One of the darkest moments in Atlanta’s history, the 1996 Summer Olympics bombing, grew darker still when the FBI and major media wrongly fingered heroic security guard Richard Jewell as the bomber. A Nov. 12 panel discussion at the Atlanta History Center about “The Suspect,” a new book telling Jewell’s story, was a historic moment in itself, gathering significant figures from the case onstage and in the audience.

Drawing a crowd of hundreds, the event was partly a preemptive strike on how Atlanta may be portrayed in Clint Eastwood’s upcoming movie about Jewell, partly a lecture on history and Jewell’s life, and partly an emotional reflection on an investigation gone astray while the real bomber escaped to continue his crimes. Jewell died at age 44 in 2007.

From left, panelists Bert Roughton, former senior managing editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and “The Suspect” co-authors Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen, joined by moderator John Pruitt, listen to an introduction by Atlanta History Center President and CEO Sheffield Hale at the Nov. 12 panel discussion. (John Ruch)

“The Suspect” co-authors Kent Alexander, who was Atlanta’s chief federal prosecutor at the time, and Kevin Salwen, the Wall Street Journal’s regional editor during the Olympics, were on the panel. So was Bert Roughton, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor involved in the paper’s decision to reveal Jewell as the FBI’s suspect. Roughton said it was the first time he had discussed the controversial story before an audience after years of unsuccessful libel lawsuits by Jewell and his estate.

“I know that a lot of people second-guess and say, ‘Oh, we would never do that,’” said Roughton about publishing the Jewell scoop, based on leaked information obtained by the late reporter Kathy Scruggs. “I don’t believe that there’s a red-blooded American journalist who, in that same set of circumstances, wouldn’t have gone ahead and published the story. …That’s not to say that what happened to Richard Jewell after that wasn’t awful.”

Richard Jewell, right, joined by attorney L. Lin Wood at a 2006 event where Jewell was honored by Gov. Sonny Perdue as a rescue hero of the Atlanta Olympics bombing. (Special)

“There was absolutely a rush to judgment in the media and law enforcement…,” said Alexander, while also describing Jewell as a valid suspect to examine. “So, rush to judgment, yes. But should Richard Jewell have been a suspect? Yes also.”

Among those in the audience were Watson Bryant, Jewell’s defense attorney; Dana Jewell, the widow of Richard; Bill Rankin, an AJC reporter who co-wrote a crucial story casting doubt on Jewell’s guilt; and George Hamilton, who was Scruggs’ partner before her death in 2001 at age 42.

Dana Jewell declined to comment immediately after the discussion. “I think it’s still a little too fresh right now,” she said.

During the discussion, panel moderator John Pruitt, a former WSB-TV news anchor, read a Facebook post from Dana Jewell praising the book and saying, “I made a promise to Richard when he died, I would tell his story.”

Hamilton attended the event carrying an envelope containing personal snapshots of Scruggs and some of her old press passes, which he showed to Roughton afterward. Hamilton recalled Scruggs saying that when a source first named Jewell as the suspect, she thought it was “some kind of code” for the “jewel” of the investigation. He remembered her as a careful reporter. “She wasn’t a rush-to-judgment sort of person,” he said.

A place in Olympics history

The Olympics were a watershed moment for Atlanta, stirring local pride, attracting international media attention, building venues ranging from modern landmarks to white elephants, and sparking massive downtown redevelopment and gentrification. The History Center is the official repository of Games artifacts and is in the midst of remaking its Olympics exhibit for a 2020 debut.

The bombing is part of that history, and commemorations of Jewell’s heroic role are increasing. On July 27, 1996, terrorist Eric Rudolph planted a pipe bomb in Centennial Olympic Park. Jewell, a security guard who lived on Buford Highway, discovered the bomb and led an effort to clear the area before it exploded. One person was killed and many injured, but Jewell’s effort is credited with saving many more lives. Rudolph went on to bomb an Atlanta lesbian bar and abortion clinics in Sandy Springs and Alabama, killing two more people, and became a fugitive until his 2003 capture.

Dana Jewell, left, wife of Richard Jewell, shakes hands with an attendee at the Nov. 12 panel discussion. (John Ruch)

The Georgia World Congress Center recently said that a plaque honoring Jewell will be placed in the park next year, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle, a commemoration his supports have long called for as overdue.

Sheffield Hale, the History Center’s president and CEO, said in opening remarks that the Jewell discussion “could not be more relevant to us as an institution and to us as a city.”

But a new take on that history is about to enter popular culture: Eastwood’s movie “Richard Jewell,” a dramatized biography scheduled for release on Dec. 13. In a recent AJC essay, Roughton voiced anxiety about how the film might portray Jewell and Scruggs.

Pruitt echoed that sentiment early in the panel discussion, cautioning that the film “will be Hollywood’s version of what happening in our town in that horrible time.” He said Alexander and Salwen’s book gives the “truly objective” story.

But Alexander noted that he and Salwen served as advisers on Eastwood’s project, though they have yet to see it. “I would just encourage everybody not to prejudge the movie,” Alexander said.

Salwen said the book leaves moral lessons up to the readers to conclude, because “it’s not so, necessarily, black-and-white.”

The FBI and the AJC

The FBI’s obsession with Jewell was one of those gray areas, Alexander and Salwen said. Jewell was one of three major suspects, Alexander said, but added that the FBI had some cause to zero in on him with their theory that he planted the bomb to look like a hero. Selwen noted that at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, a police officer planted a fake bomb for a similar heroism hoax motive. Jewell wanted to be a police officer and had made suspicious, attention-seeking comments, Alexander said.

But the FBI also delayed the use of other evidence while focusing on Jewell, Alexander said. One witness described a suspect at the bomb scene who later was confirmed to be Rudolph. “That will haunt me forever,” Alexander said.

George Hamilton, left, former partner of AJC reporter Kathy Scruggs, shows her press passes to former AJC Senior Managing Editor Bert Roughton. (John Ruch)

At the AJC, Scruggs’ scoop about the investigation turned into the paper’s most notorious and controversial story. Roughton strongly defended its publication, while acknowledging some mixed feelings and certain personal qualms he had with it then and now. He also disagreed with Alexander and Salwen’s assertions that the paper may have rushed the story due to competitive pressure.

“Fine, I’m happy to be a piñata,” Roughton joked at one point. But he later said, “We lose track of the fact that we’re writing about people,” and that his favorite part of “The Suspect” was learning more about Jewell as a person.

“He had become a public character in a story that had this extremely bizarre twist and also at the same time [was] the biggest story on Earth,” Roughton said in defense of the Jewell investigation scoop.  “… I still believe that we did the right thing. We had an American citizen who was being pursued by the full apparatus of the American government in some way. And this is debatable, but I would argue that we have an obligation to put some daylight on that.”

But that doesn’t mean the editing and publication process was easy. Roughton was one of several AJC staffers involved before then Managing Editor John Walter made the decision to publish.

“It was a very difficult discussion, I have to say,” Roughton said. “Part of what I want to personally be careful about is not becoming defensive… There are a lot of good questions around what we did at the time, and I think there are good journalistic questions about that, and those are important. And I think in the world we live in, they’re more important now than they may even have been then.”

“I will admit at the time, I was a little reluctant to name him,” Roughton said of the discussion about publishing the story. And in an interview after the event, he said the style in which the story was written rankled him.

“One thing I’ve always had a problem with was, at the time, we used the voice of God,” he said, referring to a style of stating facts without attributing them to their source, which can make information sound more proven or agreed upon than it is. He said that for the rest of his career, he worked to eliminate that style of writing.

But Roughton disagreed that the story was rushed, saying the AJC held back on publication for a day to confirm it with other sources. He said that the AJC wasn’t motivated by competitive pressure in a city full of Olympics reporters. “… I feel comfortable that Mr. Eastwood will present it in a slightly different way, but the truth is, in that moment, you just want to know … that this story is accurate,” he said.  “… [M]ost of [the visiting journalists] could cover competitive kayaking — they weren’t really reporters.”

The late AJC reporter Kathy Scruggs, who got the scoop about the FBI investigation of Richard Jewell, in a snapshot held by her partner George Hamilton. (John Ruch)

Roughton also disputed Alexander and Salwen’s repeated statements that Scruggs’ source was a leaker inside the FBI. Scruggs and co-reporter Ron Martz never revealed their sources, even when threatened with jail time in a subsequent libel lawsuit, and Roughton wouldn’t, either. “I won’t even acknowledge that there’s an FBI source, if there was one,” he said, though adding the source had “very deep firsthand knowledge of the FBI.”

Debate over the AJC’s role in the Jewell saga comes down to whether the paper was too uncritical in reporting a mistaken suspicion. Alexander said the AJC was not aware that the FBI had other suspects as well. Roughton said that as part of the fact-checking, “we actually read the story back to the FBI” – itself a practice that would raise the eyebrows of many journalists; but Kent said it was read to a public relations staffer who had no direct knowledge of the investigation.

It was when all FBI officials stopped talking to the media that the AJC scored another scoop. Rankin, the AJC reporter, found that Jewell did not have time to both plant the bomb and to reach a pay phone used by the bomber to make a warning call. With officials not talking about the investigation, “that was the only reporting we could do,” Roughton said, and it helped to lead to Jewell’s exoneration.

Jewell soon filed libel lawsuits against several major media outlets, including the AJC, CNN and NBC News. In a long and fierce case involving prominent Buckhead attorney L. Lin Wood, among others, the AJC finally emerged victorious in 2011 and was the only media outlet not to settle with Jewell or his estate. Roughton said that was because the AJC’s reporting was vindicated as accurate and that all media should not be lumped together in the criticism of the case.

“And so I’m happy to take responsibility for what we did as newspaper journalists at the time, trying to get the best version of the truth we could on deadline — happy to take that responsibility,” he said. “But I can’t be responsible for what Jay Leno said. I can’t be responsible for Tom Brokaw. I can’t be responsible for all these other people.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.