’m gonna get my say in court.”
These days, Jewell is married and is a sheriff’s deputy in Meriwether County, about 53 miles from Atlanta, which has just 22,000 people, dusty roads and sprawling cattle pastures.
“He brings a lot of experience. You could label him a hero,” said Col. Chuck Smith, one of Jewell’s superiors.
Then, remembering he was talking to a reporter, Smith added with a smile: “I guess you could label him however you want.”