The 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing and its aftermath instantly drew saturation coverage that seemingly reported every aspect of the story: two dead and 111 injured; security guard Richard Jewell’s odyssey from hero to suspect to defamation litigant; and the delayed hunt for the real bomber, North Carolina recluse Eric Rudolph.
But a new book by Kent Alexander (Law ’83), Atlanta’s U.S. attorney during the Olympics, and Kevin Salwen, then the Wall Street Journal’s Atlanta-based Southeast editor, breaks new ground and, with the distance of time, offers the rich perspective of the fuller story. Their account, The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle, served as source material for Richard Jewell, the recent Clint Eastwood-directed film.
Alexander participated in the investigation from the start, meeting Jewell just hours after the bombing and, nearly 90 days later, crafting the official letter that effectively cleared him.
With cinematic storytelling, the book interweaves the threads of three main characters, all now deceased: Jewell, the earnest hero chewed up and spit out by the precursor to today’s ruthless media cycle; an implacable FBI investigator, on the downswing of his career; and the restless and troubled Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who landed the scoop that Jewell was a suspect.
Through exhaustive interviewing, and access to troves of source materials, including boxes of Jewell’s personal mementos, the FBI agent’s home files and Alexander’s contemporaneous journal of events, the book tells the characters’ personal stories and takes readers inside their respective camps: Jewell’s legal team, the feds and the AJC newsroom.
It also reveals the reporter’s confidential source who set everything in motion. “I went from shocked to anger,” Alexander said in an interview about learning the source’s identity. “The leak messed up the investigation so badly. A lot of this may have been avoided—Richard Jewell’s nightmare—had [Jewell’s] name not leaked.”
By revisiting Jewell’s story, the authors write, they hope the media will pause before implicating someone and that law enforcement will better police leaks. “Perhaps all of us in the news-consuming public,” they write, “will reconsider our expectation of immediacy and ponder the benefits of returning to an era when accuracy was prized over speed.”