Presumed Guilty - Features - Atlanta Magazine
 
 
 

Presumed Guilty

How in the blink of an eye Ricard Jewell's world was turned inside out

This article originally appeared in our December 1996 issue.

Overzealous.

That adjective haunted Richard Jewell long before he became known as the FBI's leading suspect in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing on July 27, 1996.

Even as a kid Jewell seemed driven by some deep-seated need to always do more than he was asked.

Take the instance at Towers High School, in Dekalb County. One morning he spied a new teacher walking across the parking lot, struggling to carry two cardboard boxes full of books. He went bouncing across the lawn and walked up to the social studies instructor with a smile on his face. "Can I help you, sir?" he asked, grabbing one of the boxes and leading Richard Muska to his classroom.

Unlike many of the other students, Richard would come to Muska's room between classes and pal around, telling stories and jokes. His friendliness didn't strike Muska as calculating. Above all, he believed Richard was genuine — a good kid, always willing to help.

But by the time he became a cop, 11 years later, it was Jewell's zeal to please that often became his betrayer.

Like the time he was moonlighting as a security officer at a DeKalb County apartment complex and went to break up a late-night party at a hot tub. He could have called the cops and waited for them, but instead, he went to break it up himself and wound up getting arrested for impersonating a police officer.

Or the time he was deputy sheriff in Habersham County and, he would later say, noticed a car pulling out from behind a building. It looked suspicious, so he took off after and wound up crashing his patrol car. Not only that, but the sheriff was skeptical of this story and busted him down to guard duty in the county jail. Instead, he quit the force.

Then there's the time he was working security for Piedmont College. It didn't take him long to aggravate the college brass, issuing tickets off-campus on the main highway and writing long, detailed reports on seemingly minor incidents and suggesting undercover investigations. They wound up asking for his resignation.

Then he landed a job as a security guard in the AT&T Global Village, in Centennial Olympic Park. Beneath a bench, yards away from the entrance to the light and sound tower where he was stationed, he spotted a knapsack that contained a bomb. It exploded, killing a woman and injuring 111; but without Jewell's discovery the numbers could have been staggering. For three days Jewell was the toast of Atlanta, of the country, even the world.

For a moment it seemed that Richard Jewell's zeal had finally served him right. Then, in the blink of an eye, everything went wrong. The blaring headline on Tuesday, July 30, 1996, said it all: FBI SUSPECTS 'HERO' GUARD MAY HAVE PLANTED BOMB.

Before the Olympic bombing made his name a household word, Richard Allensworth Jewell had lived about as anonymous a life as possible. "Unremarkable," is the way Habersham County Attorney Robb Kiker describes Jewell's five-year tenure as a deputy sheriff in that county. "In fact, when this happened, I had to think for five minutes just to bring to mind which officer he was," says Kiker.

Jewell, 33, was born in Danville, Va. But little is known of his time there. Reporters for the Danville Register & Bee combed through old telephone books and city directories looking for listings of the Jewell family. They checked other likely sources; tax records, marriage records, death records, the real estate register. Nothing.

A spokesman for the schools could not confirm if Jewell was ever a student. Records at Dan River — the city's largest employer — didn't show that anyone by the name of Jewell had ever worked at the mill during the 1960s, the time the family presumably lived there. In a story headlines SUSPECT'S LINK TO DANVILLE STILL A MYSTERY, the reporters for the Register mused, "Did Richard Jewell ever sleep here?"

The lack of information didn't stop the media frenzy. The Danville mayor held a press conference and answered such questions as whether the city could "live down the infamy" if Jewell were charged for the bombing. "…If the man left Danville at age 6, we could not be accused of having nurtured him," the mayor responded.

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