Richard Jewell was a security guard at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games who became a suspect during the FBI investigation of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing that left two dead and over 100 injured. Ultimately, he was fully cleared of the crime, but the FBI naming him a person of interest led to a media firestorm.
Jewell ended up filing lawsuits against several media outlets for defamation and later died in 2007. Ahead of the broadcast TV premiere of Manhunt: Deadly Games, a Spectrum original series about the bombing and its aftermath, here’s what you need to know about Jewell’s death and what happened after he was suspected in the bombing.
Jewell Died From Complications From Diabetes and Heart Disease
According to the Associated Press (via ESPN), Jewell, 44, was found dead in his home on August 29, 2007. Georgia’s chief medical examiner Dr. Kris Sperry, said that he suffered a heart attack and died of severe heart disease. His diabetes, which was diagnosed earlier in 2007, contributed to his death. Sperry also said there was no evidence that alcohol or drugs contributed to Jewell’s death.
According to Jewell’s obituary in the New York Times, he was found by his wife, Dana. The coroner, Johnny E. Worley, told the newspaper that Jewell had also suffered kidney failure and had had several toes amputated since being diagnosed with diabetes. Jewell was survived by his wife and his mother Barbara.
Jewell Was Named by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as Being a Suspect and His Life Was Never the Same
The Atlanta Summer Olympics bombing happened on July 27, 1996. The bombs shot hundreds of nails into the crowd and one woman died as a result. Another man died from suffering a heart attack during the chaos. Jewell, who had been working as a temporary security guard for the Olympic Games, found a green backpack that contained the bomb and alerted police, then started moving bystanders away from the bomb. At the time, he was praised for his quick thinking, which probably saved lives, according to ABC News.
“I think that lives were saved because of actions that we all took that night of trying to get that perimeter established as quickly as we possibly could,” retired police officer Tom Davis told ABC News.
But three days later, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a story by reporter Kathy Scruggs, the headline of which read “FBI Suspects ‘Hero’ Guard May Have Planted Bomb.”
The FBI had started looking Jewell since he was the one who found the bomb. And that leaked to Scruggs and it upended Jewell’s life.
“A great reporter named Kathy Scruggs managed to get this incredible scoop, which means somebody in law enforcement had leaked it,” Kent Alexander, the U.S. attorney assigned to investigate the bombing and author of a book on the incident titled “The Suspect,” told ABC News, “When this story broke, it was like nothing anybody in law enforcement had ever seen, because it was… everywhere.”
Cameron Britton, the man who plays Jewell in Manhunt: Deadly Games, told the Television Critics Association winter press tour that thinks the FBI exacerbated the media firestorm by never owning up to their mistake.
“They made a mistake … the FBI created it and just walked away. They just backed away instead of saying, ‘Everyone listen. We thought this. We had every reason to think that. We don’t think it anymore. This person is a hero. The FBI has investigated this thoroughly and can tell you safely this man is a hero,'” said Britton. “And they didn’t do that. They were so embarrassed by how they treated him because they were willing to do anything to get their man, and they weren’t willing to own up to it. To me, that rift between the civilians of America and law enforcement, that there’s this big chasm between them, it’s because they don’t treat themselves as humans who make mistakes. That’s how you end up in situations like this where we feel as civilians ourselves that we need to exonerate other folks.”
Jewell Eventually Received a Commendation for His Heroism
Jewell was eventually cleared of having been involved with the bombing in October 1996, nearly three months after the bombing took place. But because the real suspect, Eric Rudolph, wasn’t caught until 2003, Jewell’s name continued to be associated with the bombing.
Jewell’s mother Barbara “Bobi” Jewell told ABC News that she thinks it was this intense scrutiny and suspicion that caused his health to deteriorate and eventually killed him.
Jewell died in 2007, two years after Rudolph pleaded guilty to the Olympics bombing and three other bombings in Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama. Rudolph is serving life in prison for his crimes.
In 2006, on the 10-year anniversary of the bombing, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue recognized Jewell’s heroism and awarded him a commendation that read, “Mr. Jewell deserves to be remembered as a hero for the actions he performed during the Centennial Olympic Games. He is a model citizen, and the State of Georgia thanks him for his long-standing commitment to law enforcement, both as a security guard during the Olympics and as a sheriff’s deputy in Meriwether County today.”
Perdue added in a statement, “The bottom line is this – Richard Jewell’s actions saved lives that day. He deserves to be remembered as a hero. As we look back on the success of the Olympics games and all they did to transform Atlanta, I encourage Georgians to remember the lives that were spared as a result of Richard Jewell’s actions.”
Manhunt: Deadly Games airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.