It’s been nearly two and a half decades since Richard Jewell’s name first made headlines in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (then just known as The Atlanta Journal) after he discovered a backpack pipe bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park. Now, his story is being told in a new film, also titled Richard Jewell, that's swirling in its own controversies. But Jewell's story is an interesting one.
At the time, he was a security guard contracted by AT&T to keep watch over its five-story sound and light tower; he had previously served as a security guard at other facilities and institutions, including a small Georgia school called Piedmont College. His previous ties to Piedmont College became increasingly relevant as the FBI reportedly changed its attitude toward Jewell from one of praise and gratitude to one of suspicion. Within three days of the bombing, which killed one woman and injured more than 100 others, authorities began to consider Jewell a leading suspect in the case. Their suspicions were furthered when Jewell’s previous employers at Piedmont College called the FBI to voice their concerns that Jewell had been “overly zealous” in his work at the college. Acquaintances who spoke to the FBI recalled Jewell owning a backpack similar to the one that held the bomb. It seemed as though all signs pointed toward Jewell’s guilt.
Within less than a week, Jewell went from being a hero cop to one of America’s most reviled would-be villains. His reputation would forever be tied to the horrific act of terrorism, and he spent the next three months holed up in his apartment, where he lived with his mother, trying to escape the public eye. He was ultimately found not guilty, and the actual man who had planted the pipe bomb, Eric Robert Rudolph, was found and arrested in 2005. (In a press conference held after his acquittal, Jewell referred to the three-month period as his “88 days of hell.”)
“I am not the bomber,” he said during a press conference following his acquittal. “I am a man who lived every waking minute for 88 days afraid I would be arrested for a horrible crime I did not commit. For 88 days I lived a nightmare. … In its rush to show the world it had found its man, the FBI trampled on my rights as [a] citizen. The media cared nothing for my feelings as a human being. In their mad rush to fill their personal agendas, the FBI and the media almost destroyed me and my mother.”
Unfortunately for Jewell, though his name was cleared in the legal system, his life was forever changed following his very public trial, and he spent the remainder of his days trying to get a semblance of his good name back. He and his lawyer, Watson Bryant, sued NBC, CNN, the New York Post, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for libel; the first three news outlets settled out of court, but the AJC fought back against Jewell’s suit, and it was eventually dismissed by the Georgia Court of Appeals in late 2007.
Jewell never lived to see the result of the case. He died earlier that same year, in August 2007, at his home in Woodbury, Ga., following months of tussling with serious medical issues linked to a diabetes diagnosis earlier that year. He was just 44 years old.