Atlanta 1996: When a life-saver had his life ruined in a trial by media

Richard Jewell saved hundreds of lives on July 27th during the 1996 Olympics

Richard Jewell,

Photographers surround Richard Jewell prior to his testifying before a House Judiciary Crime subcommittee hearing on the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta, July 30, 1997. Jewell, a former security guard who was erroneously linked to the 1996 Olympic bombing, died Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson, FILE)

Jumping to conclusions is an unfortunate human trait that occasionally rears its head.

Unfortunately, in 1996 that particular trait had a hugely adverse effect on the life of a security guard during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. It's a murky story, brilliantly retold in the excellent ESPN 30 for 30 short Judging Jewell.

That summer, the world's largest multi-sport extravaganza was taking place in the Peach State - and to paraphrase a song made famous by Ray Charles - Georgia was on everyone's mind.

As with most Olympics, there were open air areas for the public to soak in the atmosphere and Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta was one such location.

On July 27th, hundreds of people were gathered at Centennial Olympic Park for a concert, totally unaware of the danger that lurked there and that something heinous was being planned.

That night, security guard Richard Jewell was carrying out his duties when he discovered a bag underneath a bench. The backpack - it was later discovered that it was left there by terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph who committed other attacks motivated by his anti-LGBT and anti-abortion views - contained a pipe bomb capable of killing hundreds of people if it had not been discovered.

Jewell acted quickly, alerting the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, doing so minutes before Rudolph sent a warning via a 9-1-1 call.

Thanks to Jewell and other security guards, they were able to clear most of the area and saved countless lives, although one person sadly died when a nail from the bomb penetrated her skull, while a Turkish cameraman suffered a fatal heart attack while rushing to the scene.


Richard Jewell is questioned by the media as he returns to his Atlanta apartment in this Saturday, Oct. 26, 1996 file photo. Jewell, a former security guard who was erroneously linked to the 1996 Olympic bombing, died Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said. (AP Photo/Alan Mothner, FILE)

Every loss of life is one too many, but had Jewell not acted, the death toll could have been in the hundreds. Indeed, more than 100 people suffered injuries.

Unfortunately, his status would quickly go from hero to zero. Following a leak, a newspaper stated the FBI were treating him as a 'person of interest' as authorities tried to make progress in their investigation.

Their initial - and wholly inaccurate - theory was based around the lone wolf concept; citing the "hero complex," the idea being explored was that he may have planted the bomb and discovered it in order to be seen as a hero - despite no evidence of that being the case.

Jewell was never officially charged either. However, it did not stop frenzied media speculation regarding him, especially given that his apartment - which he shared with his mother Bobi - was publicly searched as part of the investigation.

"Hundreds if not thousands of journalists already know something's up. People were already out around Richard's apartment," says former CNN producer Henry Schuster in Judging Jewell as he recalled the media frenzy at the time.

Former Olympic security guard Richard Jewell reads a statement as Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue looks on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2006 at the Capitol in Atlanta. Perdue honored Jewell with a belated commendation for his services to the state of Georgia during the 1996 Olympic games. Jewell discovered a bomb in Centennial Olympic Park. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The FBI also kept him under surveillance for almost 90 days while the media attention continued unabated, with his mother recalling in the documentary that "Richard for days would just sit [in the apartment]. He had no place to go. He couldn't go if he wanted to."

Indeed, he was even ridiculed on network TV as Jay Leno jokingly dubbed him the "Una-Doofus," a play on the Una-Bomber moniker.

The pressure only eased when United States Attorney, Kent Alexander, took the unprecedented step of sending Jewell a letter confirming that he was no longer a suspect in the investigation. 

What followed was a period in which he took legal action against media organisations, with NBC and CNN among those settling lawsuits with him. In the mean-time, Rudolph was arrested and in 2005, Jewell was there to witness the perpetrator pleading guilty to the bombing in court.

On August 29th, 2007, just 11 years on from the bombing, Jewell passed away at the age of 44 following multiple health problems. He should be remembered as the lifesaver he was on that fateful day in 1996.