Kathy Scruggs was the colorful and controversial Atlanta Journal-Constitution news reporter who broke the story that the FBI was investigating hero security guard Richard Jewell in the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Olympics.
Kathy Scruggs’ life is portrayed – falsely, her supporters say – in Clint Eastwood’s new movie on Jewell’s life. Jewell was not the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bomber. The film is called Richard Jewell. Today, she is not here to tell her side of the story, now played on screen by Olivia Wilde.
Jewell’s story has long been considered a parable of symbol of media rushes to judgment. Scruggs’ newspaper has defended its reporting as accurately reflecting the state of the FBI’s investigation at the time; the FBI was investigating Jewell in the bombing, although he was completely exonerated.
At the center of it all: Kathy Scruggs, the colorful, dogged, controversial, and ultimately tragic police reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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.
The movie’s release date is December 13, 2019.
Here’s what you need to know about her life:
1. Scruggs Was Described as ‘a Delightful Throwback’ Who ‘Exploded’ Into a Room
In a 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.”
A woman who knew her wrote on Kathy’s relative’s Facebook page, “I remember Kathy from Athens Academy days! She was a good bit older than me, but I admired her beauty, spunk, and charisma! Don’t let these Hollywood pretenders get you down!!”
Doug Monroe, who knew and worked with Scruggs, described her in a 2003 article in Atlanta Magazine as having a “raucous sense of humor.” He wrote: “Cops still talk in amazement about her bravado. She once beat the police to a murder scene and brazenly crawled in through a back window.”
“Where have you been?” she demanded to police, Monroe wrote, adding, “She was blonde and wore mini skirts and gaudy stockings. She smoked. She drank. She cursed. She flaunted her sexuality. She dated Lewis Grizzard. She dated an editor who allegedly beat her with a telephone. She dated cops, including one who was accused of stealing money from the pockets of the dead.”
2. Scruggs Grew Up in a Prominent Family in Georgia; Her Father Worked in Insurance
According to Monroe’s article, Scruggs was from a “prominent family in Athens” Georgia.
Scruggs was the daughter of Lewis Lanier Scruggs Sr., known as Bubber, who was the son of the late Lewis Lanier Scruggs and Kathleen Ball Scruggs Barnes. According to his obituary, his daughter, Kathleen Bentley Scruggs, preceded him in death.
Scruggs’ dad had a bachelor’s degree in journalism and served as an Army pilot during World War II. He founded an insurance company in Georgia. He was also the director of the Athens Chamber of Commerce.
Scruggs’ mother was Nancy Bentley Scruggs, who died in 2015. Scruggs also had a brother, Lewis Lanier Scruggs Jr. of Athens. According to Nancy’s obit, she was the daughter of the late Emma Stansell Bentley and Upshaw Cranfill Bentley. She was involved in the garden and bridge clubs and started World Wide Travel.
3. Scruggs Died Young of an Overdose
Scruggs died five years after the controversy. Friends said she never recovered from it.
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 passed away from an overdose.
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.”
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.
You can learn more about her cause of death here.
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.”
Later stories were more questioning. An October 29, 1996 story by Ron Martz and Scruggs read that the FBI affidavits submitted to “obtain search warrants against security guard Richard Jewell appear to be based largely on circumstantial evidence that his attorneys called half-truths and lies.”
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’ 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,” he said. “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.”
4. Scruggs’ Story, Developed Through an FBI Source, Reported that the FBI Was Investigating Jewell
“Kathy Scruggs was the AJC reporter who got the initial information that law enforcement was pursuing Jewell,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution Editor Kevin Riley said to IndieWire. “Scruggs was known as an aggressive reporter and committed journalist who sought always to beat her competition. She has been described by one of her contemporaries as ‘irreverent and savvy.’ She is deceased.”
The headline on the original story was, “FBI suspects ‘hero’ guard may have planted bomb.” Jewell wasn’t the bomber. That was Eric Rudolph, an anti-government extremist who led police on a massive manhunt. Scruggs wrote a story indicating that the FBI was investigating Jewell. Her story had described Jewell as a “focus” of the investigation.
A 1997 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner described in detail how the story happened.
This article contains some negative characterizations of Scruggs; It reported that Scruggs had “good contacts in the Atlanta police, and she was tough” but one former staff member called her a “police groupie” to Vanity Fair, and an editor, while praising her talents, told Brenner: “Kathy has a hard edge that some people find offensive.” The story also describes the subsequent media frenzy, which extended far beyond AJC, and the FBI’s initial pursuit of Jewell.
It says that there was debate in the newsroom over the story and CNN had already decided to hold it. Meanwhile, Kathy Scruggs, a police reporter, “who had allegedly gotten a tip from a close friend in the F.B.I., got a confirmation from someone in the Atlanta police,” Vanity Fair reported. One controversial line reported by AJC: “Richard Jewell . . . fits the profile of the lone bomber.” The story had a double byline, Scruggs and Ron Martz.
Jewell fell under suspicion after he found a backpack that he thought had explosives in it. He was working as a security guard and ushered people out of the area. Three pipe bombs then exploded, and Jewell’s actions probably saved many lives. Suspicion later fell on him, but he was exonerated completely in the attack. Jewell sued news organizations and most settled but not AJC.
“I am not the Olympic Park bomber,” Jewell told reporters after being cleared in the case, according to CNN. “I am a man who has lived 88 days afraid of being arrested for a crime I did not commit.”
5. Scruggs’ Defenders Say the Eastwood Movie Makes False Insinuations About the Journalist
Scruggs has her defenders who are criticizing the Eastwood movie for falsely making it appear that Scruggs offered to have a sexual relationship with the FBI agent who tipped her off.
In a bar, the FBI agent tells Scruggs, “Kathy, you couldn’t f*ck it out of them. What makes you think you could f*ck it out of me?” There’s no evidence that ever occurred, and Scruggs’ supporters say it didn’t.
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.”
Riley said in a statement to IndieWire that “there is no evidence that this ever happened.”
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.” AJC didn’t settle and was exonerated in Jewell’s libel suit against it.
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.”
“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 the newspaper. “It crushed her like a junebug on the sidewalk.”
Another friend told AJC: “Her soul was gone. She was so empty.”
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.”
However, AJC’s editor-in-chief is furious at the Scruggs’ portrayal. “I was stunned,” 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.”
READ NEXT: The Jersey City Shooter’s Social Media.