Somewhere in Centennial Olympic Park, we must remember Richard Jewell.
The park forever will hold Atlanta’s memory of the 1996 Olympics, with all its glory, gold and terror. It also holds the memory of what Richard Jewell did on the worst night of the Games, a night that could have been much worse had it not been for Jewell’s actions.
A Richard Jewell memorial could also remind journalists like me that we write about people, whose lives may forever be changed as a consequence of our reporting. We can leave bruises.
As a security guard assigned to the AT&T pavilion, Jewell was working the park the night the band Jack Mack and the Heart Attack was scheduled to perform.
As Jewell helped manage the happy throng, he spotted a large olive-green military-style backpack, known as an Alice pack, under a park bench. He became suspicious.
The pack had been deposited there a bit earlier by Eric Rudolph, a virulent abortion and gay rights opponent. He had packed it with three pipe bombs, each surrounded with 3-inch masonry nails. In his confession years later, Rudolph explained that he was moved to rage by the prospect of the Olympic Games and all it represented.
The young security guard who dreamed of being a policeman alerted a nearby GBI agent about the mysterious Alice pack. Almost immediately, Jewell and the agent cleared a 25-foot-square area around the backpack. Jewell warned technicians working on the nearby towers.
In a few minutes, the bomb exploded. Nails rocketed like bullets through the night air, piercing the bodies of more than 100 people. Among them was Alice Hawthorne of Albany, who died when one of the nails penetrated her skull.
My job back then was to direct our coverage of the non-sporting side of the Olympics, including security.
We had prepared for such an attack and cultivated law enforcement sources for two years before the Games. When I saw the bombing on TV, I rushed to the newspaper a few blocks from the park and got to work.
At first, Jewell was proclaimed a hero. But in the days after the bombing, some FBI agents turned their attentions to Jewell himself. While they never declared him a suspect, they treated him as one and interrogated him sharply at FBI offices here. The agents’ interest in Jewell, along with the details of documents they filed to support a search warrant of Jewell’s mother’s house, began to circulate among law enforcement officials.
Our reporters soon learned that FBI agents were suspicious of Jewell. We obtained specific and documented details of their suspicions and theories that implicated Jewell. After deliberating for hours, we decided that our obligation was to report what we knew in the next available edition of the newspaper. I edited the front page story naming Jewell.
We were first to report that the FBI was looking at Jewell, but it is absurd to believe that the news would have waited on us. Even in those days of an embryonic Internet, the Olympics had brought 10,000 reporters to town. Others knew what we knew.
I remember seeing Jewell in the heart of the media maelstrom that followed. It was painful to watch, and he appeared to be anything but a terrorist. Almost immediately, our reporters began to unravel the false narrative that implicated Jewell. It simply made no sense. We quickly reported that it would have been impossible for Jewell to have planted the bomb, walked blocks away to a pay phone to call in a warning and then return in time to be near the bomb when it exploded.
As the world knows, Jewell eventually filed libel suits against media companies, including ours. Others settled; we didn’t. Over years of litigation, it was proved time and time again that it was accurate to report that authorities had focused on Jewell. The suit was eventually dismissed.
Yet, the accuracy of our reporting in no way diminishes what Richard Jewell did for us all. The Games resumed in full force, and Atlantans defied Rudolph’s dark dreams.
The FBI – after tormenting him for nearly three months – abandoned its accusations and apologized. While the many stories that followed Jewell’s exoneration went a long way toward restoring his good name, I suspect he and his family never got over the experience.
I believed then and I believe now that we not only were legally justified to report that the U.S. government had targeted a citizen in its investigation. I also believe we had a journalistic obligation to do so. That’s what we do. I would never argue that everything we did was perfect; but we wrote in a crucible, did the best we could and acquitted ourselves well.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t lost sleep over Jewell’s ordeal. I have and I do. The episode changed me as a journalist forever. As a consequence, this newsroom works hard, perhaps harder than any newsroom in America, to reach out to people who are likely to be bruised by our reporting.
I want no surprises; I want to make sure that the human beings who appear in our journalism know what we will say about them or their actions. They must have a chance to explain and respond. In our recent investigation of sexual abuse by doctors, our reporting has called out dozens of doctors and victims by name. We took great pains to reach out to each and every one. We are better journalists for it.
Richard Jewell died in 2007. I saw him in person only once, but would give anything to be able to shake his hand and simply say, “Thanks.”
Now and then I walk through Centennial Park remembering those days. I may be one of the very few who can see the few scars of the bomb that remain on the park’s relics. The explosion wasn’t far from a display that names the heroes of 1996.
One name is missing. I think Atlanta should fix that. Recognizing his heroism in some lasting form is the right thing to do.
Watson Bryant, who was Jewell’s friend and attorney, and I have found common ground in this after all these years. “Richard has surely earned recognition as a major partner in the saving and eventual success of the Atlanta Olympic Games,” Bryant emailed me the other day. “With his mother he endured with dignity and humility worldwide condemnation and ridicule for 88 days.
“Commemoration is much better late than never.”
A.D. Frazier, the top Atlanta Olympics organizer, long has believed that Jewell has never received his due.
“Let’s right this wrong and sleep well at night,” Frazier emailed me. “History will never forgive us if we don’t.”