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Richard Jewell, wrongly accused of Olympics bombing, dies at 44


ATLANTA (AP) — Richard Jewell lived for more than a decade with the shame caused by being wrongly linked to the 1996 Olympic bombing. The former security guard died Wednesday without closure with the newspaper he accused of starting the frenzy.

Jewell, who had diabetes, kidney problems and was on dialysis for several days recently, was found dead in his west Georgia home. He was 44. An autopsy was scheduled for Thursday, though Meriwether County Coroner Johnny Worley said foul play was not suspected.

The Jewell episode led to soul-searching among news organizations about the use of unattributed or anonymously sourced information. His very name became shorthand for a person accused of wrongdoing in the media based on scanty information.

Jewell sued several media companies, including NBC, CNN and the New York Post, and settled for undisclosed amounts. According to his longtime attorney, Lin Wood, Jewell also settled a lawsuit against Piedmont College, a former employer of his. That amount was also confidential.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which described Jewell as “the focus” of the investigation in an unattributed report three days after the bombing, never settled a lawsuit Jewell filed against it. Wood said a trial is set for January.

“I expect to pursue it for Richard and his estate,” Wood said. “But that is a decision for a less sad day.”

Jewell, a security guard during the Atlanta Olympics, was initially hailed as a hero for spotting a suspicious backpack in a park and moving people out of harm’s way just before a bomb exploded during a concert. The blast killed one and injured 111 others.

After the Journal-Constitution article, other media, to varying degrees, also linked Jewell to the investigation. Jewell was portrayed as a loser and law-enforcement wannabe who may have planted the bomb so he would look like a hero when he discovered it later.

The Associated Press, citing an anonymous federal law enforcement source, said after the Journal-Constitution report that Jewell was “a focus” of investigators, but that others had “not yet been ruled out as potential suspects.”

Amid the stories, reporters camped outside Jewell’s mother’s apartment in the Atlanta area and dissected his life. He was never arrested or charged, although he was questioned and was a subject of search warrants.

Journal-Constitution Publisher John Mellott said Wednesday that Jewell was a hero, “as we all came to learn.”

“The story of how Mr. Jewell moved from hero to suspect and back in the Olympic Park bombing investigation is one The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported fully even as it defended itself in a libel case brought by him,” Mellott said. He declined to comment on the lawsuit.

A lawyer for the newspaper, Peter Canfield, has said previously that the newspaper stands by its coverage of Jewell.

Eighty-eight days after the initial news report, U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander issued a statement saying 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.”

In 1997, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno expressed regret over the leak regarding Jewell. “I’m very sorry it happened,” she told reporters. “I think we owe him an apology.”

The bomber turned out to be anti-government extremist Eric Rudolph, who also planted three other bombs in the Atlanta area and in Birmingham, Ala. Those explosives killed a police officer, maimed a nurse and injured several other people.

Rudolph was captured after spending five years hiding out in the mountains of western North Carolina. He pleaded guilty to all four bombings in 2005 and is serving life in prison.

Jewell, in an interview with AP last year around the 10th anniversary of the Olympic bombing, insisted 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. He said the cases were about ensuring the truth was told.

“I’m not rich by any means monetarily,” he said at the time. “I’m rich because of my family. If I never get there, I don’t care. I’m going to get my say in court.”

Jewell told the AP last year that Rudolph’s conviction helped clear his name, but he believed some people still remember him as a suspect rather than for the two days in which he was praised as a hero.

“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.”

A year ago, Gov. Sonny Perdue commended Jewell at a bombing anniversary event. “This is what I think is the right thing to do,” Perdue declared as he handed a certificate to Jewell.

Jewell said: “I never expected this day to ever happen. I’m just glad that it did.”

Since the Olympics, Jewell worked in various law enforcement jobs, including as a police officer in Pendergrass, Ga., where his partner was fatally shot in 2004 during the pursuit of a suspect.

As recently as last year, Jewell was working as a sheriff’s deputy in west Georgia. He also gave speeches to college journalism classes about his experience.

Wood, Jewell’s attorney, described Jewell as “a dedicated public servant whose heroism the night of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing saved the lives of many people.”

“He will be missed, but never forgotten,” Wood said.


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