Fortunes can change in a split second, and that was certainly true for Richard Jewell.
The security guard initially hailed as a hero for helping move people out of harm’s way just before a bomb exploded during a concert at the 1996 Summer Olympics became a public spectacle after the media called him a suspect.
As the 10-year anniversary of the July 27 blast that killed one and injured 111 nears, the memory of that episode is still fresh in Jewell’s mind.
“The heroes are soon forgotten. The villains last a lifetime,” Jewell, 43, told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview. “I dare say more people know I was called a suspect than know I was the one who found the package and know I was cleared.”
Jewell, who now works as a small-town sheriff’s deputy in west Georgia, insists he never considered himself a hero.
“All I did was my job,” said Jewell, who has a cleanly shaved pate and is trimmer than the burly man caught in the media’s glare a decade ago. “I did what I was trained to do.”
The frenzy surrounding Jewell started three days after the bombing with an unattributed report in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that described Jewell as “the focus” of the investigation and someone who “fits the profile of the lone bomber.” The newspaper referred to Jewell as the FBI’s “prime suspect” in a follow-up story.
Other media, to varying degrees, also soon linked Jewell to the investigation. The Associated Press, citing an anonymous federal law enforcement source, said Jewell was “a focus” of investigators, but that others had “not yet been ruled out as potential suspects.”
Reporters from around the country set up camp outside his mother’s apartment in the Atlanta area and his life was dissected for weeks by the media. He was questioned by authorities and search warrants were issued related to him, but he was never arrested or charged.
Eighty-eight days after the initial news report, then U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander issued a statement saying that Jewell “is not a target” of the bombing investigation and that the “unusual and intense publicity” surrounding him was “neither designed nor desired by the FBI, and in fact interfered with the investigation.”
It turned out the actual bomber was an anti-government extremist named Eric Rudolph, who also planted three other bombs in the Atlanta area and in Birmingham, Ala., that killed a police officer, maimed a nurse and injured several others. Rudolph pleaded guilty to all four bombings last year and is serving life in prison.
“There were thousands of reporters from all over the world here,” Jewell said. “This incident of the finger-pointing at me and calling me the bomber pulled so many of those reporters off of the stories they should have been doing on the athletes that had dedicated their whole life to represent their country.”
Since the Olympics, Jewell has worked in various law enforcement jobs, including as a police officer in Pendergrass, Ga., where his partner was fatally shot in 2004 during a pursuit of a suspect. Jewell said he was honored by the city, which is 49 miles northeast of Atlanta, for his bravery during the chase.
Jewell said it helps that Rudolph was convicted for the Olympic bombing, but he still believes some people will still remember him as a suspect.
“For that two days, my mother had a great deal of pride in me – that I had done something good and that she was my mother, and that was taken away from her,” Jewell said. “She’ll never get that back, and there’s no way I can give that back to her.”
He said the experience has made him more distrustful of people. He rarely does interviews anymore.
“I can tell you for sure I’m a different person,” Jewell said. “I’m paranoid. I’m cynical.”
He gives speeches to college journalism classes about his experience with the media.
“I hate knowing what’s happened and then reading about it and seeing it on the news and it being wrong, because of what happened to me,” Jewell said. “It’s just un-American.”
In the years that followed the bombing, Jewell sued several media companies and settled for undisclosed amounts with them. To date, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has not settled and the lawsuit against the paper is still pending.
Jewell insists the lawsuits were not about making money – he bought his mother a place to live and gave 73 percent of the settlement money to his attorneys and to the government in taxes – but about making sure the truth was told.
“I’m not rich by any means monetarily,” he said. “I’m rich because of my family. If I never get there, I don’t care. I’m gonna get my say in court.”
Peter Canfield, a lawyer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said the paper to this day stands by its coverage of Jewell and it has not offered him a settlement.
“The investigation did target him and the Journal-Constitution accurately reported that,” Canfield said. “There’s no question but that he was the focus of the investigation and its principal suspect.”
These days, Jewell is married and works as a sheriff’s deputy in rural Meriwether County, about 53 miles from Atlanta.
For someone who has shunned attention, the county, with 22,000 people, mostly dusty roads and sprawling cattle fields, seems a fitting choice.
Earlier this month, Jewell was found working out of a meeting room in the county jail, where he was busy writing up a report on an alleged rape.
He’s still guarded around reporters. Interrupted as he was working up the report, he tensed as he was introduced. He declined to speak at the time, but ultimately agreed to Saturday’s interview with AP in his lawyer’s office in Atlanta.
“He brings a lot of experience. You could label him a hero,” said Col. Chuck Smith, one of Jewell’s superiors.
Then, remembering he was talking to a reporter, he added with a smile: “I guess you could label him however you want.”