Kathleen “Kathy” Scruggs was a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who broke the story that the FBI was investigating security guard Richard Jewell as a possible suspect in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics bombing. That article — headlined “FBI Suspects ‘Hero’ Guard May Have Planted Bomb” — set off a media firestorm around Jewell from which he never really recovered, even after being cleared of the crime.
To coincide with the premiere of Manhunt: Deadly Games, a Spectrum original series about the bombing that makes its broadcast TV premiere Monday, September 21 on CBS, here is what you need to know about Scruggs, including how she died and how she too never fully recovered from the debacle of the 1996 Atlanta bombing.
Scruggs Died of an Overdose in 2001
In the 1990s, Scruggs was known for her solid reporting, her tight relationship with local law enforcement, and also her hard-partying ways, something that was exacerbated after she set off the media firestorm directed at Jewell.
Scruggs died of a morphine overdose in 2001. At the time, the coroner said it could not be determined if the overdose was suicidal or accidental. But several friends and colleagues have said over the years that she never really recovered from what happened with Jewell.
“She was never at peace or at rest with this story. It haunted her until her last breath,” her former colleague Tony Kiss told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a 2019 feature about her. “It crushed her like a junebug on the sidewalk.”
But even facing litigation over the article, Scruggs would not reveal her source in reporting that Jewell was a suspect. When she died, she was facing possible jail time — though eventually, the Journal-Constitution was cleared, with the Georgia Court of Appeals finding that “the articles in their entirety were substantially true at the time they were published.”
However, that dismissal came 10 years after Scruggs died. Her friends always believed stress over that story contributed to her failing health. Longtime friend Lisa Griffin told the Journal-Constitution that she spoke with Scruggs on the phone shortly before she died.
“It was like a vacuum,” she said. “Her soul was gone. She was so empty.”
The Spectrum Series Portrays Scruggs With A Lot More Nuance Than the Clint Eastwood Film
In the 2019 Clint Eastwood film about the bombing, Scruggs was portrayed as having slept with sources for scoops, something the people who knew her took great umbrage with.
“She was the real deal when it came to being a dedicated reporter,” attorney and family friend Edward Tolley told the AJC in a 2019 feature on Scruggs, adding that the portrayal of her as a “floozy” was “complete horse [expletive].”
“My concern is they’re going to turn her into some sort of femme fatale who would do anything to get a story,” said former AJC reporter Ron Martz, who added that no one from the film ever got in touch with him. If they had, “it might have ruined their idea of what they wanted the story to be. It’s obvious to me they did not go to any great lengths to find out what the real characters were like.”
Both Gugino and the creators of the limited series obviously work to offer a bit more nuance with the character. In an interview with Collider, Gugino acknowledged that Scruggs was known for partying hard, but she was also known as a great reporter and what intrigued Gugino about the part was “the notion that everything can look a certain way, depending on the point of view you’re looking at it from, and that we all have a sense of what our truth is and it might be very different than somebody else’s.”
Gugino went on to say that the scoop about Jewell “basically fell in her lap” and Scruggs was “pressured to do it quickly, otherwise somebody else was gonna run the story, which is the nature of that profession, and she ended up in very deep.”
In hindsight, it’s easy to cast Scruggs as the villain, but Gugino said it’s not that simple.
“I didn’t want to back away from or soften [Scruggs], in any way, because I wanted to give people perhaps a chance of empathy, seeing a little bit of the world through her eyes,” said Gugino.
At the 2020 Television Critics Associaton winter press tour, creator/executive producer Andrew Sodroski said of the character, “We portray her as a fully well-rounded character. She’s flawed, and really complex, and really interesting. I feel like we were struggling throughout to give more and more time to her story and to really help you understand her world and the toll that these events took on her life.”
“Without enough time to spend with her story, she becomes a culprit. And I think that we spent more time with her [than the movie did],” added director/executive producer Michael Dinner. “I think we understand her. We understand why she was trying to make it in her world, and I think she’s a pretty three-dimensional character.”
Manhunt: Deadly Games airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.