Richard Jewell, the former security guard who was wrongly identified as a suspect in a fatal bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, died Wednesday morning at his home in Meriwether County, Ga., according to the local coroner. He was 44.
Jewell had been suffering from health problems including diabetes and kidney trouble, said Coroner Johnny Worley.
Since 2003, Jewell had been a deputy in the Meriwether County Sheriff’s Department, where he was on disability leave. It was one of a number of small-town police jobs he’d held since his name was cleared by the FBI.
“I always thought he was a good officer,” Sheriff Steve Whitlock said. “He loved law enforcement. That’s what he ate and slept: law enforcement.”
For many Americans, the naming of Jewell as a bombing suspect by some news outlets was emblematic of a media culture that had become too quick to judge. Indeed, along with a cascade of lawsuits and apologies, Jewell’s predicament sparked a debate about a key responsibility of journalists that has not been fully resolved, said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Project for Excellence in Journalism.
At the heart of the matter for news organizations, Rosenstiel said, is a question that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution faced as it prepared its story naming Jewell, based on anonymous law enforcement sources: “If an official says something to you, and he or she really believes it -- but they might be wrong -- is that good enough to go with it?”
It is an issue, Rosenstiel said, that continues to intensify with the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle.
Before the Olympics, Jewell’s life story had been unexceptional: He worked as a mail clerk for the Small Business Administration in Atlanta and had some law enforcement experience. When the Olympics arrived, he was living with his mother.
On July 27, 1996, Jewell was working as a security guard patrolling Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta during a concert when an anonymous caller phoned in a bomb threat to Atlanta police. Before word of the threat got to him, Jewell discovered a suspicious backpack containing the bomb and alerted the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. He also helped evacuate bystanders.
The bomb exploded, killing one person and injuring more than 100.
Federal investigators began toying with the idea that Jewell may have planted the bomb to set himself up as a hero. A few days later, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, followed by other news outlets, identified him as a focus of the investigation.
TV anchors and newspapers that had originally praised Jewell for finding the bomb were suddenly telling a very different kind of story. Journalists were combing through his life history. A columnist for the New York Post described him as a “fat, failed former sheriff’s deputy.”
By late October, U.S. Atty. Kent Alexander said Jewell was no longer considered a target of the investigation. The focus eventually shifted to an antiabortion zealot named Eric Rudolph, who was captured in 2003 in the backwoods of North Carolina after a five-year manhunt.
In 2005, Rudolph entered an Atlanta courtroom and admitted to masterminding the Olympic bombing and two others. Jewell sat in the audience as Rudolph entered his guilty plea.
After his name was cleared, Jewell argued that his reputation had been unfairly tarnished. He reached legal settlements with a number of media outlets, including NBC and CNN, after threatening them with legal action, according to one of his attorneys, G. Watson Bryant Jr.
A defamation case against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is pending, with a court date set for January.
But Jewell lived long enough to again receive public commendation for his actions the night of the bombing. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue presented him with an award on the 10th anniversary of the bombing.
“Mr. Jewell deserves to be remembered as a hero for the actions he performed during the Centennial Olympic Games,” the commendation read, according to the Associated Press. “He is a model citizen, and the state of Georgia thanks him for his long-standing commitment to law enforcement.”
Attorney Bryant was also a longtime friend of his client. He said Jewell had found a modicum of contentment in his later years: He was happily married, working as a sheriff’s deputy and living on a big spread southwest of Atlanta that was full of “country-boy toys” -- he loved to hunt and fish.
But the bombing affair, Bryant said, remained “a great weight” to bear.
“It had a material, bad effect on him, you know?” Bryant said. “It’s not like he’s remembered as the guy who did his job, found the bomb and then acted heroically by moving people out of the way. . . . He’s remembered as the guy who was falsely accused by some. And by others, he’s remembered as the guy who got away with it. I hear that to this day. It’s amazing how ignorant people are.”
Jewell is survived by his wife, Dana Jewell, of Woodbury, Ga., and his mother, Barbara Jewell, of Atlanta.