Kathy Scruggs was the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper reporter whose reporting on the Atlanta Olympics bombing has been extremely controversial. It was Scruggs who first publicly pinpointed security guard Richard Jewell as an FBI suspect in the bombing, leading to the one-time hero’s shattered reputation and media hounding.
It turned out, of course, that Jewell wasn’t the bomber. That was Eric Rudolph, who was later captured after a lengthy manhunt. The case was the subject of a Clint Eastwood movie. Now it’s being featured on Netflix in Manhunt: Deadly Games, which originally ran on CBS.
“Richard Jewell was an instant hero. But the FBI’s quest to catch a serial bomber came to vilify him,” reads the Netflix blurb with the show.
What happened to the real Kathy Scruggs? She’s played by Carla Gugino in Manhunt: Deadly Games, and she’s played by Olivia Wilde in the Eastwood film.
What was Scruggs’ cause of death? How did she die? She died very tragically.
Here’s what you need to know:
The Coroner’s Report Reveals That Scruggs Died of a Drug Overdose
The coroner’s report shows that life caught up with Scruggs in the end, although it was never clear whether she purposely took her own life.
Heavy.com obtained the coroner’s report, which reveals that 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.”
Kathy Scruggs 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.”
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
The Story ‘Haunted’ Scruggs Until Her Last Breath
Former friends described the emotional toll the story took on Scruggs after it was revealed that Jewell was the wrong man.
“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.
ewell sued for libel, settling with some news organizations, but not Scruggs’, 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.” However, that didn’t make it easier on Scruggs, since she was so heavily associated with the media crush against Jewell. 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.
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.”
Scruggs’ obituary in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution explained that she had “suffered a variety of health problems for the past year.”
Those who knew her were interviewed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to balance out the Eastwood 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.”
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.