Richard Jewell went from hero to villain within a matter of days after he discovered a deadly pipe bomb while working as a security guard at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Jewell came across a backpack under a bench in Centennial Park and immediately alerted officials to the suspicious package. Inside the pack were three elaborate pipe bombs filled with nails and screws.
His discovery saved countless lives as he and other security guards and law enforcement were able to begin clearing the area before it detonated. The park was jammed with people watching a concert, but Jewell and others were able to get attendees away from the benches.
Still, one person was killed and 111 were injured when the bomb exploded during the crowded Olympics event. A cameraman also died of a heart attack while rushing to cover the event.
While Jewell was initially lauded as an American hero, he was soon eyed as a possible suspect. This shift was depicted in Clint Eastwood's 2019 film "Richard Jewell," showing how "the law enforcement wannabe becomes the FBI's number one suspect, vilified by press and public alike, his life ripped apart,” a Warner Brothers press release stated. Most recently, the case is explored in the second season of the Netflix series "Manhunt: Deadly Games."
The FBI began investigating Jewell, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs reported that he was being eyed as a possible suspect after an FBI source leaked information on the investigation to her, Vanity Fair reported.
Jewell was then destroyed in the media.
The New York Post called him both "a Village Rambo" and "a fat, failed former sheriff's deputy,” according to Vanity Fair. Meanwhile TV Host Jay Leno said,"What is it about the Olympic Games that brings out big, fat stupid guys?"
Despite the media circus, Jewell was never officially named a suspect.
He was cleared 88 days after the bombing. The U.S. Attorney's office delivered a letter to Jewell which lifted official suspicion from him but offered no apology, CNN reported.
Jewell subsequently filed multiple libel lawsuits against news organizations and other entities for incorrectly casting him as a suspect. He sued the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the paper that first named him as a possible suspect and compared him to Wayne Williams, a killer believed to be responsible for the Atlanta Child Murders, the New York Times reported. Jewell also sued CNN and NBC and received unspecified settlements from both, CNN reported. He sued the New York Post, from which he also received a undisclosed settlement. He also sued Piedmont College after its president called Jewell a "badge-wearing zealot,” according to a 1997 Washington Post article and the school also settled for an unspecified amount.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was the only defendant that didn't offer Jewell a settlement. His lawsuit against them was dismissed in 2011 after the Georgia Court of Appeals concluded “the articles in their entirety were substantially true at the time they were published" –– not in the sense that he was responsible for the bombings, rather that the FBI was in fact looking at him as a possible suspect –– the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
In 1997, after the settlements, Jewell actually appeared on Saturday Night Live. He joked with Weekend Update host Norm McDonald about receiving settlement money from NBC and also fielded mock questions from the comedian about being responsible for the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa.
That same year, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno apologized for the FBI leak, stating "I'm very sorry it happened. I think we owe him an apology. I regret the leak," CNN reported.
The real bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph, wasn't arrested until 2003. He pleaded guilty in 2005 for the Olympic bombing, as a well as three other attacks, in a deal to avoid a potential death penalty. He bombed two abortion clinics, one in the Atlanta area and one in Birmingham, Alabama, as well as a nightclub in Atlanta area.
Jewell was finally exonerated completely after Rudolph’s 2005 plea deal and was even in the courtroom when the plea was entered, though he didn't make any comment, the Associated Press reported at the time.
He went on to hold several police jobs after the bombing, including working as a sheriff's deputy for the Meriwether County Sheriff’s Department in Georgia since 2003, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“I always thought he was a good officer,” Sheriff Steve Whitlock told the outlet in 2007. “He loved law enforcement. That’s what he ate and slept: law enforcement.”
Jewell died in 2007. He reportedly had been suffering from health complications stemming from diabetes, the New York Times reported.
To this day, journalists have expressed remorse for Jewell's treatment in the media, including one recent commentary written by Henry Schuster, a former investigative producer for CNN who arranged for Jewell's first TV interview following the bombing, entitled "I made Richard Jewell famous - and destroyed his life in the process."
Paul Walter Hauser plays Jewell in “Richard Jewell,” a movie based on the true events surrounding the bombing and its circus-like aftermath. The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, hits theaters nationwide Friday.
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