Kathy Scruggs was the Atlanta newspaper reporter who first reported, through a source, that the FBI was investigating hero security guard Richard Jewell in the Atlanta Olympics bombing. That sparked a media frenzy around Jewell that lasted for weeks before he was exonerated, and it’s now the subject of a new Clint Eastwood movie.
The key figures in the movie and real-life saga – the former security guard Jewell and journalist Scruggs – are not around to give their thoughts on it. Both died young.
What was Scruggs’ cause of death? How did she die? In the end, the feisty police reporter was a broken person.
Heavy.com obtained the coroner’s report. Scruggs died of a drug overdose, specifically “acute morphine toxicity.” Contrary to some other news reports, the coroner could not determine whether it was an accidental one or suicide.
“Kathleen Scruggs died as a result of acute morphine toxicity,” the report says. “…toxicological testing of chest fluid revealed a potentially lethal level of morphine. Also present in the chest fluid were paroxetine, mirtazapine, and ethyl alcohol. All of the ethyl alcohol may have been produced by the postmortem decomposition process. Findings at autopsy included severe coronary artery atherosclerosis (blockage of blood vessels that supply blood to the heart), which may have contributed to death…no acute traumatic injuries were identified.”
The report concludes: “It is unclear whether the drug overdose leading to the acute morphine toxicity was suicidal or accidental, and thus the manner of death is listed as undetermined.”
You can see more from the report later in this article. (You can also read more about Scruggs’ life and background here.)
What is clear also, though, is that Scruggs was emotionally damaged from the controversies over her journalism (sadly, the controversies continue, with people who knew her slamming the movie for what they believe is a false portrayal of her.)
Jewell wasn’t the bomber. That was Eric Rudolph, an anti-government extremist who led police on a massive manhunt (read about how Rudolph was eventually found here.) Other characters in the movie, like FBI agent Tom Shaw, are fiction, although they draw from real people. In real life, Scruggs died without ever revealing her source.
“She was never at peace or at rest with this story. It haunted her until her last breath,” former co-worker Tony Kiss said to her old newspaper for a story about her. “It crushed her like a junebug on the sidewalk.”
Another friend told AJC: “Her soul was gone. She was so empty.”
Scruggs “appeared to have died peacefully in her sleep,” wrote Doug Monroe in a 2003 article in Atlanta Magazine.
Friends who talked to her old newspaper in an attempt to resuscitate her reputation in the wake of the Eastwood movie said they didn’t think she ever got over the media infamy. When it turned out that Jewell (played on screen by Paul Walter Hauser) was innocent, her reporting and that of the national media were criticized as a rush to judgment. Jewell sued for libel, settling with some news organizations, but not Kathy’s, which fought the claims to the end. An appellate court later sided with the newspaper, finding that Scruggs’ stories correctly reported what was known at the time – that, at that time, Jewell was under FBI investigation in the attack. An appellate court ruled that her Richard Jewell stories were “substantially true at the time they were published.” According to AJC, “Stress over the case contributed to her failing health.”
In the end, only her dog was at her side when she passed away.
Here’s what you need to know:
Scruggs Died Young of an Overdose & She Was on Prescription Medications for a Variety of Ailments
Kathy Scruggs was born on September 26, 1958 and died September 2, 2001, age 42, in Cherokee County, Georgia. She is buried in Oconee Hill Cemetery in Athens, Georgia.
Scruggs’ brother told AJC she was on medications for a variety of things, including Crohn’s disease. “Her heart gave away. It was just hard living,” her brother said to the publication. Lewis Scruggs added, “Her choice of boyfriends was not great. She spent all the money she had and more and would go into the depths of depression. The word ‘filter’ was not in her body. I loved Kathy, but she was crazy.”
She was, like most people, a complex person, who was also highly regarded for her tenaciousness when it came to stories and her charisma. She also was known to be a drinker at times.
The Cherokee County Coroner’s office provided Heavy.com with the official report of the Division of Forensic Science, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, into the autopsy and death of Kathleen Scruggs. “The decedent was a 42 year old white female who, according to reports, was found dead at her residence in a state of decomposition,” it reads.
An autopsy was performed in September 3, 2001. The items present with the body were a television remote control, a sheet, a blanket and a comforter. Scruggs was wearing a “gray short-sleeved tee shirt with the green inscription ‘ATLANTA MOTOR SPEEDWAY'” and a pair of panties.
Mild rigor mortis was present. A colostomy site was present on the body. The coronary arteries exhibited “moderate to severe atherosclerosis.”
Under findings and diagnoses, the following were listed:
Toxicological testing of chest fluid
Morphine higher than the highest calibrator of 0.6 mg/L
Paroxetine lower than the lowest calibrator of 0.25 mg/L
Mirtazapine Present (not quantified)
Ethyl Alcohol 0.037 grams per 100 ML
Severe coronary artery atherosclerosis
Moderate postmortem decomposition
No identified traumatic injuries
According to Doug Monroe.com, “The stress of the libel lawsuit took a terrible toll on Scruggs over the years. She didn’t go to jail for refusing to identify her source, but she was arrested twice in Buckhead on charges involving intoxication. A friend thinks she was slipped a date-rape drug in one of the incidents.”
After that, wrote Monroe, who worked with Scruggs, “Scruggs’ health declined horribly. She was hospitalized and was briefly unable to move her legs. She had intestinal surgery…She was trying to get better. But she was also under stress from financial problems as her medical bills mounted. She felt treated as a pariah in the newsroom and complained that she no longer had a desk.”
In her heyday, he added, Scruggs “was a hard-drinking, tough-talking police reporter who wasn’t afraid of anything.”
Kathy Scruggs was a colorful personality regarded as an intrepid police reporter in Atlanta, Georgia before controversy hit.
Scruggs’ obituary in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution explained that she had “suffered a variety of health problems for the past year.”
Her parents called a friend to check on her welfare.
“I would characterize her as a very good reporter who was very fair,” Atlanta Police Chief Beverly Harvard told the newspaper. “She called the shots as they were, be it good or bad. She didn’t show favoritism. She was accurate.”
The newspaper’s publisher Roger Kintzel said in that story, “…nothing was ever found that indicated that what Kathy wrote was not the truth. She died knowing that what she wrote was accurate, and I think that was really important to her. She felt confident that that would be proven in court.”
Scruggs (played on film by Olivia Wilde) has her defenders who believe that the Eastwood movie is painting her in a false light. The movie makes it appear that Scruggs was willing to trade sex with an FBI agent for the story, but there’s no evidence that’s true.
In a bar, the FBI agent tells the fictional Scruggs character in the movie, “Kathy, you couldn’t f*ck it out of them. What makes you think you could f*ck it out of me?” At least that’s how the Eastwood movie shows it happening, but there’s no evidence that ever occurred, and Scruggs’ supporters say it didn’t.
Relative Nancy Scruggs Dyleski wrote on Facebook: “It is shocking that not one person from this film reached out to anyone in Kathy’s family even after we reached out to them on a couple of different occasions. I guess that they knew that their false narrative would have been shot down by people that actually knew her best. Shame on Olivia Wilde and Clint Eastwood, way to lie about someone that isn’t alive to defend herself. Kathy may be gone, but she is still a vibrant part of our family and we love her very much.” Heavy.com has reached out to Dyleski for additional comment.
Poynter.org wrote that “There is no evidence that Scruggs slept with anyone to get the story. Furthermore, Scruggs can’t defend herself. She died in 2001 at the age of 42 from an overdose of prescription pain pills for a chronic back problem.”
Those who knew her were interviewed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to balance out the film portrayal.
“She was the real deal when it came to being a dedicated reporter,” said attorney and family friend Edward Tolley to AJC. Of the allegations on screen, Tolley said, “That is complete horse (expletive). If she’s being portrayed as some floozy, it’s just not true.”
To Deadline, the actress playing Scruggs, Olivia Wilde, defended the portrayal, saying, “She was incredibly successful as a cop reporter. She had a very close relationship with the cops and the FBI helping to tell their story, and yes, by all accounts she had relationships with different people in that field. But what I resented was this character being boiled down to one inferred scene and I don’t hear anyone complaining about Jon Hamm’s character (the FBI agent) as being inferred that he also had a relationship with a reporter. It feels unfair that Kathy has been minimized in this way.”
In a later statement, Wilde added, “Contrary to a swath of recent headlines, I do not believe that Kathy ‘traded sex for tips.’ Nothing in my research suggested she did so, and it was never my intention to suggest she had. That would be an appalling and misogynistic dismissal of the difficult work she did.”
However, AJC’s editor-in-chief is furious at the Scruggs’ portrayal. “I was stunned,” AJC’s current editor-in-chief, Kevin Riley told the Guardian. “No one has ever said Kathy did anything like that.” He threatened a lawsuit and called the way Scruggs was portrayed in the movie “extraordinarily reckless.”
In the book on the case called The Suspect, Scruggs is described as “a delightful throwback to the 1930s newspaper wars. Kathy never quietly entered a room, she exploded into it.”
READ NEXT: Richard Jewell’s Cause of Death.