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Scott Freeman

Laid Back Festival features a Georgia-heavy lineup, including Atlanta singer-songwriter Michelle Malone

Michelle Malone
Michelle Malone will perform during Gregg Allman’s Laid Back Fest

Photograph courtesy of LiveNation

Gregg Allman has not been the most prolific solo artist; he put out just three albums between 1977 and 2011. Yet in the past five years, the 68-year-old has had a spurt of creative productivity. In 2011 he released Low Country Blues, produced by T Bone Burnett, followed by a live album in 2015. Now Allman has added festival producer to his resume with the second annual Laid Back Festival, which kicks off in Atlanta on May 7. (Update 4/22/16: The Atlanta date has been postponed to October 29.)

Joining Allman onstage is a Georgia-heavy lineup that includes Blackberry Smoke, Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band, the Kevn Kinney Band, and Michelle Malone, who first met Allman when they performed together at a tribute to Georgia music in 2014. “It’s going to be like coming home, everyone in one place,” says Malone. “Plus, who doesn’t revere Gregg Allman?”

We asked Malone about performing at Laid Back Festival and what’s in the works for 2016.

How did your Laid Back appearance come about?
When Gregg and I sang together at Symphony Hall in 2014 [the musicians dueted on the Otis Redding classic “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” as part of a tribute to Georgia music], that started a bit of a relationship. I’ve played with Chuck Leavell (former keyboardist/pianist for the Allman Brothers and, for the past 34 years, for The Rolling Stones) a few times. It puts you in that circle. So when I found out about the festival, I tossed my hat in the ring.

You’ve said that night at Symphony Hall was one of the highlights of your career.
I’m still stunned and amazed by his talent, his voice, and his soul. The last time he played Symphony Hall with his band, I was at the show. I’m a fan.

Last year was a strong year for you, with the release of a new album and the Georgia Music Award for Best Female Rock. What’s coming up in 2016?
Last year was good. I toured a lot of sheds last summer with Indigo Girls. I just want to play music, whether it’s someone’s living room or clubs or whatever.

Right now we’re working on a music program where we hope to mentor middle school kids and help them get instruments and supplies. I’ve had so much support during my journey, including from Chuck and Gregg. I see this as a circle of gratitude, one way to inspire others while we also inspire ourselves.

A version of this article originally appeared in our May 2016 issue.

Gregg Allman’s Second Chance

In 2009 Gregg Allman flew to Los Angeles to record his first solo album in fourteen years. The producer was the famous T Bone Burnett. “It started off so quick,” Allman says from his home on the Georgia coast. “Right away we had four tunes. Some were first takes. There were no interruptions, no strife, no drama.”
The drama came later, when Allman saw his doctors. “They diagnosed me with cancer,” he says. “That was the scariest part—three malignant tumors on my liver. I saw my funeral flash before my eyes. [But] it was not my time, and thank God.”
Allman’s years of hard living are no secret. (I once met him for breakfast in a motel bar; he ordered a screwdriver.) But while the years of alcohol abuse had done nothing to help his liver, it was hepatitis C that made it vulnerable to cancer. Allman suspects he caught the disease through a contaminated needle four decades ago. Treated successfully in 1999, the disease flared again in 2009. On June 23, 2010, Allman underwent a successful transplant. Today he is a spokesman with the American Liver Foundation, raising awareness about the disease that almost killed him.
It’s been a watershed year for the sixty-three-year-old. The solo album with Burnett, Low Country Blues, debuted in January at number five on the Billboard Top 200. He wants to record a new Allman Brothers Band album. He hasn’t touched alcohol or drugs in fifteen years and now has the liver of a thirty-year-old.
Declares Allman in a voice strong and sober: “This is an absolute second chance.”
 
Photograph by Danny Clinch

Rock Royalty

Chuck Leavell is considered by many to be the greatest rock pianist alive. Gregg Allman once said, “I know some good piano players, man, but . . . Chuck smokes ’em.” He’s held the keyboard chair in the Rolling Stones for twenty-nine
years and is such an integral part of the group that Keith Richards once said the Stones “wouldn’t be the Stones without Chuck.”
 
The youngest of three children, Leavell was born in Birmingham and grew up in Tuscaloosa. His father sold insurance, and his mother was a homemaker who entertained her young son by playing the piano. When Leavell was thirteen years old, his older sister took him to a Ray Charles concert, and his life’s path was set.
 
Photograph courtesy of
the Chuck Leavell Archive
Leavell eventually moved to Macon and first rose to prominence in 1972 when, at the age of twenty, he joined the Allman Brothers Band following guitarist Duane Allman’s death in a motorcycle accident. Leavell recorded one of rock’s most memorable piano solos—which he made up on the spot—on the classic instrumental “Jessica.” The song was inspired by guitarist Dickey Betts’s infant daughter, so Leavell decided to let his solo echo the theme song of the Peanuts television specials.
 
Leavell’s passion for music is rivaled only by his love of nature, born when his wife, Rose Lane, inherited her family’s 1,200-acre farm south of Macon. Leavell started modestly by growing Christmas trees. He then became interested in forestry and planted his first pine trees in 1984. Today trees cover 80 percent of the plantation, and harvests are carried out to sustainable forestry standards. The Charlane Plantation also doubles as a forested resort. Guests can rent an 1835 farmhouse or rooms in a lodge and hunt deer, wild turkey, and quail.
 
Leavell, fifty-nine, is the cofounder of the Mother Nature Network website with Atlanta advertising and public relations icon Joel Babbit. He also has coauthored four books, including three on environmental issues. The latest, Growing a Better America (Evergreen Arts, with J. Marshall Craig), was released this spring. His upcoming CD, Back to the Woods, is due in the fall and pays tribute to blues piano legends. It features guest appearances by Keith Richards, John Mayer, Col. Bruce Hampton, and Randall Bramblett.
 
We sent Scott Freeman—author of Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band and a former Atlanta magazine executive editor—to speak with Leavell. His first story on Leavell was in 1983, when the keyboardist made his debut on a Rolling Stones album.
 
For this interview, the two met at the airport. “He was on his way to New York for a recording session with John Mayer,” says Freeman. “Chuck isn’t your typical ‘rock star’; when he says to meet him at 2:15, he’s going to be punctual and maybe even early. So I got there early. Good thing; he called me at two, ready to go.”

I remember getting a call in 1983 from your wife when I was working at the paper in Macon. She said, “Chuck has opened up a Christmas tree stand out on Forsyth Road; you should do a story.” When I got there, you’d just finished packing a tree that you were sending to Keith Richards. That’s right. [laughs] I forgot I sent a tree to Keith. I really enjoyed our experience selling Christmas trees. It was very gratifying in a lot of ways, but it certainly was not a way to make money. We got out of that business and moved on from that at the plantation.

Your new book is a very thoughtful look at the stress mankind is putting on the environment. But I can imagine someone trying to brush you aside by calling you the “Al Gore of piano players.” What do you tell people who would dismiss you? At this juncture, my credentials are strong enough that people don’t do that. I’ve been a tree farmer over thirty years, I’ve been involved in environmental issues, I’ve written books on trees, and I’ve cofounded an environmental website.

 
But there are a lot of naysayers out there, and I have already run into that with this book. My statement to them is, “Hey, whatever you believe or don’t believe about our environmental challenges, isn’t it just the right thing to do? To live more cleanly, to seek out renewable energy sources, to make sensible automobiles that don’t use fossil fuels or use as little as possible?”
 
That seems to resonate. I mean, what are they going to say to that? “No, I’m just going to continue to be wasteful?” None of us want to be wasteful. I think there are ways we can be smart about it and still have very comfortable lifestyles.

Koch Industries owns Georgia-Pacific. Koch was named one of the ten worst air polluters in the country, and the Koch brothers finance global warming deniers and right-wing causes. What’s your take on them? I don’t know them personally, so I can’t comment on what their thinking is. They do own Georgia-Pacific, but Georgia-Pacific is extremely sustainable. It’s a very responsible company, and they’re doing very good things. I’m very proud we have them with us at Mother Nature Network [as a corporate sponsor].

What’s your impression of Nathan Deal? I met Governor Deal at an event we had at the capitol. I was very impressed with his statements about forestry and the value of forestry. And I was impressed that he showed up for this announcement, because it was not really about the forest products, or the dollars and cents that lumber and paper products bring. It was more about clean air and clean water.

 
I also was impressed that he put my wife on the authority over the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. I think that was a very good choice. [laughs]

Your book reminded me that, on average, Atlanta loses fifty-four acres of natural land every day. That is astounding, isn’t it? And half of that, at least, goes to impervious surfaces. When you add that up day after day, week after week, year after year, it’s a lot of land. Atlanta handles growth pretty well, but it’s still a tremendous amount of pressure. All you have to do is look at the traffic. It’s something we really need to come to grips with.

 
And where is that high-speed rail? I know it’s expensive, but guess what? Find the damn money and build a high-speed rail, because people will use it. Anyone who’s been to Japan or Europe knows how incredible those trains are. And I am just flabbergasted our country doesn’t have that.
 
Another thing about Atlanta—MARTA, let’s face it, is a nice little system, but it’s inadequate. It needs to go to other parts of the city. It needs to be expanded. I know that’s very difficult; it’s unfortunate it wasn’t done right in the first place. I rather like the trolley idea that’s come up. That’s very smart.

You cofounded the Mother Nature Network with Joel Babbit, who left his advertising and PR empire to start up the website. How did that come about? Joel’s clients were big-name: Home Depot, Coca-Cola, Dell. And he called me up one day and said, “My clients want to get their environmental message across. A lot of these companies are changing their ways to lower their carbon footprint, and they want people to know about it. They want to get out on the Internet. I haven’t really found a place where I’m comfortable spending their money. You know more about environmental issues; do you know of any great websites?”

 
I said, “You’re right. There’s some that are okay, but I don’t think there’s one that’s the WebMD of the environment.”
 
So he said, “You want to build it? I can get you some support if you’re interested. And if you are, I will resign my job and we’ll go do this together.”
 
Within forty-eight hours, with his connections, we had commitment of funds up to $10 million. And we went to work.
 
You and Rose Lane have the Charlane Plantation south of Macon. How old were you when you moved to Macon? I was eighteen. I had barely turned twenty when I joined the Allman Brothers Band.
 
There’s a great story that when your band used to open for the Allman Brothers, you’d sit at your acoustic piano backstage and play along during their show. It was usually an upright piano, because that’s all we could get. After we played, they would pull the piano backstage. I would hang out because I really did love the Allman Brothers’ music. And I would bang on that piano backstage while they played. The first guys who noticed me were the roadies, and they’d say, “What is this kid doing back there?”

Not long after the death of Duane Allman, you were hired to play piano on Gregg Allman’s solo record. The Allman Brothers were hanging around in the studio in downtown Macon, and you started jamming with them. A couple of weeks later, Phil Walden—the president of Capricorn Records—calls you into his office and asks if you’d like to join the band. I remember you telling me it was so unexpected that your first response was, “Which band?” [Laughs] Well, it really did come as a surprise. First of all, I was extremely happy and elated to have the position with Gregg, to do the Laid Back record with him. The guys in the Allman Brothers would come in and hang out a little bit, see what Gregg was up to.

 
It was only natural that these jam sessions started taking place. It was very casual, very loose, and a lot of fun. This went on for a couple of weeks, off and on. And then, boom! I’m asked to be in the Allman Brothers. Gee. Wow. Okay, we can do that.

The piano solo on “Jessica” was your signature moment with the Allman Brothers. Did you write that solo, or was it improvised? Let’s say it was developed. I remember Dickey [Betts] explaining that he’d been watching his daughter as he wrote it and that he’d been listening to [jazz guitarist] Django Reinhardt. We were gathered around, listening to him play it on the acoustic guitar. I didn’t have that many opportunities to develop that solo; we probably did no more than five takes. It’d be interesting to go back and listen to those early takes. I’d love to do that.

Do you remember hearing “Jessica” played back for the first time after the master take? Yeah, I remember smiling and looking around seeing everybody else smile. Not just at my solo, but the whole thing. We were very happy. It was a direction the band had never taken, and it was refreshing to them because that’s what they needed. They were still getting over Duane’s passing; they needed a fresh burst of air and maybe I provided [it] for a minute.

Talk about Jimmy Carter. The Allman Brothers kept his campaign going early on through a series of benefit concerts, and this was a time when it was unheard of for a presidential candidate to embrace a rock ’n’ roll band. While Jimmy was governor, he connected with Phil Walden and said, “I want to come down and see what you’re doing.” I thought that was pretty dang cool. He came in and immediately everyone was at ease with him, he made you feel at ease. He asked really great questions. He was obviously very proud of what Georgia was doing musically.
 
When he decided to run for president, he talked to Phil about this idea of fundraising. There had been some new laws enacted, and for the first time, you had matching funds. So if we could raise X amount of dollars, he could get matching federal funds. That was a clever plan.
 
We were riding a wave at the time; we were at the top of the charts. So when we were asked to do that, everybody jumped right on it. We loved Jimmy so much; we thought he would be a great leader, and I think he was a great leader.
 
He’s a tree farmer now. He has a very strong interest in forestry issues. Through a mutual friend, we reconnected and started quail hunting together. We’ve done that almost every year.

The first time you played with the Rolling Stones was at the Fox Theatre in 1981. How did that connection happen? I’d gone up to Long Island in ’81 on very short notice and did an audition [for the utility keyboard spot]. The audition went very, very well. I made friends with everybody and especially Ian Stewart, their piano player. I thought I had the gig in the bag when I went home. I waited, no call. I waited, no call.

 
Finally Stu [Stewart’s nickname] called and said, “Hey man, don’t be disappointed, but they’re going to take [former Faces keyboardist] Ian McLagan out this time. But everybody loved what you do. Just hang tight and we’ll see what happens.” Well, I was very disappointed, as you can imagine. I wanted the gig badly. Could taste it; came that close. But what else can you do but accept it?
 
They start their tour, and about two days before the Fox Theatre gig, Stu calls me. He says, “We’re going to be [in] your backyard. Would you like to come up and have a bash?” In the midst of being disappointed, that was a nice uplifting moment.
 
Rose Lane and I came up. It’s always a scene when the band arrives. They came in very quickly, and there was not a lot of time to stop and talk. In due course, Stu came up and said, “Come on to the dressing room and say hello to the guys.” Everybody was very cordial and nice.
 
The gig starts. A moment comes and Stu says, “Come on out.” He leaves the stage and it’s just me and Ian McLagan. He’s playing organ and I’m playing piano, we’re ninety degrees next to each other. We’re in the middle of a song and he looks over his shoulder and says, “Oh, you’ve done this before, have you?” [laughs]
 
In late spring of ’82, the phone rang again and it was Stu. He said, “The guys want you to come on over to England.” I went over there to start my relationship with them, and here I am almost thirty years later.

The first time I ever saw the Stones was the opening night of the Steel Wheels tour in 1989, which marked a comeback for the band. Ian Stewart had passed away, and you were now the main piano player. What really surprised me was how closely Charlie Watts watched you and followed your lead. I realized you’d become their de facto musical director. And now that’s your official job description. The role kind of morphed into that over time. The Stones, as incredibly talented as they all are, they’re a bit scattered. Of course, Keith is the musical director as far as I’m concerned when we’re onstage. But he and Mick [Jagger] were both happy to allow me some space to help in that department. It took pressure off of both
of them.

It’s also like you forced the loosest band in the world . . .  . . . to tighten up. [laughs]

Exactly. For the Rolling Stones, 1989 was an opportunity to be reborn. And they needed that. They needed a fresh approach. We knew it was going to be a big tour, and we felt pretty confident we’d be successful, but we knew there was going to be a lot written and said about the band. People were going to ask, “Can they still do it?” It was important that we rise to the occasion, and I think that’s where that role for me really began.

I’m excited that you’ve recorded a blues album; that’s a record I’ve wanted to hear for years. It’s been a fun journey. Steve Bransford, who’s the coproducer and my son-in-law, came to me and said, “I’ve got an idea. There’s been a lot of tributes done to jazz guys, to blues guitar players. But nobody’s really done it for blues piano players. I think you’re the guy to do it.” He handed me three CDs that had probably 120 songs on them. And I thought, what a neat idea.

 
We recorded most of the basic tracks in Athens. As time went on, I thought, “Wow, I’ve got to get Keith.” He graciously agreed to do it, and I’ve got him on two tracks. There’s this one song in particular, “How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone?” It was a collaboration between Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. You’ll realize where Keith got a lot of his licks when you listen to that song. And where I got a lot of mine.

Did you read Keith’s autobiography? I did and found it to be very entertaining. I especially liked the descriptions of the early days—the forming of the band, them playing the club scenes, the “starving musician” days. I was also very flattered with the comments he gave about me.

Next year is going to be the fiftieth anniversary of the Rolling Stones, which is pretty mind-boggling. Yes, it is. It’s absolutely astounding that you can consider the possibility of celebrating fifty years of rock ’n’ roll music by a band that’s been together that long. It’s groundbreaking. You’ve seen the jazz guys and the blues guys last that long and longer. But you haven’t seen a rock ’n’ roll band do it. And here it is. It’s a marvelous milestone, and it’s a great opportunity.

Which raises the question, will there be a fiftieth anniversary tour? I wish I had news to report, because I certainly want to see it happen. There’s been ongoing discussions, but no decision. My fingers and toes are crossed, I can tell you that.

Fallout

0711_July_OlympicPark1
Photograph by Gregory Miller

This article originally appeared in our July 2011 issue.

As midnight approached on Friday, July 26, 1996, there were still 15,000 people crowding Centennial Olympic Park. A heat wave that had kept temperatures hovering near 90 degrees for the past week had broken, and there was a cool breeze in the air.

For eight days, ever since Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic cauldron to open the Summer Games, the eyes of the world had been fixed on Atlanta. A stroll through Centennial Park meant overhearing conversations in exotic tongues, or standing in line behind someone from Ireland while standing in front of someone from Nigeria, or swapping pins with a visitor from Australia.

If you were there that evening, you may have passed by twenty-nine-year-old Eric Robert Rudolph, dressed in jeans and a blue short-sleeve shirt. A large pack was strapped to his back. Rudolph had grown up in the mountains of western North Carolina, where he had come under the influence of Nord Davis Jr. Besides being a former IBM executive, Davis was the leader of the Christian Identity movement, which posits that Jews are the children of Satan and that Christ cannot return to Earth until the world is swept clean of the devil’s influences. Davis said often that the movement needed a “lone wolf”—an agent who could plan and execute an attack all on his own, telling no one.

For the past seven years, Rudolph had been a voracious reader of the Bible and of hate-filled propaganda denouncing gays, abortion, the government. He worked odd jobs, always demanding cash payment, and grew marijuana. He filed no tax returns and had no Social Security number. Two months before the Games, he told his family he was moving to Colorado, but actually he stayed in North Carolina. At some point, he decided to plant bombs on five consecutive days at Olympic venues, each one preceded by a warning call to 911. His goal was simple: shut down the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.

As the R&B band Jack Mack and the Heart Attack took the AT&T Stage that evening, Richard Jewell, a thirty-three-year-old security guard, kept watch near the sound and light tower. Born in Virginia, he moved to DeKalb County with his mother when he was six, after his parents divorced. He graduated from Towers High School and worked as a clerk at the Small Business Administration. A lawyer he befriended there would describe Jewell as earnest, sometimes to the point of being annoying.

Jewell always wanted to be a cop. In 1990 he landed an entry-level job as a jailer with the Habersham County Sheriff’s Department. While working a second job as a security guard at his DeKalb County apartment complex, Jewell was arrested for impersonating an officer; he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and was put on probation.

He worked as a deputy sheriff for five years, and he was remembered for his zeal for the job and his tendency to wreck patrol cars. After his fourth crash, Jewell was demoted back to jailer. He chose instead to resign.

He was hired as a campus cop in 1995 at the tiny Piedmont College in Demorest. It was an ill fit. Jewell would write long, detailed reports on minor incidents. He upset college officials when he stopped someone for operating with one taillight. Although the main highway ran past the school, traffic violations were supposed to be handled by the Demorest police. He got into trouble when he made a DUI arrest on the highway and didn’t follow protocol by radioing the police department to handle the case.

He resigned in May of 1996 and moved into his mother’s apartment on Buford Highway. She was about to have foot surgery; he wanted to be there for her and also to find a police job in the Atlanta area after the Games. In June he began working for a security firm contracted by AT&T, which was building a stage in Centennial Park. Jewell joked to a friend that if anything happened at the Games, he wanted to be in the middle of it.

Saturday, July 27
Rudolph found an out-of-the-way spot in front of the sound and light tower that faced the AT&T stage. Inside his backpack were three pipe bombs filled with gunpowder and six pounds of 2.5-inch steel nails, stuffed into Tupperware containers. The bombs were powered by an Eveready six-volt lantern battery hooked to a model rocket engine igniter and triggered by a Westclox alarm clock.

Rudolph put the bag on the ground, reached inside, and set the alarm to go off in fifty-five minutes. There were three benches in front of the tower. The one to his left was tucked against a steel barrier that paralleled what is now Centennial Olympic Park Drive, and he stashed the bag under that bench. Michael Cox, who worked for the Turner Associates architectural firm, and some friends were at the bench minutes before Rudolph’s arrival.

Michael Cox: We were sitting on that bench about thirty minutes before the bomb went off, and we saw Eric Rudolph in the park. He really stood out; well, it was his backpack that stood out, because it was huge. It wasn’t a hiker’s backpack; it was big and boxy. I remember wondering, why in the world would somebody be wearing a backpack like that?

Sometime after midnight, the band took a break. During the lull, a group of seven college-aged men walked up to the three benches in front of the sound tower. Five of them sat on the middle bench; the other two sat on the bench above the bomb.

They were drunk and rowdy, which drew Jewell’s attention. He noticed they had two large bags. The one in front of the middle bench looked like a canvas cooler, and he saw them pull fresh Budweisers from it. The other was a large, green, Army-style backpack that was shoved under the bench by the steel wall.

Jewell called over Tom Davis, a GBI agent who was working security in the park.

Tom Davis: [He] flagged me down and told me he’d been having a problem with drunks throwing beer cans into the tower. He said, “They won’t listen to me; I need someone in law enforcement to talk to them.”

We walked around the tower and saw a couple of guys picking up beer cans. Richard Jewell said, “That’s a couple of them, but the rest have left.” Then those two left. We’re standing by the tower, and he looks down at this bench and says, “One of them must’ve left that bag.”

Richard Jewell: It was just that casual. Tom turned around and hollered at them, “Did you all leave a bag up here?” And they said, “No, it ain’t ours.”


There were at least a couple hundred people sitting on a grassy knoll in front of the tower. Davis and Jewell quickly asked those closest to the benches if the bag belonged to them. When no one claimed it, Davis followed procedure; he declared it a suspicious package and called for the bomb team. Jewell radioed his supervisor.

They then cleared a fifteen-foot perimeter so the bomb team would have room to check out the backpack. It was 12:57 a.m. One minute later, Rudolph called 911 from a pay phone five blocks away from the tower. He announced in a calm, flat voice, “There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have thirty minutes.” He was wrong; they had only twenty-two. While Davis waited for the bomb team, Jewell went inside the five-story sound tower.

Jewell: I went to each floor very quickly and [said], “We’ve got a situation in front of the tower. Law enforcement is on the scene, and they [are] checking it. I don’t know what it is right now, but it is a suspicious package. If I come back in here and tell you to get out, there will be no questions, there will be no hesitation. Drop what you’re doing and get the fuck out.”

After I got to the top, I came back down, and the whole time I was counting people. I wanted to make sure I knew how many people I had in the tower. [There were] eleven people.

By the time Jewell emerged, the bomb team had arrived. So had Jewell’s supervisor, Bob Ahring, an assistant police chief from Blue Springs, Missouri.

Jewell: The guys looked at it from every angle, and then finally one of them took out a penlight and laid down on the ground and crawled under the bench, and then he loosened the bag and shined the light inside. All of a sudden . . . he just froze, and then he crawled out just as slow as molasses in wintertime.

Bob Ahring: I asked one of the guys, “What have we got?” I could see he was shaken. “It’s big,” he said. “How big?” I asked. “Real big,” he said. I said, “Do we need to evacuate?” The guy just vigorously nodded his head.

Davis and Ahring were quickly joined by other officers to help get the crowd away from the tower, and to do it without inducing panic. Jewell hurried back into the tower, which stood to take the brunt of the impact if the bomb exploded.

Jewell: I said, “Get out! Get out now!” Went to the second floor: “Get out! Get out now!” Third floor, nobody was there. Up to the fourth floor. Told the video guy, “Let’s go! Let’s get out of here!” Went up to the [light box], said, “Let’s get out of here! Let’s go now!” They were wanting to cut their spotlights out. I grabbed both of them and pushed them down the stairs.

I came down to the video floor. The guy’s putting videocassettes in his briefcase. I reached over there and grabbed him by the arm and just drug him down the stairs with me. Came down to the third floor. It was clear. Went down to the second floor. Everybody had cleared out of there. Went down to the first floor. Checked it again. I was the last one out of the building.

One of the troopers walked up, “Is the tower clear? Is the tower clear?” I said, “Yeah, it’s clear, 100 percent clear.”

If we’d had three more minutes, we’d have [cleared the area]. All these benches were still full of people. They wouldn’t move. Every one of them had four and five people on them. The [officers] lined theirselves up with the benches. When that thing went off, they took all the shrapnel that those people would have took.

Davis: I know exactly where I was standing when it went off; I was eighteen steps from where it detonated. It was very loud, and it was very forceful. The vacuum it created was immense and shoved me forward. I remember the heat from it on my back.

Ahring: I was just ten yards away. The concussion knocked me forward six feet, and I wound up on the ground. There was smoke everywhere, the smell of gun­powder. There was a sudden deathly quiet throughout the whole park, and I could hear the whistle of shrapnel whizzing through the air. It was the eeriest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.

Jewell: I’d been out of the tower maybe a minute and “kabang!” It knocked me forward, and I fell down on my hands and knees. As I pushed myself back up, I looked to my right because that’s where the blast come from. Those troopers that had been lined up with those benches were flying through the air. It had knocked them that far. I started running to those—hell, they’re my buddies. I get to the first guy and I’m helping him lay down. I’m telling him, “Just lay flat, man. We’ll get you some help, man.”

Every one of these guys is a bigger fucking hero than I am. If I’m a hero, there ain’t a word to describe these guys right here. I mean, it wells me up every time I think about it.

Alice Hawthorne, forty-four, who had driven from Albany, was killed by shrapnel. Hawthorne was hit six times, including a fatal wound to the head. Melih Uzunyol, a Turkish news cameraman, died of a heart attack while rushing to the scene. In total, 111 others were injured. Ahring was hit in his left shoulder and lower left leg. Davis was hit as well, in the buttocks. But the GBI badge holder in his back pocket blocked the shrapnel.

Among the injured was John Fristoe, a stagehand who heard about the bomb threat from security and was walking toward the tower to warn a friend inside. The force of the blast caused a whiplash that collapsed a disc in his neck, an injury that almost paralyzed him.

John Fristoe: Ms. Hawthorne, I saw her. She was coming down the hill [head over heels]. Seriously. It was horrible, man. [begins to weep] I’m sorry. I’ve never witnessed a murder before.

Davis: It was utter chaos. We had troopers down and agents down. There was screaming and hollering. I remember checking on Ms. Hawthorne. She had already expired. A man beside her was bleeding profusely from the stomach area where shrapnel hit him.

The Centennial Park bombing put the city into a state of shock. The immediate question was whether the Games would continue—was it even safe for the Games to continue? Ed Hula covered the Atlanta Games for WGST-AM. Today he is editor of Around the Rings, a web-based publication considered an authoritative media source of Olympic news.

Ed Hula: There were questions: Is this an isolated instance? Will there be more of these? How can we go on with the Olympics with a couple of people dead? Some said the Games shouldn’t continue, but they did. There was precedent—the Munich Games in 1972. That was more dastardly, more consequential, and much more of a significant event than the Centennial Park bombing. And those Games continued.

Nancy Geery: During the Olympics, I worked at a recruiting firm. Everyone was caught up in the spirit of the Games, and I wanted to be involved, so I worked nights in a Swatch kiosk selling watches. I was in the park the night of the bombing. It was very festive, a lot of camaraderie. Afterwards there was fear in the back of your mind. I was twenty-six at the time. I had tickets to the track and field finals, really fantastic seats, and I went. At that age, I was not as afraid of things. Now? Oh no, I would’ve never gone back there.

Cox: The city had been on a euphoric high because of the Olympics for weeks and weeks. The bombing was a sucker punch to the gut. I was outraged that someone would do that to the Olympics in my hometown.

Late Saturday morning, officials held a press conference and credited a security guard with discovering the bomb before it exploded, which had enabled officials to move a large number of people out of harm’s way.

CNN was the first news organization to get an interview with the guard who found the bomb. Bryant Steele, who handled media relations in the Southeast for AT&T, met Jewell outside the CNN Center around 7:30 that evening and escorted him inside. Jewell wore one of the security firm’s black polo shirts and a black cap. He had barely slept in the past twenty-four hours.

Jewell: [My mother and I] got there late because we couldn’t park anywhere near Downtown. They literally ran us straight to the control room, sat me down, put a mic on me, and said, “Be ready in about five seconds.” I told them I’d never done anything like that before, and I was very nervous about it. They told me to be myself and just go tell what happened.

Bryant Steele: I said to [Jewell] that there would be more of these interview requests coming up and you need to think about your willingness to do them.

Jewell: I told them that I would do whatever they wanted me to do. They would call me up and say, “Do you mind doing this?” And I would say, “No, that’s fine if that’s what you all want me to do.” I worked for them. I felt obligated that I needed to do what they asked me to do.

Sunday, July 28
CNN aired the Jewell interview over and over in its coverage of the Centennial Park bombing. He was heralded as a hero of the Summer Games.

That morning Steele drove Jewell to a ninety-minute session with the FBI to go over everything he’d seen the night before. Steele then took Jewell back to CNN to tape a more in-depth interview. While they were there, USA Today paged Steele. Then the Boston Globe. They wanted interviews with Jewell.

Because they were in Downtown, Steele decided to call the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He said he considered it a courtesy to the hometown paper.

Steele: I told them that both CNN and USA Today were interviewing the security guard who found the knapsack that contained the bomb in Centennial Park. I told them I was accompanying him to his interviews, and if they would like to also interview him, I would be glad to bring him over.

One person who watched the CNN interview was Ray Cleere, the president of Piedmont College. According to a Justice Department audit of the FBI’s CENTBOM investigation, Cleere called the FBI Sunday afternoon and expressed concern that Jewell may have been involved in the bombing. Cleere also said the college had information concerning “improper conduct,” as he phrased it, by Jewell—a reference that turned out to be nothing more than Jewell’s practice of stopping cars on the highway that went past the campus.

Cleere and Dick Martin, the chief of the campus police, contended in their depositions that the intent was simply to tell the FBI the college would cooperate if the FBI did a due diligence background check on Jewell.

Ray Cleere: We agreed that the investigation would begin with anyone that might have been in the area [of the bombing], including the officers involved. We felt that we would soon be contacted by law enforcement. We agreed that we should cast the institution in the proper light by agreeing to cooperate in any way [that] we were called upon.

Dick Martin: We had no belief that Richard Jewell was involved in this bomb. We said that clearly. I said that the first time I called, that we were only volunteering what information we had about his employment. That was it.

I think I did use the word “with a slightly erratic work record” or something to that effect. [And one of my officers] told me, “Richard did have a little knowledge of bombs. Me and Richard talked about bombs several times.” That caught me by surprise. My feelings were, “Gosh, I wish I hadn’t heard that.” I had a feeling that this was going to kind of muddy things up.

The pressure on the FBI in the wake of the bombing was intense. This was the Olympic Games. The entire world was watching and wanted to be reassured that the FBI would catch the bomber before he struck again.

There was little to go on. No radical group claimed the bombing. There was only preliminary forensics; there were no eyewitnesses who saw the bomb being planted and no information from inside extremist groups.

Eric Rudolph had played the lone wolf to perfection. He had abandoned his plan to set off four more bombs and was already back in North Carolina.

FBI Director Louis Freeh participated in a twice-daily conference call between Washington and the Atlanta FBI field office. According to the Justice Department audit, Richard Jewell’s name arose for the first time Sunday, July 28, during the 5 p.m. call.

Aside from Cleere’s phone call, there were two factors that elevated Jewell’s name as a potential suspect. A recent spate of fires in Southern California turned out to have been set by a volunteer firefighter so he could extinguish them and become a hero. And at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, a security guard had planted a fake bomb on a bus in order to discover it later.

FBI headquarters agreed to begin a “preliminary investigation” into Jewell’s background.

Monday, July 29
FBI agents arrived at Piedmont College and Habersham County early in the morning. They found out Jewell had owned a green backpack similar to the one used in the bombing, that Jewell had access to a bomb-making “cookbook,” that he had told someone he wanted to be “in the middle” of anything that might happen at the Olympic Games.

They learned Jewell had been on a task force that handled bombs, and that Jewell had told a fellow officer he’d dealt with homemade pipe bombs that had a closed chamber, contained shrapnel, and were set off with blasting caps. One person who knew Jewell told the FBI he thought Jewell was capable of placing a bomb if he thought no one would be hurt by it. He said Jewell might have believed that this could make him appear heroic and help him get a job as a police officer again. He said Jewell had been “blackballed” from law enforcement because of his history as a deputy sheriff. The agents also learned he had once been arrested for impersonating a police officer.

Jewell was discussed during the FBI’s 9 a.m. conference call between Washington and Atlanta. They learned that behavioral specialists in Quantico, Virginia, had watched Jewell’s CNN interviews and decided he “fit the profile of a person who might create an incident so he could emerge as a hero.” That afternoon the possibility of interviewing Jewell was discussed but was tabled for twenty-four hours.

In the evening, the AJC’s Kathy Scruggs—who then covered the Atlanta Police Department—caught wind of the FBI’s interest in Jewell from a source.

Kathy Scruggs: He said, “But you can’t do anything with this until I say so, because it might screw up the investigation, might ruin the investigation.” So I said, “Okay, unless I get independent corroboration. And then, that changes the rules. I am in a different ball game.” And he said, “Okay.”

Ron Martz, then AJC reporter: After Kathy told us that her sources were telling us that Mr. Jewell was the prime suspect, there was a discussion about whether we had sufficient information or sufficient time to get that story into the newspaper the next morning. And we quickly came to the realization that we did not.

We decided to dispatch [reporter] Maria Fernandez to Habersham County. Meanwhile I would be working my sources to try to get confirmation of what Kathy’s sources were telling her.

Scruggs: From the beginning, we knew that he fit the alleged profile and that his former employer called to turn him in. I also knew that they had information, which I don’t know at this point that they verified or not, that he had been involved with someone else in making a bomb before . . . Apparently Jewell’s handler had approached the paper about doing a story about him being a hero.

Someone at AT&T had given Jewell tickets to an Olympic baseball game, and he spent Monday afternoon with his mother at Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium. Around 8 p.m. he received a call from Tim Attaway, a GBI agent he knew from North Georgia who also was working security in the park. Attaway sounded homesick, and Jewell invited him over for some home-cooked lasagna.

Attaway had an ulterior motive. At the request of the FBI, he wore a Nagra tape recorder strapped to his back. Jewell talked about the bombing until 1 a.m., even though he had to be awake at 5:30 Tuesday morning. Centennial Park was to reopen, and he was to be interviewed by Katie Couric on the Today show.

Jewell made the appearance Tuesday, then went home. He wanted to catch a few hours of sleep before he went back to work that evening.

Tuesday, July 30
The FBI held its conference call at 9 a.m., and Freeh told the Atlanta office to conduct a non-confrontational interview with Jewell late that afternoon, then follow it up on Wednesday with a confrontational interview and possibly a polygraph.

They faced two significant problems in building a case against the security guard. First, agents had yet to turn up any direct evidence that implicated him. Second, the FBI had just learned that the 911 call was placed at almost the exact same time Tom Davis radioed for the bomb squad; that meant Jewell was standing next to Davis in Centennial Park when the 911 call was made from a phone booth five blocks away.

Around midmorning an even bigger issue came into play.

Martin: On Tuesday, when [FBI agent] Don Johnson left my office, he said, “If we could just have one more day, one more half day even, without the press, this young man will be able to go on with his life without anybody even knowing about [this].”

Scruggs: I was coming in to work, and I got a beep from the Atlanta police. When I called them, they said they are looking at the security guard. I said, “How did you know that?” He said, “Well, we are over here talking about it. Everybody knows it.”

My feelings were that once this had gotten to the Atlanta Police Department, that it would be pretty much common knowledge. I came into the office and told them, “I think we need to go with the story.”

The AJC story—cowritten by Scruggs and Martz—was printed in the paper’s daily “extra” edition that hit the streets around 3:30 Tuesday afternoon. Within minutes a CNN anchor raised the front page headline to the camera: “FBI Suspects ‘Hero’ Guard May Have Planted Bomb.” He then read the story aloud word for word:

“The security guard who first alerted police to the pipe bomb that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park is the focus of the federal investigation into the incident that resulted in two deaths and injured more than 100.

“Richard Jewell, 33, a former law enforcement officer, fits the profile of the lone bomber. This profile generally includes a frustrated white man who is a former police officer, member of the military or police ‘wannabe’ who seeks to become a hero.

“Jewell has become a celebrity in the wake of the bombing, making an appearance this morning at the reopened park with Katie Couric on the Today show. He also has approached newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, seeking publicity for his actions.”

Lin Wood, civil attorney for Jewell: Bobi Jewell and Richard were watching the Olympic broadcast that night. And here’s Tom Brokaw telling the world—Tom Brokaw—that they probably have enough to arrest him, probably enough to prosecute him, but they want to fill in a few more holes in the case. But the only name you’re hearing tonight is Richard Jewell.

And Bobi Jewell, whose favorite news anchor was Tom Brokaw, turned to Richard and said, “Son, what have you done?”

The Aftermath
In the days that followed, television news crews and reporters swarmed the parking lot in front of Bobi Jewell’s Buford Highway apartment. The day after the AJC story hit, the FBI searched the apartment while Richard Jewell sat outside in view of the media.

The AJC’s follow-up stories said that Jewell fit the profile of an overzealous “police wannabe” who planted the bomb in order to be a hero and then sought the limelight. That he had a reputation “as a badge-wearing zealot.” That he was a “bad man to cross on his beat.” The paper had one handicap: Scruggs’s original source stopped speaking to her.

In a column that ran on August 1, AJC columnist Dave Kindred evoked convicted killer Wayne Williams, suspected of murdering more than twenty children in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981. “Once upon a terrible time, federal agents came to this town to deal with another suspect who lived with his mother,” Kindred wrote. “Like this one, that suspect was drawn to the blue lights and sirens of police work. Like this one, he became famous in the aftermath of murder. His name was Wayne Williams. This one is Richard Jewell.”

Wood: You read all that in the newspaper, what are you going to think except that Jewell’s some weirdo who bombed the park? You say, “That son of a bitch, he did it.”

Except it’s not true. He never contacted the AJC. He never contacted any newspaper. He never contacted any media organization. There’s no profile of the lone bomber in the FBI parlance. Those statements were totally without attribution, in the voice of God, saying that Richard Jewell fit this profile. No one ever said that about Richard.

The problem is that Richard was the sexy one. He was the hero they could now argue was the killer. That had such sex appeal with the media, they couldn’t resist it.

Peter Canfield, lawyer for the AJC: At the time of the Journal-Constitution’s story, reports on the hero guard were in the local and world news daily, and Richard Jewell was continuing to make appearances on national talk shows. That he was the FBI’s prime bombing suspect was not just news—it was stunning news.

When the Journal-Constitution’s reporters were tipped to this fact, they confirmed that Richard Jewell was the prime suspect—and why he was the prime suspect—and accurately reported that to readers. Should the Journal-Constitution have questioned the FBI’s theories as to Richard Jewell’s guilt? Yes, and it did, with more determination and effect than any other news organization.

Bert Roughton (then Olympic news editor): I don’t accept the assertion that the newspaper was less than accurate, nor do I think we were moved improperly by competitive desires. I know that Mr. Jewell, or somebody representing Mr. Jewell, had contacted our newspaper offering him to be interviewed, in fact, promoting the story. There was a general impression at the time that he was making the media rounds, talking to a number of other news organizations.

John Walter (then managing editor): [Our] story is blatantly true. Everything we said became even more visible in the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours.

The majority of the press—including the New York Times and the Washington Post—took a much more conservative approach to the bomb investigation.

Jewell was a focus of the FBI’s efforts, but he was far from the only focus. On July 31, the Associated Press and CBS News reported the investigation was moving away from Jewell. That same day, ABC News reported that the FBI had failed to turn up physical evidence linking Jewell to the bombing, and that there were questions about whether Jewell could have placed the 911 call.

As late as August 4, the AJC stated that “investigators have said they believe Jewell, a security guard in the park who was originally credited with finding the bomb, planted the bomb and phoned in a warning to 911.”

Scruggs: That’s what I was told at the time. You have to rely on what police tell you. We don’t have the tools that they have, the pieces to the puzzle.

Wood: The AJC was the only news organization in the world to report that investigators believed Jewell planted the bomb, and that investigators believed Jewell placed the 911 call himself. No one else reported that. No one else even republished that statement.

The media’s obsession with Richard Jewell was a blessing and a curse for the FBI. As the Games continued, it meant the public was reassured that the FBI had their guy and everyone could feel safe again. It also boxed the FBI into a corner. They had no choice but to continue to let Jewell twist in the wind. If they cleared him now and something turned up later to implicate him, they’d look like fools.

For nearly three months, everywhere Jewell went—to the grocery store, to a Braves game, to his lawyer’s office—he was trailed by a convoy of FBI vehicles.

When Mike Wallace met with Jewell in September with a 60 Minutes crew, he asked for proof of the spectacle. One of Jewell’s lawyers, Watson Bryant, told him the agents were downstairs in the parking lot.

Watson Bryant, Jewell’s lawyer and long-time friend: So Mike Wallace gets a cameraman, and we all go downstairs, out the front door. And now I know how to get rid of FBI agents: You just come at them with a news camera, and they’re like roaches, they just disappear.

Wood: Everybody wanted that interview, and we decided to go with Mike Wallace because he had the reputation of being the toughest newsman in the business. We felt that if we had Richard answering any question that Mike Wallace might throw at him, then the public would understand that Richard Jewell was an innocent man.

The 60 Minutes story was broadcast on September 22 and portrayed Jewell as the hapless innocent, his life turned upside down by the media and the FBI. It showed several shots of Jewell being followed by the parade of dark-colored SUVs and sedans, and Wallace ridiculed the heavy-handed approach. That story, coupled with a press conference Bobi Jewell gave in August, convinced Attorney General Janet Reno to tell the FBI to review the Jewell investigation.

On October 6, the FBI interviewed Jewell for nearly six hours. At the conclusion, assistant U.S. Attorney John Davis told Jewell the government didn’t think he planted the bomb. Twenty days later, U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander hand-delivered a letter to Jewell’s defense lawyer that made it official. After eighty-eight days, the hounding of Richard Jewell was over.

Postscript
Richard Jewell sued and/or reached settlements with Tom Brokaw and NBC News, CNN, the New York Post, Time magazine, and Piedmont College.

He filed a lawsuit against the AJC in 1997, which was dismissed by a Fulton County judge in 2007. Jewell appealed that decision to the Georgia Court of Appeals; oral arguments were heard in February. The AJC stands steadfast in its assertion that the coverage of Richard Jewell was “fair, accurate, and responsible.” Kathy Scruggs said in a 1997 deposition that her sources still believed Jewell was involved in the bombing.

After the Games, Scruggs was promoted to cover federal law enforcement. She died in 2001; John Walter died in 2008. Bert Roughton is now managing editor at the AJC. Ron Martz took a buyout when the paper was downsized
in 2007.

Six months after the Olympics, a pipe bomb was set off in Sandy Springs outside an abortion clinic. A month later, on February 21, 1997, another bomb exploded behind the Otherside Lounge, a lesbian bar in Atlanta. Only then were federal investigators able to forensically link the three bombings in the Atlanta area. In 1998 Eric Robert Rudolph was seen fleeing the scene of a bombing outside an abortion clinic in Birmingham that killed an off-duty police officer. Once he was identified, Rudolph disappeared into the mountains of North Carolina and eluded capture for nearly five years.

On April 13, 2005, Rudolph pleaded guilty to the bombing in Centennial Park and three other bombings. He was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences without the chance of parole.

In 2006, on the tenth anniversary of the Games, then Governor Sonny Perdue honored Richard Jewell for his heroism on the night of the bombing. Just over a year later, Jewell died in his Meriwether County home at the age of forty-four of complications from diabetes. He was working as a deputy sheriff. Bobi Jewell still lives in the Atlanta area; through her lawyer, she declined to be interviewed.

Fristoe, the stagehand who had been injured in the blast: On the day Eric Rudolph was sentenced, I was there in the courtroom. They called me up to the stand to address him. I told him, “I can’t understand why you did what you did. But I’ve prayed for you.” He didn’t react, but I know he heard me. I got some closure because of that.

Richard Jewell, God rest his soul. When we were building that sound tower, it was close to a hundred degrees. He was working security, and he brought me iced water time and time again. He was really a courteous guy. He’s so misunderstood.

Geery: All I remember is Richard Jewell. I don’t even remember the guy who did it

Bryant: He was always just a decent guy. In the fall of ’96, I had him coach [Northside Youth Organization] football, and there was a lot of trepidation from the parents. He’s out there with the team, and one of the kids asks about the men standing over to the side of the field. Richard said, “Well, those are FBI agents, and they’re here to keep an eye on me, make sure everything’s okay.” These were nine- and ten-year-old boys, and they were excited: “Really? FBI? Really?” He says, “Come on, let me introduce you to them.” He took the team over, and these agents, they showed them their badges and their guns and they answered these kids’ questions. The parents, they figured it out quickly enough.

He was a good man. I miss him.

About This Story
For this oral history, Scott Freeman relied on both archival and fresh interviews. He also reviewed nearly 20,000 pages of legal documents compiled from Richard Jewell’s lawsuit against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Most of the AJC editors and reporters involved have never spoken publicly about the paper’s coverage, so Freeman drew from portions of their sworn depositions. The court file also contains interviews concerning the bombing coverage that an AJC reporter conducted for a story that was never published. Quotes from Richard Jewell come from FBI files and depositions. Freeman drew additional information from the FBI case file and interviews, as well as from a Justice Department audit of the Jewell investigation. Eric Rudolph discussed the Olympic Park bombing in a manifesto posted on the Army of God website. Some quotes have been edited for clarity. Disclosure: AJC lawyer Peter Canfield represents Freeman in a lawsuit filed over one of his books, and Bryant Steele was Freeman’s city editor at the Macon Telegraph in 1983.

SOURCES FOR QUOTES
Richard Jewell – Depositions, FBI files
Michael Cox – Interview with author
Tom Davis – Interview with author
Bob Ahring – Interview with author
John Fristoe – Interview with author
Ed Hula – Interview with author
Nancy Geery – Interview with author
Bryant Steele – Deposition, interview with author
Ray Cleere – Deposition
Dick Martin – Deposition
Kathy Scruggs – Deposition
Ron Martz – Deposition
Lin Wood – Interview with author
Peter Canfield – Interview with author
Bert Roughton – Deposition
John Walter – Deposition
Watson Bryant – Interview with author

This article originally appeared in our July 2011 issue.

The Phantom of The Fox: Joe Patten’s love affair with Atlanta’s beloved theater saved it. Twice.

Phantom of the Fox Joe PattenThe Phantom of The Fox smiles and says, “Follow me.”

He is white-haired and slightly hunched over from age and spinal fusion surgery, but I have to hustle to keep up with him as he leads me through the twists and turns of the hallways inside The Fox Theatre. After a while, he goes through a door and then up a stairwell and then down another hallway until we reach a large room. He walks to the corner and reaches for a door so slim that it might lead to a broom closet. He opens it, turns back and invites me in with a sweep of his hand. “This is where I live,” he says.

The Phantom is perhaps the greatest mystery of The Fox. No one ever seems to see him; all we know is that he is this beloved but mythical figure said to exist in some lair deep inside the theater. Or maybe he doesn’t . . . you could never know for sure. And yet, one phone call and here I am with the Phantom. Joe Patten, a 75-year-old man who still strides with a happy gait as he guides me into the apartment that is surely the most enviable address in Atlanta.

The architecture, of course, is Moorish. As are the tapestries on the walls. It has the same huge faux stone walls as inside the theater, the same floors. There are two floors, and the upstairs has two sunken bedrooms and a raised den. Downstairs are the living room, dining room and a spacious kitchen that is artfully decorated with a row of tile that circles the room. Against one wall is his wine rack: one of those old, black store safes. We settle in a living room furnished with elegant antiques and sit down on a couple of cushioned, dark wood chairs. Behind the Phantom is a working grand player piano; he has several dozen original scrolls in a nearby closet. Facing him in the opposite corner is a Hammond church organ.

Some men fall in love with a beautiful woman; the Phantom of The Fox fell in love with a beautiful old building. Patten still recalls with perfect clarity the day he first beheld the theater in 1947 when he came to Atlanta from Florida to visit friends. “It was a Sunday afternoon,” he says. “It was the Fourth of July and there was a free concert at The Fox, the Atlanta Pops Orchestra. We sat in the balcony, but we could see the blue sky and the twinkling stars and the moving clouds. It was an experience I couldn’t believe.” He pauses, as if to savor the sweetness of the memory, then smiles. “And afterward, of course, we all went to The Varsity.”

By 1963, Patten had moved to Atlanta to install and repair X-ray equipment. He also had a hobby/part-time job: He restored and repaired organs. Patten met Bob Van Camp, WSB Radio’s program director and an organist who had once played “Mighty Mo,” the 3,622-pipe Möller Deluxe theater organ inside The Fox. It was the second largest theater organ in the world, and it had been allowed to fall apart. “It was not really playing,” says Patten. “It made grunts and groans, but that was all.” Patten and Van Camp approached the theater owners and offered to renovate the instrument. It was a 10-month project that turned into a lifetime. Patten arrived, and he never really left.

It is almost impossible today to imagine the squalid condition of The Fox when Patten began work to restore Mighty Mo. The theater was owned by a movie chain and its glory days were far behind it. Built in 1929 by the Shriners for their national headquarters, The Fox Theatre was spectacularly grand and bold and ornate. The interior was an indoor Arabian courtyard complete with flickering stars and clouds, a faux canopy hanging over the balcony. It even included hidden air conditioning and heating ducts. The Shriners spared no cost, and, as a result, ran out of money during construction and had to partner with movie mogul William Fox in order to finish the building. The Fox Theatre opened just in time for the Depression, and went bankrupt after only 125 weeks of operation. The theater began to prosper in the ’40s as the grandest movie palace in the South. Then came the Age of Neglect and the theater began to decay into a dying artifact.

Patten became the caretaker of the organ, and he would soon become caretaker of the theater itself. He finagled his own key, which allowed him to come and go as he pleased. He was fascinated by all the hidden passages throughout The Fox, how you could disappear on this side of the building and then mysteriously reappear somewhere on that side. He learned them all, every nook and every cranny. And he learned everything he could about the building. He befriended the people who worked there. One person taught him how to work the ballasts that raise and lower the stage curtains. Another how to run the ancient air conditioning system and then the heating plant. Patten even learned how to change the light bulbs in the planetarium. “I just knew,” he said. “I kept thinking: One of these days, all of this is going to be my responsibility.”

Those days arrived in the early ’70s. By then, the majestic old theater was worn and tired, reduced to surviving on second-run flicks. Patten stopped by The Fox one afternoon to find a pickup truck backed up to a door. The truck’s owners were inside, scavenging the theater for antique furniture. Patten chased them away, and then he gathered together a group of his friends. They promptly took every bit of moveable furniture in The Fox—every lamp, couch, and chair—and stashed it all in the building’s subterranean basement. “I don’t know whether I had the only keys to those rooms,” he says with a twinkle. “But I think I may have.”

The incident foreshadowed the darkest day in the history of the theater. One afternoon in 1974, Patten was approached by a friend who was a lawyer in one of Atlanta’s biggest firms who relayed a conversation he’d overheard at The Commerce Club: Southern Bell was about to purchase The Fox, and within eight hours of signing the contract, they would implode the building. “It was like being hit in the face with a steel whip,” says Patten. “I had no idea. Nobody did. I knew something had to be done.”

Patten quickly spearheaded the formation of a nonprofit group called Atlanta Landmarks to rescue the theater from destruction. Thousands of Atlantans, bound by a collective love for the theater, rallied around the battle cry of “Save the Fox” in a way that the city had seldom untied before or since. For Southern Bell, now BellSouth, the plan to tear down The Fox became a public relations nightmare that lingers even to this day. A huge number of customers protested by scrawling “Save the Fox” every month on their phone bills. Donations for the cause poured in. Southern Bell finally gave in to the pressure and sold the building to Atlanta Landmarks in June 1975. Joe Patten was able to go downstairs to the basement rooms and unlock the doors and return the furniture to its rightful place upstairs. The Fox Theatre was about to be reborn.

Patten became the theater’s technical director, and when he decided to sell his home in College Park and move intown, he was offered a deal—why not move into the theater itself? They needed someone on the premises on a 24-hour basis, someone who knew the ins and outs of the building and could troubleshoot emergencies. Would he be interested? Yes, he would. Did he know of any space that would be conductive for living quarters? Indeed, he did. For years Patten had eyed the old Shriners office suite underneath the domes on the North Avenue side of the building. He knew it was the apartment of his dreams. He took it, paid to have the space renovated into living quarters and was given a lifetime lease.

The move paid off in 1996 when Patten was awakened early one morning by an alarm. Out the window of his apartment, he could see smoke rising from the ceiling of a restaurant in The Fox building: an electrical fire was smoldering inside that could have taken the whole building down. He alerted two policemen standing outside to pull the fire alarm and The Fox Theatre was rescued for a second time.

Though he is seldom seen, Patten’s mark is all over the modern-day theater. There is, of course, the fully functional Mighty Mo, still in operation today. When Loew’s Grand Theatre downtown—the old movie palace, where Gone With the Wind premiered—was destroyed by fire in 1979, Patten took 100 of the Loew’s seats and placed them upstairs in the gallery section of The Fox. “I just thought that was a bit of history that ought to be retained,” he says. He also purchased the Loew’s 70mm projector and set it up at The Fox. “Star Wars had never been show in Atlanta on 70mm and six-track sound because there were no projectors in the city to do it. And after that, we booked Indiana Jones. It just blew people’s minds. It was an experience they couldn’t get anywhere else.”

The biggest stage show brought to The Fox was, fittingly enough, Phantom of the Opera. “It’s still the most elegant show we’ve ever done,” Patten says. “It went over so well, visually and acoustically. The shows sold out. Things worked. We made money. We survived.” When I remind him that people refer to him as “The Phantom of The Fox,” his laugh is almost shy. “I don’t really know how that happened,” he says. “It goes back a long time, I guess because of the fact I know the building so well. I could go into a door and come out on the other side and people would go, ‘How did you get from here to there?’ There was an illusion of walking though walls.”

Later, Patten leads me through another door inside his apartment. We go down a hall and emerge in the foyer of the theater, and I can’t help but pause to take in the expanse of The Fox. “Did you ever hear Bob Van Camp play?” he asks. Who didn’t? Who could forget the pre-movie sing-alongs? Some of my most treasured memories happened at The Fox Theatre. I saw the best concert of my life here, Springsteen in 1978. I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd and REM and Diana Krall and the Indigo Girls perform with the Atlanta Ballet. And I am standing with the single person who made all those memories possible.

In lore, he is known as the Phantom of The Fox. But, here’s a secret: There is nothing greater than a love requited. Joe Patten fell in love with the Fox Theatre. And then he saved it for all of us.

This article originally appeared in our November 2002 issue.

The Truth

0

This story originally appeared in our September 2000 issue.

“When was the last time a high-profile case in Atlanta ended in acquittal?” Bruce Harvey asks. “For a criminal defense lawyer, it doesn’t get any better. It ain’t never gonna be no sweeter than this.”

The colorful, ponytailed defense lawyer smiles broadly, sitting behind his paper-strewn desk in a loft near the Tabernacle club downtown. Behind him, the wall is
dominated by a framed photo and signature of legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow. Harvey’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle is parked in the lobby downstairs. “Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty,” he almost whispers. “You know, this was the right verdict. In that way, justice and the system was vindicated. When it works the way it’s supposed to work, our justice system is a glorious thing. The trial wasn’t the problem, the
problem was that this case ever made it to trial. That was the disgrace.”

cover

The Ray Lewis Murder Trial, beyond attracting more national attention than any courthouse drama to unfold here in more than 20 years, became a morality play for
modern-day Atlanta. It had the intrigue of a well-crafted whodunit. The glitz and glamour of the Super Bowl. An NFL star accused of murder. The trappings of Buckhead. A setting outside a popular bar in which professional athletes partied in a VIP room. It had the street hustle of hip-hop. Young black men wearing mink coats and drinking $200 bottles of champagne with luscious gold-diggers hanging on each arm. It was the kind of trial that makes or breaks legal careers, that seals reputations. And it attracted the creme de la creme of Atlanta’s criminal defense lawyers.

“This was a defense lawyer’s dream,” says Harvey. “You had a high-profile, nationally significant case and an innocent client.”

The result was a stunning and humiliating defeat for Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard. CNN legal analyst Roger Cossack went as far as to compare
Howard’s performance to the bumbling Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther movies. “If they ever write a book listing the most inept prosecutions ever,” Cossack wrote in his online column, “this one will be highlighted as the standard by which all others are to be measured.”

In a series of interviews, both the defense team and Howard spoke candidly to Atlanta Magazine about the trial. Howard strenuously defended his handling of the
case and his decision to enter the courtroom to personally prosecute after a nearly four-year hiatus from trial work. He described witnesses sabotaging the prosecution with organized silence. He answered criticism that he rushed the case to trial,
maintaining that the case demanded aggressive prosecution.

Defense lawyers revealed how they shredded the prosecution case. They described political pressure from city officials that led to hastily drawn indictments.
Some of the defense lawyers accused Howard of approaching ethical boundaries, even lying to them. (Howard denies all such allegations.) All the lawyers spoke openly of their behind-the-scenes disagreements, detailing awkward moments in coordinating a shared
defense strategy. They told the inside story of Lewis’ dramatic 11th-hour plea agreement that gave the All-Pro Baltimore Ravens linebacker what he’d wanted all
along: probation for a misdemeanor count of obstruction of justice. And they explained how they won the outright acquittals of co-defendants Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley on all charges.

Above all, they talked about the truths that were never revealed in the courtroom. They talked about what really happened that night when two men died in the middle of the street in the heart of Buckhead.

THE CHARGES
Lewis, Oakley and Sweeting were
indicted on Feb. 11, just 11 days after the
stabbing deaths of two Akron, Ohio,
natives—Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard
Lollar, 24—in the middle of East Paces
Ferry Road in the heart of Buckhead. At
the press conference announcing the
indictments, Mayor Bill Campbell’s statement
was bold and definitive. “We will
not allow wealth or fame or celebrity to
pervert justice,” he proclaimed, standing
in front of a crowded room of local and
national media. He described the perpetrators
as “literally dripping with blood”
and cloaking their actions with silence.

Howard said the deaths in the wee
hours of Jan. 31 following the Super
Bowl were “brutal and deliberate
murders.” The charges against the star
football player generated national headlines. Court TV would televise the trial
from Atlanta. CNN and ESPN and Fox
Sports planned gavel-to-gavel coverage.

The sort of flare-ups that would ruffle
the defense efforts throughout the case
were immediately evident. Sweeting’s
counsel, Steve Sadow, and Oakley’s,
Bruce Harvey, believed the defense needed
to present a unified front to win. And
Sadow thought Lewis’ lawyers—Ed
Garland and Don Samuel—were going
overboard in laying the blame on Oakley
and Sweeting. “Look, there’s no need to
attack us,” he told Garland. “We won’t
be attacking you. They have no case on
Ray. Nothing Joseph Sweeting will ever
say will hurt Ray Lewis. So back off us.”

Garland and Samuel accepted the
premise of a unified defense up to a
point. If saving their client meant shifting
blame to the other co-defendants, so be it. They wanted
to put as much distance as possible
between their client and his co-defendants:
Lewis was a star football player;
Sweeting and Oakley were street thugs.
“The co-defendants complicated everything
for us,” says Samuel. “We wanted
Steve to go with self-defense for Sweeting.
We thought that Ray would likely
testify and we knew he’d put the knife in
Sweeting’s hands. That was a constant
struggle. We wanted both those guys to
go with self-defense. And Steve was originally
thinking self-defense, then he
moved away from it.”

The position of Sadow and Harvey
was firm: They weren’t going to admit
anything the prosecution couldn’t prove.
And at that point, the prosecution hadn’t
revealed evidence that either man ever
held a knife that night. “I kept waiting
for the other shoe to drop, for the prosecution
to produce evidence,” says Sadow.
“I didn’t file many motions before the
trial because I didn’t want to be on paper
taking a position on the knife.”

THE OPENING
With the trial only a week away, secret
negotiations began between the Lewis
defense team and prosecutors. Two of
the lawyers met with Paul Howard to
determine if the district attorney was
agreeable to a plea bargain. He offered
to let Lewis off with a three-year prison
sentence if Lewis pleaded guilty to aggravated
assault and then testified against
his two co-defendants, Sweeting and
Oakley. According to Samuel, Howard
also intimated that he had reached a deal
with Oakley, and needed an answer fast.
Howard denies this.

The apparent revelation that a codefendant
had flipped sent the Lewis
defense team into near panic. They called
Sadow. He scoffed and said he would
phone Harvey, who was representing
Oakley with a lawyer named David
Wolfe. “If Bruce was going to cut a deal,
he would let us know,” Sadow told them.
“Bruce would never outright lie to me; if
something is up and he can’t talk about
it, then he’ll tell me that.”

Harvey’s response was simple: “Complete
bullshit. No way. They’ve offered us
20 years for voluntary manslaughter.
We’re not taking that.”

Despite Sadow’s assurances, the Lewis
team couldn’t be certain. Harvey’s first
loyalty was to his client. But would
a prosecutor so blatantly mislead
them? Either there was a deal or there
wasn’t. Someone wasn’t telling the truth.
The next day, following a hearing at the
courthouse, they scouted for more information.
Samuel, Garland and fellow Lewis defense team member Tony Axam stopped by the district attorney’s office.
They again discussed the three-year
prison deal. And this time, Howard suggested
that Lewis would be paroled after
six months, assuring them he possessed
the political clout to make it happen.

“That’s bullshit, Paul,” Samuel shot
back. “A first-year lawyer might fall for
that, but don’t try that stuff on me. You
don’t get paroled in this state.” Lewis’
position was simple: He wasn’t involved
in the fight, and he would plead only to a
misdemeanor crime with no jail time.

The defense lawyers say the district
attorney reminded them of his deal with
Oakley. “In fact, Bruce Harvey and
David Wolfe will be here at three o’clock
to finalize it,” he said. A few minutes
later, Howard received a phone call. He
listened for a moment, then put the
phone down. “They’re here,” he said.
“This is your last chance.”

They again rejected the deal.

Howard suggested it would be awkward
if the two defense teams ran into
each other in the hallway of the DA’s
office when one defendant was about to
turn against the other. Samuel says
Howard asked them to hide in a room
until the other lawyers were safely past.
When they finally departed, Samuel and
Axam raced to Samuel’s Buckhead office.
They were frantic. The landscape of the
entire case had just changed. If Oakley
had cut a deal, he would tell the prosecution
exactly what they wanted to hear.
Samuel and Axam marched inside,
turned to go down the hall and then
stopped dead in their tracks.

Bruce Harvey wasn’t cutting a deal
with the district attorney; he was sitting
in their conference room reviewing reams
of paperwork turned over by the prosecution.
There was no plea agreement
with Oakley. Wolfe was at the DA’s
office. And he was sounding out the
prosecutors about the odds of a favorable
plea. But the visit was routine; no
one expected a favorable plea.

It was a sobering moment for the defense team. Prosecutors and criminal
defense lawyers regularly engage in pretrial
maneuvering that includes enough
feigning and posturing to be worthy of a
poker game. But to the defense, this went
way beyond that. “A certain amount of
bluffing is acceptable because we are
adversaries,” says Samuel. “But this was
not a whole lot different than saying, ‘I
found a witness who saw your client with
a knife,’ when there’s really no witness.
Imagine if someone had accepted a plea
based on that representation. It was far
too close to the line.”

At the same time, it served as a beacon
to the defense team: If the district attorney
was this desperate, then he obviously
had no confidence in his case. With the
trial only a week away, Paul Howard had
just made it known he was at the helm of
a sinking ship.

THE CASE FOR THE PROSECUTION
From the outset, prosecutors faced a
tall challenge: Bringing order to what
was essentially a street fight between
a group of people from Ohio calling
themselves the “OH-I0” and a group of
people who accompanied Lewis. Everyone
agrees that the two groups had
an altercation outside the Cobalt Lounge
on East Paces Ferry Road. Everyone
agrees that Oakley was angry, screaming
expletives at the Ohio group. And that
Lewis grabbed him by the waist, pulled
him away, took him down the street and
put him into the limo.

Moments later, the Ohio guys walked
by the limo. Lewis and Sweeting were
about to get inside the limo when Richard
Lollar yelled back at them, “Fuck the
niggaz! This is OH-I0!” Then the smallest
member of the OH-I0 group—Jacinth
Baker, who stood just 5 feet, 3
inches tall—stopped. He turned around
and returned to where the hulking Lewis
was standing. “Who the fuck do you
think you guys are?” he demanded.

Oakley sprang from the car and
inserted himself between Baker and
Lewis. Baker slugged Oakley with a
Moet champagne bottle. Then two guys
from Ohio jumped Sweeting. In the
words of Lewis, that’s when all hell
broke loose. About 90 seconds later,
Baker was lying in a pool of his own
blood, dying from a stab wound that
pierced his heart. Lollar was nearby, dead
from a stab wound to his heart.

The entire case revolved around what
happened in those 90 seconds. “It was
very difficult for the state to present a
coherent and cohesive picture of what
happened,” says Harvey. “It was 4 a.m.
Everyone was drinking and partying. The
incident took place in 90 seconds of furious
action. I don’t think you ever get certainty
out of chaos, with the exception of
physics. In any chaotic and violent event,
peoples’ perceptions are going to be dramatically
different. The OH-I0 gang
gave one version of events. The Ray
Lewis group, all of them gave versions
that were different. And the third parties
who saw it were completely_divergent.”

The spacious Courtroom 1A was
packed to standing room only when testimony
began on May 23. The rows
behind the prosecution were filled with
media and relatives of the victims;
supporters of the defendants sat behind
their table on the left side of the courtroom.
The balance of the seats were
often filled with retirees, people on vacation,
a few stray homeless people and
lawyers occasionally darting in and out
of the courtroom to catch a glimpse of
the defense team at work. Lewis, sitting
between Samuel and Garland, appeared to be taking copious notes on a yellow
legal pad; he was actually doodling and
practicing his autograph.

The first courtroom bombshell was the
arrival on the opening day of the trial of
the district attorney to prosecute the case.
Howard says he decided to handle it
personally because the evidence was
complicated and a celebrity defendant
raised the stakes. “If we lost, the blame
would be laid on my assistants and I
didn’t think that was fair,” he says. “I
decided I would take the heat. Plus, they
had so many lawyers; it was nine against
two when I joined.” (Of course, Howard
also would have received all the accolades
had he won, and this was the kind
of high-profile case that could ensure his
political career for years.)

It was, the defense lawyers agree, a
decision that quickly backfired. “Paul
really is a top-notch trial lawyer,” says
Sadow. “But he was rusty. He hadn’t
tried a case in four years.”

“I don’t know why he felt compelled
to do it,” says Samuel. “You don’t go
trying cases when you’re the district
attorney. He’s the policy maker; he’s got
people who are paid to be the trial
lawyers. It takes time to get comfortable
in court. If I haven’t been in court for six
months, I’ll go try a DUI case just to
warm up, to get in front of a jury again.”

Howard opened with a fundamental
mistake: He exaggerated his evidence and
made promises to the jury that he couldn’t
keep. He promised jurors that a trail
of blood would lead directly to Lewis
and mark him as a murderer. He
promised to prove Lewis kicked and
punched the victims. He promised to
prove that Oakley fought with Baker and
that Sweeting fought with Lollar, and
that they stabbed them to death. He
promised that Lewis’ limo driver heard
Oakley and Sweeting confess to the stabbings.
By the end of the trial, all these
promises would prove empty.

The prosecution stumbled off the starting
blocks. They presented two store
employees who saw Sweeting purchase
three knives at an autograph session
Lewis held before the Super Bowl at the
Sports Authority at GwinnettPlace Mall.
Not content to leave it at that, they also
called a friend of Lewis who was in the
store and witnessed the purchase. There
was just one problem: The friend was the
object of what he considered a racially
disparaging comment uttered by Atlanta Police Homicide Lieutenant Mike Smith.
The man had abruptly ended his interview
with Smith and stormed out of the
police department. The lead detective in
the investigation, Ken Allen, was sufficiently
offended to not only follow the
witness outside and apologize, but to
include the incident in his investigative
report. The snafu was obvious: In front
of a jury that included 10 blacks,
Howard had just introduced evidence
that the supervisor of the investigation
was a racist.

Howard then put an eyewitness on the
stand who couldn’t even place the defendants
at the scene. From that point,
things only got worse: The prosecution’s
next two witnesses, Chris Shinholster
and Jeff Gwen, put a knife in someone
else’s hands. The two members of the
OH-10 group each described an altercation
with Oakley outside the Cobalt
Lounge. Gwen said he was upset that
night because his ride had left him
behind. He was cursing loudly, calling his
friends “ho-ass niggaz,” when Oakley
walked up and demanded to know
whom Gwen was calling a “ho-ass
nigga.” Oakley seemed drunk and belligerent,
and Lewis grabbed him from
behind and led him away. A second man
then walked up and said, “Everything’s
cool, my friend’s just drunk.” Gwen
looked at the man’s hands. “If everything’s
cool,” he replied, “Why do you
have a knife?”

Both Gwen and Shinholster agreed the
man with the knife was not one of the
defendants. Gwen said the man was clad
in black leather pants and a jacket and a
derby. That matched a description of
limo passenger Kwame King, Lewis’
lifelong friend and a Florida A&M
University doctoral student. Shinholster
said the man with the knife was clad in a
black mink coat. That description
matched someone else with the Lewis
party, Carlos Stafford, a law student
from Houston.

Later, when the melee broke out,
Gwen said he saw Lewis “tussling” with
one of the victims, Lollar. He saw Oakley
punching the other victim, Baker, in the
stomach. Then the man with the knife
began chasing Gwen, who turned and
ran for his life.

The defense was lying in wait on cross-examination.
They knew that Gwen had
originally given authorities a written
statement saying he saw Lewis punch
Lollar. They also knew that he had told
prosecutors a few weeks later that he was
mistaken and actually saw only Lewis
wrestling with Lollar. The law requires
prosecutors to turn over all evidence to
the defense, and prosecutors had never
informed them about the change in
Gwen’s statement. The defense discovered
the contradiction only when they
interviewed him themselves in Ohio.

Samuel’s first instinct had been to file a
pre-trial motion protesting the omission;
Sadow had convinced him to save it for
maximum dramatic impact at the trial.
But by the time Gwen reached the stand,
the Lewis team had cooled on the idea:
They didn’t want the jury to know that
Gwen had ever said that Lewis punched
someone, and Garland didn’t raise the
point during his cross-examination.
Sadow was flabbergasted by the strategy.
“I told them I was going to do it myself. I
said, ‘You guys just don’t understand the
importance it will have.'”

Sadow’s cross-examination of Gwen
was cutting. Step by step, he led Gwen
through the chronology. How he’d
returned to Atlanta on Feb. 28 and took
prosecutors to the scene, and tried to
reenact everything that had happened that night. How they had asked him to
read a copy of his initial statement to
police. How he’d pointed out a mistake
to them. How Assistant District Attorney
Clint Rucker had instructed him to
underline the mistaken passage.

Then came perhaps the most riveting
moment of the trial.

Sadow was standing at the podium
between the prosecution and defense
tables, barely two feet away from Paul
Howard. He made a dramatic turn, first
glancing at the jury and then looking
down at the prosecutors. “May we please
have a copy of that underlined
statement?” His voice was forceful and
angry. Silence hung in the courtroom
while prosecutors sat stunned, crestfallen.
Finally, Rucker rose to make a meek
defense: He acknowledged that Gwen
told him there was a mistake in his
statement but remembered nothing
underlined. It didn’t work. The point was
hammered home: One of the few witnesses
who claimed to have seen Lewis throw
a punch had recanted that testimony, and
the prosecution never told the defense.

Superior Court Judge Alice D. Bonner
was obviously angered by the omission.
It wasn’t the first time the prosecution
had failed to turn over evidence to the
defense. She scheduled a meeting with
the lawyers in her chambers the following
morning. When they gathered at
8:45 a.m., it was clearly Bonner’s intention
to scold Rucker and Howard’s
intention to take the hit for his assistant.
According to Sadow, almost as soon as
the judge began speaking, Howard
interrupted her. Bonner cut him off and
said she would give him the opportunity
to say something when she finished.
As she began to speak, Howard again
interrupted the judge; she again told
him he could speak when she was finished.
When Howard interrupted her a
third time, Bonner called an abrupt end
to the session and ordered everyone out
of her chambers.

Howard says he did the right thing.
“I have to protect my folks,” he says.
“I decided I would deflect it on me. I
took that one.”

But Bonner was noticeably short-tempered
with the prosecution for the balance
of the trial. “I remember thinking,
does Paul have cotton in his ears?” says
Sadow. “He had thoroughly pissed off
the judge. He didn’t get a discretionary
break from her for the rest of the trial.”

THE STAR WITNESS
No prosecution witness was more anxiously
anticipated than Duane Fassett,
Lewis’s limo driver. It was Fassett’s
account to police of Lewis punching
someone during the melee that led to the
football star’s arrest. The driver implicated
Sweeting and Oakley, too, saying he
saw them fight and then heard them confess
to the stabbings once they got back
in the limo. There was just one catch:
Fassett’s story seemed to change each
time he told it.

In fact, Fassett’s lawyer, David Irwin,
called Garland before the trial to inform
him that his client was “not going to be
saying those things they have him saying.”
Fassett was prepared to swear that
his statements to police were coerced
through threats and intimidation.

When Fassett took the witness stand
on May 25, he looked sad and sallow
and utterly frightened. No one else had
seen Lewis throw a punch. No one else
could link Sweeting and Oakley to the
stabbings. Fassett was carrying the
weight of the entire prosecution on his
frail shoulders. And the prosecution was
totally unaware that he was about to
betray them. “I’d actually taken a trip to Baltimore to interview him’,” says
Howard. “And he got up to demonstrate
on me, using me as the model, how Ray
Lewis punched them. His wife was there,
his lawyer. What happened [at the trial]
was very much a surprise to us.”

Fassett testified to the following: He
saw Lewis raise his fist and yell, “Knock
this shit off!” Fassett then turned away
at that very moment to look at Oakley
fighting with someone. He also saw
Sweeting involved in two different fights.
Beyond that, he saw absolutely nothing.
And he heard absolutely nothing.
Certainly no confession from Oakley
and Sweeting.

Howard now found himself boxed
into a corner. On one hand, he desperately
needed to get Fassett’s testimony on
the record; without it, he didn’t have
much of a case left. On the other hand,
he didn’t dare confront Fassett on the
witness stand with his previous statements
to police; if he did that, the defense
was prepared to suggest police coercion
and destroy Fassett’s credibility.

Howard decided to attempt a legal
end-around, call the detective who had
taken Fassett’s statements and have him
read them into evidence. Samuel blocked
him by pointing out that Georgia law
requires prosecutors to confront a witness
with any inconsistent statements and
give them the chance to explain.

Fassett was gone. Gwen was gone.
Howard was left with just one witness
who had seen Lewis strike the victims.
And he was a professional con artist
named Chester Anderson who was
destroyed on the witness stand by a searing
cross-examination from Garland.
“Chester Anderson was a trial lawyer’s
dream witness,” says Garland. “He
provided important and incriminating
testimony, and we showed he was a liar. I
really believe that witness undermined
the integrity of the prosecution’s entire
case. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was
the turning point, psychologically, for the
jury. It came into focus that the prosecution
had to rely on unreliable evidence.”

Sadow agrees that it was a turning
point, but for different reasons. “Chester
Anderson was a calculated risk that
went horribly wrong for the prosecution,”
he says. “At that point, there was
no other evidence against Ray Lewis, so
they had to introduce Anderson. The
cross-examination was Ed Garland at his
absolute best. But I believe Ed never
stopped worrying about Chester Anderson,
whether the jury might somehow
believe him. Which is why we wound up
with Ray Lewis taking a plea.”

THE PLEA
The call came on a Sunday night at
10:00, just as the trial was about to enter
its third week. Sadow was at home,
ready for bed. It was a reporter from the
Baltimore Sun. Did Sadow know that
Ray Lewis had reached an agreement
with the prosecution? Lewis was going
to plea to a misdemeanor count of
obstruction of justice and testify against
Sweeting and Oakley.

Sadow was stunned. What was the
logic? Why now? With so little evidence,
nearly everyone thought Judge Bonner
was poised to dismiss all charges at the
end of the prosecution’s case on a directed verdict. All along, Sadow had known
he could trust Harvey; he’d never known
whether he could trust Garland. And
now his fears were being confirmed.

He called Samuel and Garland to find
out whether it was true. At first, Samuel
hedged. They had agreed with the district
attorney not to tell anyone; if word of the
deal leaked and turned up in the newspapers, then the judge might refuse to
accept it. “Steve, I’ll remind you of what
you said Bruce would say,” Samuel finally
responded. “I’ll never lie to you. And I
can’t tell you what’s going on.” When
Sadow responded that he already knew
what was going on, Samuel and Garland
confirmed the deal. But they didn’t tip him
as to what Lewis’ testimony would be.

With the plea making national headlines
overnight, the courtroom was
jammed the next morning. Lewis
appeared just after 9 a.m., clad in a tailored
dark brown suit that showed off his
V-shaped, boxer’s torso, from the small
waist to the immensely broad shoulders.
As he waited for court to convene, Lewis
nervously squeezed a tennis ball with his
left hand and huddled with his lawyers.

The lawyers representing Oakley and
Sweeting looked grim, even shell-shocked.
This was their worst nightmare.
Just two days earlier, it was all but
certain their clients would be home by
the weekend. Now, the entire case would
ride on what Lewis had told prosecutors.
They were prepared for the worst.
Harvey vowed to tear up Lewis on the
witness stand. “The state just spent two
weeks trying to prove he’s a liar,” he told
reporters after the plea. “He was a liar
when he was a defendant, but now he’s
truthful because he’s on their side? I don’t
think so.”

The defense team was taken to a jury
room to watch Lewis’ videotaped statement
to prosecutors. As the 30-minute
tape played, they waited for bombshells.
Then it slowly began to sink in: No
bombshells were coming. Nothing Lewis
said implicated Oakley, although he did
damage Sweeting. According to Lewis,
Sweeting approached him after the stabbings
and said, “Man, they was trippin’.
Every time they hit me, I hit them back.”
And with a closed knife inside his fist, he
had demonstrated his punches. Otherwise,
Lewis stuck to the defense team’s
version of events.

John Bergendahl, Sadow’s co-counsel,
still wanted to go after Lewis. Sadow
wasn’t so sure. What if they embraced
Lewis instead? Sadow did something
he’d done throughout the trial: He
scanned the message boards on the
Internet seeking reaction to the turn of
events. They offered him the perspective
of ordinary people, the kind of people
who were on the jury. Sentiment was still
running strong that the prosecution hadn’t proved its case.

“I decided if you attack him, then his
memory is probably going to get a lot
better,” Sadow says. “I decided I was
going to turn Ray Lewis into the best
witness I could have. And infer that seeing
the knife in Sweeting’s fist was an
add-on he’d made in order to please the
prosecutors. “

This was Howard’s last stand. At no
other point in the trial did he act more
like a prosecutor—indignant, probing, a
warrior for the truth—than when Lewis
took the witness stand. It was an impressive
and, ultimately, empty performance.
Despite three hours of questions and
answers, Lewis gave him almost nothing.
He said that two men from OH-I0 had
jumped Sweeting. Meanwhile, Oakley
and Carlos Stafford fought with Jacinth
Baker. He saw Oakley get Baker on the
ground, and then hit him in the chest
from behind while Stafford kicked him.
Through it all, Lewis never once placed
the knives in the hands of either Oakley
or Sweeting during the fight. He never
saw them stab anyone. He never heard
them confess. He implicated no one.

When the district attorney finished,
Sadow walked up to the podium to begin
cross-examination. He laid his legal pad
down in front of him, then looked up at
Lewis and smiled. “My, things change,
don’t they?” Sadow said.

“Yes, they do,” responded Lewis. And
then he did a remarkable thing. He
looked up at Sadow and he winked.

The verdict came six days later. The
jury had deliberated less than three hours.
Not guilty on all counts. Sweeting and
Oakley were free men. That night, Sadow
and Harvey accompanied them in a
limousine to celebrate at the Gold Club.

THE SUMMATION
The defense lawyers contend the case
made it to trial because city officials
exerted tremendous pressure to make
arrests, just as they did to finger a suspect
in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing
during the Olympic Games. Atlanta was
again hosting an international sports
event: the Super Bowl. The city’s reputation
stood to be soiled by yet another act
of violence.

Garland has been unflinchingly vocal
in placing much of the blame for an
ill-advised prosecution on the mayor’s
office. “The mayor came to the press
conference,” says Garland. “That’s not his function. He’s not in the prosecution
business. Political pressure created the
sudden indictment. It was dramatic, it was
for the six o’clock news. The question of
‘Can we prove it?’ got completely lost.”

Both Campbell and Howard deny
there was any pressure exerted. “I was
surprised Ed Garland made those
remarks,” says Howard. “I don’t know
where that came from. The mayor called
early in the investigation and he thought
we should hold a press conference
because we weren’t commenting to that
point. Other than that, I didn’t ever talk
to the mayor; he knows I wouldn’t pay
attention to him anyway. We followed
normal procedures on this case.”

But normal procedures weren’t always
followed. Lewis was arrested even
though the lead detective did not want to
charge him. And while suspects routinely
languish in jail for months waiting for
the district attorney to bring an indictment,
Lewis and Sweeting and Oakley
were indicted just 11 days after the
deaths. At that point, prosecutors were
relying almost solely on Fassett’s statement;
they had yet to identify, much less
interview, the passengers in the limo.

The rush also produced a flawed
indictment that would prove key to the
acquittals. The original arrest warrant
against Lewis was open-ended, alleging
that he caused the deaths by stabbing,
punching or kicking. That language was
inexplicably narrowed to allege the deaths
were caused only by “cutting and stabbing.”
That forced the prosecution into
needing to literally put knives in the hands of each defendant to win a conviction.

The prosecution easily proved that
Sweeting and Oakley—perhaps even
Lewis—had punched or kicked the
victims; it never came close to proving
they wielded knives. Had Howard simply
adopted the language of the arrest
warrant for the indictment, he would
have had more than enough evidence to
convict. “That was a terrible blunder by
the DA,” says Samuel.

Defense lawyers cite another critical
error by the prosecutors: They had taken
a street brawl and tried to turn it into
murder with malice and then refused to
budge despite substantial evidence the
theory was plain wrong. “Once they’d
held that press conference and then
opposed bond for Lewis, what were
they gonna do?” asks Bruce Harvey.
“They were locked into it at that point, absolutely locked into it.”

Harvey believes that stance forced
prosecutors to downplay and even try to
hide evidence that indicated otherwise.
“During the trial, they misled,” he says.
“They deliberately hid things. They
deliberately didn’t present information
if it didn’t fall into their view of things.
It was abhorrent. I’ll never trust them
again, anything the Fulton County
District Attorney’s Office tells me. There
were things in this case that were
eye-openers.”

It went far beyond withholding Jeff
Gwen’s change in testimony from the
defense. In his final closing argument,
Howard so blatantly mischaracterized
what defense lawyers said in their opening
arguments that Judge Bonner made
him stand up afterward and correct his
errors to the jury.

When the prosecution failed to note,
on its chart detailing evidence in the
limo, an unidentified blood sample
mixed with the blood of Oakley and
Baker, Harvey attempted to correct it.
Howard jumped up and accused Harvey
of “defacing our exhibit” with the correction.

The prosecution missteps resulted in
an unusual dynamic: Typically, the prosecution
is viewed as the hunter of the truth
and the defense endeavors to sufficiently
muddy the waters to win an acquittal;
this time, it was the defense lawyers who
seemed to be searching for truth while
the prosecution appeared willing to do
almost anything to salvage a victory.

Howard admits to no missteps in his
prosecution and says the wording of the
indictment made little difference. The
case, according to the DA, was stymied
simply because witness after witness
either changed their story or refused to
testify. “There was a whole wall of
orchestrated silence,” he says. “Some of
our witnesses got up on the stand and
changed their testimony.” From his perspective,
the fact that no one was convicted
“defies imagination.” I

Lewis’ fame presented an additional problem. “There’s a tendency to give a
celebrity the benefit of the doubt,” he
says. “People don’t believe somebody who
makes that much money would commit a
crime like that. It also changes the scope of
the legal representation. A case like this
might normally be handled by the public
defender’s office. And I believe it makes a
judge act differently. Losing a case doesn’t mean you rushed to judgment. If you’re holds
not willing to try a tough case, I guess
you’ll never lose a case.”

In mock trials organized by the
defense, Lewis was actually convicted of
aggravated assault. Of course, Ed Garland
handled those prosecutions, and he
took quite a different approach than
Howard. “We were prepared to deal
with a much more substantive case than
was presented,” he says. “There was an
absence of a clear theme by the prosecutors.
There was a failure to really
articulate their theory. If they had
developed the case against Lewis in the
strongest way, they would have argued
that he had to have known the knives
were out there. They should have articulated
that idea. Made it a group action.
It was the pack that did it. It was the
pack that attacked. It was the pack that
killed. And who was the leader of the
pack? Ray Lewis.”

The evidence against the defendants
was so underwhelming that both Sadow
and Harvey are still mystified by Lewis’
decision to accept the plea bargain. “We
were winning,” says Sadow. “Sweeting
was going home. Everybody was going
home. Everything we’d wanted to
accomplish, we’d done.”

Harvey learned of the Lewis deal as he
exited a Bruce Springsteen concert at
Philips Arena. “That’s bullshit,” Harvey
responded. “There’s no way. He’s gonna
walk on a directed verdict. There’s no
way they’d take the chickenshit route
now.” Harvey laughs as he recounts the
moment. “Guess I was wrong,” he says.
“I really don’t want to second-guess
them. I can’t say I would have done the
same thing.”

But would he? Harvey doesn’t respond
for several moments, considering the
question. He is a warrior, a man with a
cobra tattooed on his body. He can’t
betray his nature. Finally, he smiles and
shakes his head. “No,” he says. “Never.”

Essentially, Lewis had 26 million
reasons to take the deal. His goal was to
clear his name and play professional
football again and fulfill his $26 million
contract. This was his only sure bet.
“We were trying two cases: one in the
courtroom and one in the court of public
opinion,” says Garland. “We did not
want people saying a slick lawyer got
him off. Nothing was guaranteed. There
were more witnesses out there. If it goes
to the jury, what happens if one juror holds out? All of a sudden, you have a
new trial. Any competent lawyer who
could get murder charges dismissed with
a deal like that would be committing
malfeasance if they didn’t take it. This
was an absolute no-brainer.”

THE VERDICT
Every defense lawyer in the Ray
Lewis Murder Trial professes to know
the Truth. And, like the witnesses, each
has a different truth to tell. Even Harvey
and Wolfe, who represented the same
client, relate divergent accounts of what
really happened that night. But when
viewed as individual parts of a puzzle
rather than competing versions, the
divergent pieces suddenly fit together
into a coherent story.

It was well established at the trial that
Jacinth Baker was selling marijuana at
the Cobalt; six small bags of pot were
found in the pocket of his pants. His
buddy, Jeff Gwen, testified that he
[Gwen] was smoking marijuana
“blunts” inside the Cobalt that night.
According to Harvey, Baker approached
the Lewis group inside the club and
tried to sell them a bag of dope. He was
turned down but persisted, going to a
second member of the group. Oakley
approached him and said, “We already
told you to get the fuck away from here.
We don’t want no dope.” A few minutes
later, outside, Baker accosted them a
third time. That’s what led to the confrontation
between Baker, and Oakley
and Kwame King.

The OH-I0 guys were trash-talking,
according to Sadow and Wolfe. They
dogged the women with the Lewis group.
They made comments about Lewis’s jewelry.
And then Gwen called them “ho-ass
niggaz.” Oakley had had enough. “When
words are exchanged and you have black
men, they’re not going to back down,”
Sadow says. “That’s your manhood; you
have to respond.” Lewis finally pulled
Oakley away. They walked down the
street to the limo and, moments later, the
second confrontation erupted. The irony
was, Oakley and Sweeting were standing
up for Lewis; they were trying to protect
their famous friend.

The consensus from the defense
lawyers is that Lewis did participate in
the fight. “He made it sound like he
was doing commentary from the press
box when he was testifying,” says
Wolfe. “But he had to have been involved, pushing people off and trying to break it up.” Samuel is the dissenting
voice. He says it was difficult at first to
believe that Lewis stood still while his
friends were being attacked. “Now, I
don’t think Ray was such close friends
with Sweeting and Oakley,” says
Samuel. “They didn’t mean that much
to him. So his attitude was, ‘Fuck you,
I’m not fighting.'”

And the stabbings? Stafford and King
were ready-made scapegoats for the
defense; more witnesses seemed to attach
knives to them than to the actual defendants.
“In essence, the jury connected
with the evidence concerning Kwame
King and Carlos Stafford,” says Samuel.
“Witnesses said these guys had knives
and the jury wondered: Why aren’t they
on trial? How would the case have gone
if there’d been five defendants at that
table rather than three? Someone would
have been convicted.”

The crowning touch in the theory was
the final eyewitness called to the stand,
the only witness called by the defense, a
professional bodyguard named Keven
Brown. He stopped his car so close to the
action just as the fight was breaking out
that his gold Honda can be seen parked
in nearly all the crime scene photos.
Brown said that he jumped out of his car
in the middle of the fray and pushed an
attacker off the downed body of Jacinth
Baker. The assailant got up and Brown
clearly heard him declare, “I stabbed
him.” Brown also testified that he was 90
percent sure the man he pushed off the
body was Stafford.

Wolfe hints that he thinks one person
was “going around” with a knife. Was it
Carlos Stafford? While Keven Brown
said he was almost sure Baker’s assailant
was Stafford, he was even more certain
that the man wore braids. There was just
one person in the Lewis party that night
with braids: Joseph Sweeting.

For most of the trial, Sweeting sat
expressionless at the defense table, so
small and slight that he seemed hidden
behind a computer monitor on the
defense table. He was the invisible man,
the one who seemed to never be mentioned
from the witness stand. Yet, it was
Sweeting who bought three knives. One
was a Gerber Chameleon II intended for
gutting animals. It was 7.14 inches long
with a serrated blade. Between the blade
and the handle was a large O-ring to
place the index finger for leverage and control. The other two knives were smaller, keychain versions of the Chameleon II. Lewis testified that in the limo after the stop at the Sports Authority, someone had pitched him the Chameleon II. “Man, are you guys trippin’ with those knives?” Lewis asked. Then he said he pitched it back to Sweeting. And it was Sweeting who dropped the three empty knife packages on the ground as they exited the limo to go to the Cobalt.

There always was the possibility that Sweeting was going to admit to having a knife and even stabbing someone, pleading self-defense. But which knife? It was Harvey’s position that Oakley had the little knife. That’s why Harvey spent considerable time on cross-examination with the medical examiner driving home a single point: Because of the unique configuration of the smaller knife’s blade and the size of the wounds, it was quite unlikely it caused the wounds to either Jacinth Baker or Richard Lollar.

It had to be the Chameleon II. It had to be Joseph Sweeting.

In his closing argument, Sadow said, “Whatever Joseph Sweeting’s conduct was that night, it was justified.” For Sadow, the choice was always simple: His job was to defend his client to the best of his abilities—not to search for the Truth. Sweeting would admit the stabbings and go with self-defense only if he had to. Until that point, Sadow would concede nothing. The prosecution would have to prove everything; that was their mandate and their duty under the law. “Since the age of 11, I’ve wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer,” he says. “I knew if I didn’t go with my gut, I’d better get out of the business. And nobody could have walked that line except Joseph. He had enough street smarts to know you don’t give in on something unless you have to. John Bergendahl and I had a long conversation with Joseph before the trial. And Bergendahl wanted to go straight self-defense. I wouldn’t do it.”

As he discusses his strategy, Sadow returns to events that night on East Paces Ferry Road. To the 90 seconds of all hell breaking loose. To Stafford and King and Sweeting. “Kwame King had no knife,” Sadow says suddenly. His voice has grown soft. “Carlos kicked Baker. But he didn’t stab him.” How does he know? “Let’s just say I have inside information.”

And then Steve Sadow smiles.

Eric Rudolph and the Olympic Park Bombing

In this July 2000 feature story, Scott Freeman discussed the Feds’ chase of the elusive Eric Rudolph, the accused Olympic Park bomber.
 
Lone Wolf
Where is Eric Rudolph? Two years after he vanished into the mountains of North Carolina, the Feds still haven’t found the accused bomber. They’re chasing a man who has spent his entire life making himself disappear.
By Scott Freeman
He was perched halfway up the mountain, hidden in the laurel behind a thick shield of trees.
 
He’d built his campfire on an abandoned logging road.
 
Now he waited, idly breaking a twig into neat, little pieces as he trained a watchful eye on the house down below for signs of trouble.
 

Do The Right Thing

0

This article originally appeared in our September 1998 issue.

Police Chief Paige McNeese leans back in his chair and pensively tugs on a Marlboro. “That word, hero,” he says, “it can backfire on you in a heartbeat.”

His office in the back of the Luthersville Town Hall is compact and plain: walls painted off-white, a green Army surplus desk and filing cabinet and two chairs for visitors. Propped up in a corner behind his desk is the odd combination of a shotgun, a rifle and a fishing pole. “Meriwether is [one of] the largest counties in square miles in the state of Georgia and it’s also not a very wealthy county,” he says in a voice that is deep, slow and drawling. “We don’t have the facilities and services that Atlanta has. Sometimes, through no fault of the EMTs, it might be 30 minutes before we get an ambulance, and a lot of people know that. So when something goes wrong, people call the police or come to the station. As luck and God would have it, the
two officers were here doing paperwork on that Friday night [in May]. Usually, they know better than to be in the office sitting around because they know I’m going to check on them. I want them out being seen and doing their job.”

It was about 11 o’clock on a night when a man and woman burst into the police station with their 5-day-old baby. The infant was gasping for air, already turning a deathly hue of blue. The sergeant took charge. He sat the infant on a desk and quickly figured out it had regurgitated its milk; the bile was blocking its mouth and nose. He had once taken an advanced course in first aid and simply did what he’d been taught to do. He laid the baby on a desk and used his finger to clean the
mouth and upper throat. The other officer called an ambulance and brought in a suction cup to clear the infant’s nose. The sergeant quickly turned the baby over and picked it up, cradling the tiny chest in the palm of his hand. He gently tapped the baby’s back, helping it to force out the rest of the congestion.

Finally, there was a cough and then a deep breath and the sound of a baby wailing. The ambulance arrived about 15 minutes later. Without the sergeant, it would have been 15 minutes too late. The parents returned the next day to thank the officers, to call them heroes. But that’s a word that makes McNeese uneasy. Especially considering that the cop who took charge and saved the infant’s life was Sgt. Richard Jewell. Right. That Richard Jewell.

“To the mom and dad, he was the hero,” says McNeese. “And to us, he did his job. Like I said, that word can definitely backfire on you. Of course, Richard knows that better than anyone else.”

McNeese likes to quip that Luthersville might as well have a WELCOME TO MAYBERRY sign at the city limits.
Situated about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta, traveling to Luthersville is much akin to stepping back into the 1950s. The closest thing to a traffic signal is a flashing red and yellow caution light in the center of town, and the closest thing to a fast-food place is BubbaDoo’s, a hamburger-and-hot-dog joint/convenience store. Luthersville is one of those rare places still unspoiled by progress, although development from neighboring Coweta County is inching closer and closer. The area has a spacious feel, with rolling green lawns and century-old hardwoods shading stylish well-kept Victorians, the kind of white-washed wood-frames with large front porches that your grandparents lived in.

“It’s a small town,” says McNeese. “There’s a lot of retired people living here, people who want to live real quiet. And you can tell by looking at it, there’s an awful lot of money here, old money that’s still got the stale smell to it. Luthersville is a real good place to live. We seldom have any trouble.”

Until McNeese’s arrival, the police department itself was the major source of trouble in Luthersville. The town had the reputation as Georgia’s most notorious speed trap. Officers were known to spot an elderly person behind the wheel and get on their back bumper, hoping to make them nervous until they crossed the center line or forgot to use a turn signal. Then, they would be pulled over and ticketed. Road blocks were customary every Friday and Saturday night. The former police chief made no bones about it. “I like the name speed trap because people drive slower,” boasted then-Chief Dorsey Evans.

In the spring of 1995 the state attorney general’s office seized all of the town’s traffic court records and launched an investigation—many of the driving convictions were going unreported to the state, and the town also went four years without sending the state its share of money collected in traffic fines. When investigators went to get the traffic court records, they discovered more than 30 grams of marijuana sitting in an unlocked file cabinet in the chief’s office; Evans told an investigator that it had been left there by a predecessor. Evans resigned five months later, saying he was tired of feuding with the mayor. Then, last year, the former chief was arrested by the Fayette County Sheriff’s Department as a suspect in a multistate bank fraud, accused of manufacturing false identification cards to open fraudulent checking accounts in at least four Southern states. However, the grand jury did
not indict him.

In September 1997, Luthersville turned to Paige McNeese to clean up its police department.

McNeese was born near Soperton and spent most of his life in Vidalia, the heart of onion country in south Georgia. He did a tour with the Marine Corps, messed up his knee, and spent the next 14 years in the banking/finance industry. “Then I went absolutely crazy and went into the police business ,” McNeese says with a laugh. “Actually, it’s the only thing I’d ever wanted to do since I was knee-high to a bantam
rooster. I went through a divorce, and figured that it was time to do what I wanted to do and not let money be the driving force in my life.”

He landed a job with the Vidalia Police Department, stayed there 10 years and eventually went to Marshallville—a little town just south of Macon—as police chief. After three years, he tired of the grind and decided to get out of law enforcement. “As a chief, you sometimes kind of think that there are all these people out there laying awake at night trying to figure out ways to screw up your day,” he says. McNeese was going to take a year off, maybe go out to Colorado and ramble around, do some private detective work on the side .

Within three months he was bored stiff. McNeese heard about the opening in Luthersville and took the job.

He found a department in complete disarray. There were two police cruisers, the newest a re-built 1994 model. There was no spare tire and no jack. There were two shotguns and one shell for each. Officers were making six bucks an hour and, of course, there was the speed trap business.

“When I came here, this was one of the most corrupt police departments I had ever seen,” says McNeese. “I went back as far as 1991 straightening things out and one of the first things I did was initiate a GBI investigation. We found a lot of things that were done
wrong. We basically started over; created a new department. It’s an honest department now, a good department. But just like Richard, we still have things that will take us years to live down.”

A thin, wiry man with steel-blue eyes and a graying close-cropped haircut that reflects his days in the Marines, Paige McNeese might have been played by Lee Marvin in a movie. He’s rugged and tough. A
straight talker. Looks a person in the eye. Came into Luthersville on a 90-day contract to clean up the department and, two years later, he’s still there.

He’s also the only police chief in the state of Georgia willing to give Richard Jewell a job. Never mind that Jewell was guilty of nothing. Never mind that he was the security guard responsible for saving maybe dozens of lives in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympic Games when he spotted a suspicious backpack under a bench that turned out to be a bomb and started clearing people away before it exploded. And never mind that, in retrospect, it’s difficult to even understand why the FBI ever targeted Jewell other than the pressure to finger somebody as a suspect fast so they could reassure the entire world that things at the Olympic Games were firmly under control.

It may be impossible to imagine the world of Richard Jewell during the summer of 1996. One day he was a hero, the next he was being portrayed as a mad bomber. He woke up every morning to the sight of hordes of television reporters and cameras and their satellite trucks parked outside his front door. A caravan of FBI agents followed him everywhere he went. He stopped calling friends, afraid that he might somehow drag them into the circus. The headlines were brutal. Tom Brokaw all but pronounced him guilty on NBC. And leading the pack was The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The initial story that named Jewell as the bombing suspect was headlined FBI SUSPECTS “HERO” GUARD MAY HAVE PLANTED BOMB. The AJC wrote: “Jewell fits the profile of the lone bomber. This profile generally includes a frustrated white man who is a … police ‘wannabe’ who seeks to become a hero.” From there it only got worse, to the point that Jay Leno was referring to him as the “Una-doofus.”

After Jewell was finally cleared, both NBC and CNN reached settlements with him and Time magazine published a clarification. The AJC refused to back down and Jewell filed a lawsuit that quickly evolved into a bitter court fight. After Jewell saved the 5 day-old infant’s life, the AJC published a one-paragraph story on Page 12 of the E Section. And even then the paper inserted qualifiers such as “being credited with” and “reportedly,” as if the whole episode was cloaked in doubt.

After the Olympics, all Jewell ever wanted was to escape into the anonymity of his former life and get back into police work. He applied for work as an officer all over the state but couldn’t get a job. He finished near the top of his recruitment class and was passed over by departments in more than one jurisdiction. Richard Jewell was just too hot to handle. “I think the other departments were afraid of the publicity,” says McNeese. “You know, somebody’s got to take the chance. I’ve never had a problem the extent of his. But there’s been times in my life when I was very thankful that somebody
said, ‘Hey, Paige McNeese, I believe in you.’ “

It was either an accident or fate, take your pick. But one afternoon McNeese phoned in an order to the company that sells ticket books to the department. The lady took his order, then asked if there was anything else he needed.

“Yes, there is; could you send me two police officers?” he joked.

“Well,” the woman said, “I know of one that needs a job. But you might not want to talk to him.”

“Who is it?”

“Richard Jewell.”

McNeese would find out later that the woman went to the same church as Jewell’s mother.

McNeese hardly blinked. “Fine. Send him down. I want to talk with him.”

Even in the midst of the media frenzy, McNeese never thought Jewell planted any bomb. It just didn’t make sense to him. And his meeting with Jewell only reinforced his intuition.

“Before I got into policing, I was the vice president of a bank. I’d been in banking ever since I’d left the Marine Corps. And you learn an awful lot in that. Ninety percent of the time, a banker or a loan officer knows whether he’s going to lend somebody the money or not before he even does the background check. You learn to read people. And I was impressed with Richard.

“We talked; it was a Friday in late November and I told him to go home and think about it over the weekend. A small town really has nothing to offer a police officer. And when we do get a good one, we’re just a revolving door. I told him, ‘You think about what I have to offer you. And if you decide you want it, call me back Tuesday and let me know.'”

“Chief, I don’t have to think about it,” Jewell replied. “I want the job.”

“Well, you think about it anyhow.”

McNeese told Mayor Albert Gill and a couple of city council members about his new hire. Gill simply said it was McNeese’s decision to make. Besides, the town had been looking for officers for two months without
luck; the $8.50-an-hour starting salary was hardly a drawing card. But one of the council members was openly skeptical, and told McNeese that she thought the chief was opening himself up to a lot of criticism.

“I still think I’m making the right decision,” McNeese replied. “And I’m going to hire him.”

Jewell called McNeese early that Tuesday morning. The next day, for the first time since the nightmare of the 1996 Olympic Games, he was wearing a uniform.

About a month later, the council woman came up to McNeese. “Chief,” she said. “About Richard Jewell … I think you did the right thing.”

After he hired Richard Jewell, the calls and letters began coming in from Germany, Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand, all over the world. McNeese also heard about it at the local coffee shop. He expected a little flack, but virtually all the reaction was positive. People were generally glad that somebody had finally given Jewell a break.

“I have the greatest respect for the chief in Luthersville,” says Watson Bryant, one of Jewell’s lawyers and a longtime friend. “Nobody else had the guts to give Richard a chance. This is simply the best thing that has happened to him as long as I’ve known him. The people of Luthersville have given him the chance to regain his self-respect. Andyou know what? Every good thing Richard Jewell does reminds everyone of how wrong the media was, of the stark contrast between the man they told us he was and the man that he really is.”

Jewell has received more than one double take from those he encounters as an officer. People he’s never met call him Richard, as though they’ve known him all their lives. One afternoon, McNeese received a phone call from someone about a 16-year-old kid who’d been pulled over for a traffic violation. The chief braced for a complaint. Instead, he was told the officer was very courteous and issued a warning, explaining what the kid was doing wrong and what the consequences could have been. The kid didn’t notice the signature on the warning ticket until he got home and placed the name with the face, realizing it was that Richard Jewell. The ticket is now matted and framed and hanging on the kid’s bedroom wall.

McNeese had just one initial worry about hiring Jewell – whether he’d be carrying around a king-sized chip on his shoulder. “I think it would have been impossible for me had I been crucified as he was. My main concern was how bitter he would be, and I have not seen that.” If anything, McNeese thinks Jewell’s only shortcoming as a police officer may be that he’s sometimes too nice to people. “He can’t forget what happened to him. And by remembering constantly what happened to him, I guess in the back of his mind he’s saying, ‘I’ve got to show people that I am not that person.’ He tries a little too hard to be the nice guy. In a lot of cases, that works out real well. But sometimes I think people take advantage of him. I don’t put up with too much of that.”

The chief also has little patience for those who make snide remarks. Like the time someone called McNeese wanting to know why his “damned bomber” had given her a ticket. And, sometimes, somebody will call Jewell “the bomber” to his face. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, McNeese will usually call Jewell to the station and invite him to watch television for a while or to patrol some of the back roads, just to get it off his mind. Other times, they’ll talk for a while and
McNeese will keep reminding him that he has to take into account what kind of person would say something like that.

“Being a police officer is one of the most rewarding and yet unrewarding jobs that any individual could have,” says McNeese. “A majority of the time, you’re not appreciated. And it’s very seldom that police officers get any praise. I don’t really know how to say this and have it come out right, but police officers and God have an awful lot in common in this one respect: Most people don’t really think about God, they don’t really want that much to do with him. And they’re the same way with police officers. But the first time something terrible happens, what’s the first thing that comes out of anybody’s mouth? ‘Oh, God, call the police!’ And then there’s times like with that child where it wipes away a lot of the bad things.”

Actually, the 5-day-old baby wasn’t the first child in Luthersville rescued by Richard Jewell. A few weeks before that, a 5-year-old girl drank some bleach. Jewell knew that milk was a recommended antidote; he went to the store and bought a quart, then took itto the child and coaxed her into drinking it while they waited for an ambulance.

One afternoon over the telephone, McNeese is talking with a reporter about the incidents when Jewell walks in. “Here, let Richard tell you himself,” says McNeese. Jewell doesn’t give interviews these days but when his chief hands him the phone, he feels obliged and begins hesitantly talking about the 5-day-old child he saved.

“Your training kicks in, that’s the main thing,” Jewell says. “Anyone would have an ‘Oh my gosh’ reaction. But then you realize that somebody’s got to do something; these folks are scared and I need to take control and hope for the best. Afterward, when everything is okay, that’s when you thank the Lord that He was watching out for you and you were at the office when those people showed up. We’re hardly ever in the office at that time. I was just at the right place at the right time—again.”

The again is an obvious reference to the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. He’s asked if it was perhaps fate. “Fate,” says Richard Jewell. “It seems to follow me wherever I go.”

As soon as the questions begin to veer from the child, Jewell asks, “Sir, can I ask where is this going?” Then, politely, he cuts off the interview. “I’m trying to move toward the future now, trying to get over it. And it’s real hard when I talk to someone about it.”

Richard Jewell never asked for his celebrity. He’s never enjoyed his celebrity. It’s most likely he never will. And he’s right: He was just some guy in the right place at both the exact right time and the absolute wrong time.

Paige McNeese will tell you that he thinks Richard Jewell has finally found a home in Luthersville. He’s already been approached by bigger departments and turned them down, although Watson Bryant says that
Jewell will probably someday take a job nearer Atlanta so that he can be closer to his mother.

Perhaps it’s McNeese himself who has really found a home. He lights another Marlboro and delights in telling the story behind the fishing rod and guns that rest in the corner of his office. The rod and reel was in the back seat of his car when he first came to Luthersville; he brought it into his office and hasn’t had time to use it since. The shotgun he bought when he was 18 years old. The rifle is a Remington 30.06.

“Occasionally, being a police officer, you’re going to run into things,” McNeese says, picking up the rifle. “You’re going to think you’ve encountered everything in the world. Not so. Every small town has crack now. A certain gentleman came into town and bought a couple of pieces of crack. And, apparently, it was top grade and a short time later he came back to buy some more. This time, his dealer sold him a couple of pieces of soap. So he came back extremely upset and he brought this 30-ought-six with a full magazine, armor-piercing bullets. He jumped out of the car, and to get the locals’ attention he fired three rounds up in the air. He happened to be standing under a 100,000-gallon water tank, which belonged to the city of Luthersville. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a water tank murder. But he murdered our water tank. Two holes, completely through. It cost us about $4,000 to get the water tower repaired.”

McNeese laughs and shakes his head as he puts out his cigarette. “You know, I think I did the right thing hiring Richard. He does a real good job and it seems like he has a passion to be a police officer. He’s one of the family here. That’s the good thing about my department; it’s like five brothers working together. It’s like a little family. And I guess I’m the daddy, I’m the old man.”

Do the Right Thing: A Police Chief in Luthersville Takes a Chance on Richard Jewell

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0315_archive_dorightthing_cck_oneuseonlyPolice Chief Paige McNeese leans back in his chair and pensively tugs on a Marlboro. “That word, hero,” he says, “it can backfire on you in a heartbeat.”

His office in the back of the Luthersville Town Hall is compact and plain: walls painted off-white, a green Army surplus desk and filing cabinet and two chairs for visitors. Propped up in a corner behind his desk is the odd combination of a shotgun, a rifle and a fishing pole. “Meriwether is [one of] the largest counties in square miles in the state of Georgia and it’s also not a very wealthy county,” he says in a voice that is deep, slow and drawling. “We don’t have the facilities and services that Atlanta has. Sometimes, through no fault of the EMTs, it might be 30 minutes before we get an ambulance, and a lot of people know that. So when something goes wrong, people call the police or come to the station. As luck and God would have it, the two officers were here doing paperwork on that Friday night [in May]. Usually, they know better than to be in the office sitting around because they know I’m going to check on them. I want them out being seen and doing their job.”

It was about 11 o’clock on a night when a man and woman burst into the police station with their 5-day-old baby. The infant was gasping for air, already turning a deathly hue of blue. The sergeant took charge. He sat the infant on a desk and quickly figured out it had regurgitated its milk; the bile was blocking its mouth and nose. He had once taken an advanced course in first aid and simply did what he’d been taught to do. He laid the baby on a desk and used his finger to clean the mouth and upper throat. The other officer called an ambulance and brought in a suction cup to clear the infant’s nose. The sergeant quickly turned the baby over and picked it up, cradling the tiny chest in the palm of his hand. He gently tapped the baby’s back, helping it to force out the rest of the congestion.

Finally, there was a cough and then a deep breath and the sound of a baby wailing. The ambulance arrived about 15 minutes later. Without the sergeant, it would have been 15 minutes too late. The parents returned the next day to thank the officers, to call them heroes. But that’s a word that makes McNeese uneasy. Especially considering that the cop who took charge and saved the infant’s life was Sgt. Richard Jewell. Right. That Richard Jewell.

“To the mom and dad, he was the hero,” says McNeese. “And to us, he did his job. Like I said, that word can definitely backfire on you. Of course, Richard knows that better than anyone else.”

McNeese likes to quip that Luthersville might as well have a WELCOME TO MAYBERRY sign at the city limits.

Situated about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta, traveling to Luthersville is much akin to stepping hack into the 1950s. The closest thing to a traffic signal is a flashing red and yellow caution light in the center of town, and the closest thing to a fast-food place is BubbaDoo’s, a hamburger-and-hot-dog joint/convenience store. Luthersville is one of those rare places still unspoiled by progress, although development from neighboring Coweta County is inching closer and closer. The area has a spacious feel, with rolling green lawns and century-old hardwoods shading stylish well-kept Victorians, the kind of whitewashed wood-frames with large front porches that your grandparents lived in.

“It’s a small town,” says McNeese. “There’s a lot of retired people living here, people who want to live real quiet. And you can tell by looking at it, there’s an awful lot of money here, old money that’s still got the stale smell to it. Luthersville is a real good place to live. We seldom have any trouble.”

Until McNeese’s arrival, the police department itself was the major source of trouble in Luthersville. The town had the reputation as Georgia’s most notorious speed trap. Officers were known to spot an elderly person behind the wheel and get on their back bumper, hoping to make them nervous until they crossed the centerline or forgot to use a turn signal. Then, they would be pulled over and ticketed. Roadblocks were customary every Friday and Saturday night. The former police chief made no bones about it. “I like the name speed trap because people drive slower,” boasted then Chief Dorsey Evans.

In the spring of 1995 the state attorney general’s office seized all of the town’s traffic court records and launched an investigation—many of the driving convictions were going unreported to the state, and the town also went four years without sending the state its share of money collected in traffic fines. When investigators went to get the traffic court records, they discovered more than 30 grams of marijuana sitting in an unlocked file cabinet in the chief’s office; Evans told an investigator that it had been left there by a predecessor. Evans resigned five months later, saying he was tired of feuding with the mayor. Then, last year, the former chief was arrested by the Fayette County Sheriff ‘s Department as a suspect in a multistate bank fraud, accused of manufacturing false identification cards to open fraudulent checking accounts in at least four Southern states. However, the grand jury did not indict him.

In September 1997, Luthersville turned to Paige McNeese to clean up its police department.

McNeese was born near Soperton and spent most of his life in Vidalia, the heart of onion country in south Georgia. He did a tour with the Marine Corps, messed up his knee, and spent the next 14 years in the banking/finance industry. “Then I went absolutely crazy and went into the police business,” McNeese says with a laugh. “Actually, it’s the only thing I’d ever wanted to do since I was knee-high to a bantam rooster. I went through a divorce, and figured that it was time to do what I wanted to do and not let money be the driving force in my life.”

He landed a job with the Vidalia Police Department, stayed there 10 years and eventually went to Marshallville—a little town just south of Macon—as police chief. After three years, he tired of the grind and decided to get out of law enforcement. “As a chief, you sometimes kind of think that there are all these people out there laying awake at night trying to figure out ways to screw up your day,” he says. McNeese was going to take a year off, maybe go out to Colorado and ramble around, do some private detective work on the side.

Within three months he was bored stiff. McNeese heard about the opening in Luthersville and took the job.

He found a department in complete disarray. There were two police cruisers, the newest a re-built 1994 model. There was no spare tire and no jack. There were two shotguns and one shell for each. Officers were making six bucks an hour and, of course, there was the speed trap business.

“When I came here, this was one of the most corrupt police departments I had ever seen,” says McNeese. “I went back as far as 1991 straightening things out and one of the first things I did was initiate a GBI investigation. We found a lot of things that were done wrong. We basically started over; created a new department. It’s an honest department now, a good department. But just like Richard, we still have things that will take us years to live down.”

A thin, wiry man with steel-blue eyes and a graying close-cropped haircut that reflects his days in the Marines, Paige McNeese might have been played by Lee Marvin in a movie. He’s rugged and tough. A straight talker. Looks a person in the eye. Came into Luthersville on a 90-day contract to clean up the department and, two years later, he’s still there.

He’s also the only police chief in the state of Georgia willing to give Richard Jewell a job. Never mind that Jewell was guilty of nothing. Never mind that he was the security guard responsible for saving maybe dozens of lives in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympic Games when he spotted a suspicious backpack under a bench that turned out to be a bomb and started clearing people away before it exploded. And never mind that, in retrospect, it’s difficult to even understand why the FBI ever targeted Jewell other than the pressure to finger somebody as a suspect fast so they could reassure the entire world that things at the Olympic Games were firmly under control.

It may be impossible to imagine the world of Richard Jewell during the summer of 1996. One day he was a hero, the next he was being portrayed as a mad bomber. He woke up every morning to the sight of hordes of television reporters and cameras and their satellite trucks parked outside his front door. A caravan of FBI agents followed him everywhere be went. He stopped calling friends, afraid that he might somehow drag them into the circus. The headlines were brutal. Tom Brokaw all but pronounced him guilty on NBC. And leading the pack was The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The initial story that named Jewell as the bombing suspect was headlined FBI SUSPECTS “HERO” GUARD MAY HAVE PLANTED BOMB. The AJC wrote: “Jewell fits the profile of the lone bomber. This profile generally includes a frustrated white man who is a … police ‘wannabe’ who seeks to become a hero.” From there it only got worse, to the point that Jay Leno was referring to him as the “Una-doofus.”

After Jewell was finally cleared, both NBC and CNN reached settlements with him and Time magazine published a clarification. The AJC refused to back down and Jewell filed a lawsuit that quickly evolved into a bitter court fight. After Jewell saved the 5 day-old infant’s life, the AJC published a one-paragraph story on Page 12 of the E Section. And even then the paper inserted qualifiers such as “being credited with” and “reportedly,” as if the whole episode was cloaked in doubt.

After the Olympics, all Jewell ever wanted was to escape into the anonymity of his former life and get back into police work. He applied for work as an officer all over the state but couldn’t get a job. He finished near the top of his recruitment class and was passed over by departments in more than one jurisdiction. Richard Jewell was just too hot to handle. “I think the other departments were afraid of the publicity,” says McNeese. “You know, somebody’s got to take the chance. I’ve never had a problem the extent of his. But there’s been times in my life when I was very thankful that somebody said, ‘Hey, Paige McNeese, I believe in you.'”

It was either an accident or fate, take your pick. But one afternoon McNeese phoned in an order to the company that sells ticket books to the department. The lady took his order, then asked if there was anything else he needed.

“Yes, there is; could you send me two police officers?” he joked.

“Well,” the woman said, “I know of one that needs a job. But you might not want to talk to him.”

“Who is it?”

“Richard Jewell.”

McNeese would find out later that the woman went to the same church as Jewell’s mother.

McNeese hardly blinked. “Fine. Send him down. I want to talk with him.”

Even in the midst of the media frenzy, McNeese never thought Jewell planted any bomb. It just didn’t make sense to him. And his meeting with Jewell only reinforced his intuition.

“Before I got into policing, I was the vice president of a bank. I’d been in banking ever since I’d left the Marine Corps. And you learn an awful lot in that. Ninety percent of the time, a banker or a loan officer knows whether he’s going to lend somebody the money or not before he even does the background check. You learn to read people. And I was impressed with Richard.

“We talked: it was a Friday in late November and I told him to go home and think about it over the weekend. A small town really has nothing to offer a police officer. And when we do get a good one, we’re just a revolving door. I told him, ‘You think about what I have to offer you. And if you decide you want it, call me back Tuesday and let me know.”’

“Chief, I don’t have to think about it,” Jewell replied. “I want the job.”

“Well, you think about it anyhow.”

McNeese told Mayor Albert Gill and a couple of city council members about his new hire. Gill simply said it was McNeese’s decision to make. Besides, the town had been looking for officers for two months without luck; the $8.50-an-hour starting salary was hardly a drawing card. But one of the council members was openly skeptical, and told McNeese that she thought the chief was opening himself up to a lot of criticism.

“I still think I’m making the right decision,” McNeese replied. “And I’m going to hire him.”

Jewell called McNeese early that Tuesday morning. The next day, for the first time since the nightmare of the 1996 Olympic Games, he was wearing a uniform.

About a month later, the councilwoman came up to McNeese. “Chief,” she said.

“About Richard Jewell . . . I think you did the right thing.”

After he hired Richard Jewell, the calls and letters began coming in from Germany, Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand, all over the world. McNeese also heard about it at the local coffee shop. He expected a little flack, but virtually all the reaction was positive. People were generally glad that somebody had finally given Jewell a break.

“I have the greatest respect for the chief in Luthersville,” says Watson Bryant, one of Jewell’s lawyers and a longtime friend. “Nobody else had the guts to give Richard a chance. This is simply the best thing that has happened to him as long as I’ve known him. The people of Luthersville have given him the chance to regain his self-respect. And you know what? Every good thing Richard Jewell does reminds everyone of how wrong the media was, of the stark contrast between the man they told us he was and the man that he really is.”

Jewell has received more than one double take from those he encounters as an officer. People he’s never met call him Richard, as though they’ve known him all their lives. One afternoon, McNeese received a phone call from someone about a 16-year-old kid who’d been pulled over for a traffic violation. The chief braced for a complaint. Instead, he was told the officer was very courteous and issued a warning, explaining what the kid was doing wrong and what the consequences could have been. The kid didn’t notice the signature on the warning ticket until he got home and placed the name with the face, realizing it was that Richard Jewell. The ticket is now matted and framed and hanging on the kid’s bedroom wall.

McNeese had just one initial worry about hiring Jewell—whether he’d be carrying around a king-sized chip on his shoulder. “I think it would have been impossible for me had I been crucified as he was. My main concern was how bitter he would be, and I have not seen that.” If anything, McNeese thinks Jewell’s only short coming as a police officer may be that he’s sometimes too nice to people. “He can’t forget what happened to him. And by remembering constantly what happened to him, I guess in the back of his mind he’s saying, ‘I’ve got to show people that I am not that person.’ He tries a little too hard to be the nice guy. In a lot of cases, that works out real well. But sometimes I think people take advantage of him. I don’t put up with too much of that.”

The chief also has little patience for those who make snide remarks. Like the time someone called McNeese wanting to know why his “damned bomber” had given her a ticket. And, sometimes, somebody will call Jewell “the bomber” to his face. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, McNeese will usually call Jewell to the station and invite him to watch television for a while or to patrol some of the back roads, just to get it off his mind. Other times, they’ll talk for a while and McNeese will keep reminding him that he has to take into account what kind of person would say something like that.

“Being a police officer is one of the most rewarding and yet unrewarding jobs that any individual could have,” says McNeese. “A majority of the time, you ‘re not appreciated. And it’s very seldom that police officers get any praise. I don’t really know how to say this and have it come out right, but police officers and God have an awful lot in common in this one respect: Most people don’t really think about God, they don’t really want that much to do with him. And they’re the same way with police officers. But the first time something terrible happens, what’s the first thing that comes out of anybody’s mouth? ‘Oh, God, call the police!’ And then there’s times like with that child where it wipes away a lot of the bad things.”

Actually, the 5-day-old baby wasn’t the first child in Luthersville rescued by Richard Jewell. A few weeks before that, a 5-year-old girl drank some bleach. Jewell knew that milk was a recommended antidote; he went to the store and bought a quart, then took it to the child and coaxed her into drinking it while they waited for an ambulance.

One afternoon over the telephone, McNeese is talking with a reporter about the incidents when Jewell walks in. “Here, let Richard tell you him self,” says McNeese.

Jewell doesn’t give interviews these days but when his chief hands him the phone, he feels obliged and begins hesitantly talking about the 5-day-old child he saved.

“Your training kicks in, that’s the main thing,” Jewell says. “Anyone would have an ‘Oh my gosh’ reaction. But then you realize that somebody’s got to do something; these folks are scared and I need to take control and hope for the best. Afterward, when everything is okay, that’s when you thank the Lord that He was watching out for you and you were at the office when those people showed up. We’re hardly ever in the office at that time. I was just at the right place at the right time—again.”

The again is an obvious reference to the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. He’s asked if it was perhaps fate. “Fate,” says Richard Jewell. “It seems to follow me wherever I go.”

As soon as the questions begin to veer from the child, Jewell asks. “Sir, can I ask where is this going?” Then, politely, he cuts off the interview. “I’m trying to move toward the future now, trying to get over it. And it’s real hard when I talk to someone about it.”

Richard Jewell never asked for his celebrity. He’s never enjoyed his celebrity.

It’s most likely he never will. And he’s right: He was just some guy in the right place at both the exact right time and the absolute wrong time.

Paige McNeese will tell you that he thinks Richard Jewell has finally found a home in Luthersville. He’s already been approached by bigger departments and turned them down, although Watson Bryant says that Jewell will probably someday take a job nearer Atlanta so that he can be closer to his mother.

Perhaps it’s McNeese himself who has really found a home. He lights another Marlboro and delights in telling the story behind the fishing rod and guns that rest in the corner of his office. The rod and reel was in the back seat of his car when he first came to

Luthersville; he brought it into his office and hasn’t had time to use it since. The shotgun he bought when he was 18 years old. The rifle is a Remington 30.06.

“Occasionally, being a police officer, you’re going to run into things,” McNeese says, picking up the rifle. “You’re going to think you’ve encountered everything in the world. Not so. Every small town has crack now. A certain gentleman came into town and bought a couple of pieces of crack. And, apparently, it was top grade and a short time later he came back to buy some more. This time, his dealer sold him a couple of pieces of soap. So he came back extremely upset and he brought this 30-ought-six with a full magazine, armor-piercing bullets. He jumped out of the car, and to get the locals’ attention he fired three rounds up in the air. He happened to be standing under a 100,00-gallon water tank, which belonged to the city of Luthersville. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a water tank murder. But he murdered our water tank. Two holes, completely through. It cost us about $4,000 to get the water tower repaired.”

McNeese laughs and shakes his head as he puts out his cigarette. “You know, I think I did the right thing hiring Richard. He does a real good job and it seems like he has a passion to be a police officer. He’s one of the family here. That’s the good thing about my department; it’s like five brothers working together. It ‘s like a little family. And I guess I’m the daddy, I’m the old man.”

Contributing editor Scott Freeman’s previous Atlanta Magazine story on Richard Jewell, in 1996, won a City and Regional Magazine Association Award. He is at work on a biography of Otis Redding for St. Martin’s Press.

This article originally appeared in our September 1998 issue.

Million-Dollar Dweeb

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This article originally appeared in our February 1997 issue.

Atlanta’s millionaire consumer guru Clark Howard never aimed to be a media star, much less the darling of the public and the object of beautiful women’s attentions. The bespectacled Howard is a self-described nerd, a dweeb, or as he expresses it, “a complete flake,” whose idea of a fun Saturday night is sitting at the computer searching for best buys.

His notion of a thrilling dinner is a Burger King Value Meal (a double cheeseburger, medium fries and a medium diet Coke for $3.17 including tax), which he’s perfectly content to eat twice a day until, finally, his wife puts her foot down. Or he’ll go for Shoney’s burger and salad combo, which gives a buyer a salad for just $1.49 versus ordering it separately for $3.99. “I mean, it kills me to spend too much,” he says. “Just kills me.”

His legend consists not of nightclub escapades, like so many celebrities, but of tales of exceptional frugality: How he’ll drive 10 miles out of his way just to save a penny a gallon on gasoline. How he works out at a fitness center at Piedmont Hospital because if he ever has a heart attack, he jokes, he won’t have to pay for an ambulance to take him to the emergency room. How he’s furnished his elegant Buckhead home with damaged and repossessed furniture. How his favorite place to shop is Sam’s Club, and he can’t fathom his wife’s fondness for malls.

Yet Atlanta’s consumer guru is far from scorned for his tightwad ways. He’s made himself a millionaire and a cult figure, a local celebrity besieged by fans when he ventures into a restaurant, recognized by radio listeners while honeymooning in Hawaii. Teens love him, travel agents quake at his pronouncements and beautiful women fawn over him.

His face is everywhere, in every important media outlet, as familiar as Ted Turner’s, as trusted as Monica Kaufman’s, as he admonishes Atlantans how to live and save and travel—with his consumer news on WSB-TV, travel tips and a daily three-hour consumer awareness show on WSB-AM, two travel columns and a consumer column in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It hardly matters that he has none of the “sophisticated cool” expected of television newsreaders or that his lilting Southern drawl was never meant for radio. Who cares if his newspaper columns can be reminiscent of “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essays? He tells Atlantans what they want to know.

His fans love bargains, but even more, they love Clark, and even more important, they trust him, He has an endearing Jimmy Stewart-like sincerity that makes it seem inconceivable that he could tell a lie or put on airs. Kim Curley, executive producer of his radio show, sums up his appeal this way: “People believe in Clark.”

It is minutes after 2 o-clock, and Atlanta’s consumer guru is in the WSB-AM studio gleefully relating to his nearly 300,000 listeners how he found gasoline over the weekend for 89.9 cents a gallon. To look at him is to know his joy is no put-on. He’s clad in a generic polo shirt (sans alligator), scuffed-up off-brand sneakers (why pay extra money for the privilege of wearing a company logo?) and nondescript white tennis shorts. For lunch he had a cheeseburger, and he teases his first caller by telling her that she must not be a “rock-gut cheap buyer like I am.”

But he grows serious as he listens to a phone call from a listener named Diane, who is explaining how she bought a used car and financed it through her credit union. She had checked and knew she had 21 days to get it registered and buy a tag. Simple enough, right? Until you throw into the equation the bank that held the original owner’s title. Diane waited two weeks for the bank to do the paperwork transferring the ownership. Then three weeks. Then four. Finally it arrived, about six weeks after the fact. And when Diane went to get her tag, she was hit with a $21 late fee.

Twenty-one dollars. No big deal to anyone. Except Diane. And, now, Clark Howard. “The first thing I want you to do is contact the director of the tag office, explain what happened and see if they will waive the late fee,” he tells her. His voice is soothing and compassionate: friend, not radio talk show host. “Try to reach them this afternoon and call me back to let me know what happened. Okay?”

Despite his soft tones, Howard’s dander is raised. He has received call after call to his radio show about the bank, problems arising out of its recent acquisitions. He has resolved to pound them on the air until they clean up their act—not only are customers encountering problems, but he thinks the bank’s attitude is rather cavalier. Without mentioning the bank’s name (he cautiously won’t name a company on the air unless he believes he’s really got them nailed), he talks about a previous caller who wanted to pay off her car loan, but no one could find the loan documents.

“Now we have Diane, who ends up a victim and a money loser,” he says, habitually emphasizing certain phrases in many of his sentences as a teacher might, “She was not even a customer of this giant monster bank, and she loses. The people at this giant, monster out-of-state bank say there’s no problem with this merger, that they just acquired assets. Then why are we getting all these phone calls from people who are having problems? Could it have something to do with the fact that the bank is also buying customers who are people?”

Howard hits a button and goes into a commercial break. Off the air he says one listener claimed to have actually reached the president of the corporation in Charlotte, who insisted there were no problems in Atlanta.

“Oh yeah?” the person retorted. “You must not be listening to Clark Howard.” The president was baffled. “Who’s Clark Howard?”

It’s a question he likely won’t ask twice.

Clark Howard, 41, may well be the best consumer advocate in the business and the most trusted figure within earshot of WSB.

His radio show receives so many calls that Howard convinced WSB to start a consumer action center to help the hundreds of people each week who couldn’t get through. The center opened in 1993 with a staff of one. Howard went on the air, asked for volunteers, and the center is now overrun with 120 loyal disciples who donate their time and field more than 2,000 distress calls a month from people victimized by everything from shady used-car salesmen to botched surgical procedures. And the calls come in from as far away as Taipei.

Howard’s top-level staff is a mostly female club, and they clearly mother him. “On one hand, he’s so savvy and so worldly,” says Beverly Molander, the center’s director for the past two years. “And then he’s so eggheaded and so naive; there’s really this innocent quality to him.”

Adds Kim Curley, “He loves to come in and make fun of himself: ‘I’m such a flake, I’m such a goof-off.’ It’s so cute.”

If you want to see him flustered, just ask Howard about his reputation for attracting some of the most desirable women in Atlanta prior to his marriage (his second; he has a daughter from a previous marriage) in October 1995. He starts to answer, then abruptly stops. His face turns crimson, and he looks terribly uncomfortable during a very long, 20-second pause. Then, finally: “Boy, I’d better be careful what I say.”

That’s followed by another pause. “Being single was a lot of fun,” he says, carefully measuring his words; at the same time, he seems ready to burst out into embarrassed laughter. “I did seem to meet a lot of wonderful women. I really had a great, great time. Some people think I’m nuts to have gotten married, but I’m nuts about the woman I did marry, and that’s what made me settle down.”

He met his wife, Lane—once immortalized in the pages of this magazine as “Boortz’s Babe”—when she worked for Howard’s colleague at WSB, archconservative Neal Boortz. “So often, people [in the media] have an attitude problem,” she says. “I was really taken aback by how genuine Clark was, and how friendly. We were friends, and then he asked me to go out to dinner, and we had a really good time. We went out again, and after that I was really smitten.”

She soon learned what others close to Howard already knew. “He’s exactly what you hear on the air,” says Kim Curley. “He’s a very polite Southern gentleman. There’s never been a moment when he acted differently.”

“The greatest thing about him is something his dad taught him,” says Lane Howard. “Always treat everyone as if they’re the most important person in the world. Treat them with respect. If we’re in a restaurant, and they have a name tag, he’ll always look them in the eye and call them by name. And it’s amazing how that makes people feel.”

Howard likes to joke that he must have been adopted or else dropped on his head at an early age—he’s an obsessive bargain hunter, but hardly a child of poverty. “I had a total silver spoon growing up,” he says. He was born in Atlanta, the baby in a family of four children, six years younger than his closest sibling and feeling much like an only child. His maternal grandfather founded the Lovable bra company, and his uncles later took it over, with his father in management. “I grew up Old South wealthy. I never had to make my bed. I never had to fix a meal. It was a very cushy life.”

A defining moment came during his freshman year in college—the company fell on hard times and his father lost his job. Howard worked his way through school in Washington, D.C., including a job in public housing and handling consumer complaints for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. He also set up a campus chapter of a consumer group affiliated with Ralph Nader. “I think his dad losing his job really affected him,” says Curley. “He understood that money doesn’t just appear, and it became a real goal for him to help people.”

Howard eventually returned to Atlanta with a master’s degree in business, and instead of finding a fast-track job with a major corporation, he went to work for Literacy Action. Three years later he left and opened a travel agency, because he loved to travel and it was a cheap business to start up. His goal was simple: make enough money to never again have to worry about financial distress.

The timing was perfect. The agency opened in late 1981 in the wake of airline industry deregulation; ticket prices had dropped and ridership was soaring. Within six years Howard owned five branch offices, and a group of investors from Ohio made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He sold the agency and retired to a life of leisure at the ripe old age of 31.

“I never really intended to work again,” he says. “I was a complete bum. Went to Florida for a while, lived in a resort. Carne back to Atlanta, and I was swimming two miles a day and watching reruns on TV, and that was it. Completely out of the blue one day I got a call from a producer for WGST-Radio asking if I would be a guest on their travel show on Sunday. Three or four weeks later they had me back again. Then they asked if I would like to be a guest every Sunday.”

A few months later, in early 1988, Howard walked into the studio one afternoon and the host was missing. “Didn’t anybody tell you?” the newscaster said. “There’s been some cutbacks. You’re now hosting the show.” When WGST decided to begin a one-hour consumer call-in show, the station manager called him at home for advice. “Clark, I’m looking for somebody who can answer consumer questions like Clark Howard answers travel questions,” he said.

“Well,” Howard responded. “That would be me.”

By 1991 he had been lured away to competitor WSB and was on his way to becoming a cottage industry and a star.

Clark and Lane Howard were supposed to go to Greece for their honeymoon. And between his investments and real estate deals and sale of the travel agency, he’s set for life, with some pretty big bucks in his back pocket, enough to afford the trip of a lifetime.

And what does he do?

At the last minute he found a great deal to Hawaii, so they went there instead. And, of course, Howard shared the tip on his radio show and in his newspaper column. When the couple boarded their plane, they were besieged by grateful passengers who had bought their tickets on Howard’s advice.

During the honeymoon he and his wife made their way to a beach so out-of-the-way that the horizon was empty of people. They sat back and relaxed, enjoying the illusion that they were on an island all their own. Then they began to notice another couple making their way up the beach. The couple walked right up to them and greeted Howard as though they’d known him for years.

“We really like your show!” they said. “And thanks so much for the great price to get out here.”

He’s recognized everywhere he goes in Atlanta, and as soon as people spot him, it’s as though they begin lining up to ask his advice. “The biggest change I’ve made in my life is I love eating out, and we eat at home now, for privacy,” he says. “I don’t look at it as a bad thing that people want to ask questions. It means we’re doing well at what we do. But I love it when I travel, because nobody knows who I am.”

Lane Howard says with a laugh that she’s grown accustomed to what it takes to be her husband’s traveling companion: patience in bundles.

“The only criteria for our house was that it had to be within spitting distance of the highway, because Clark believes you have to be near the airport,” she says. “He has to be able to fly out at a moment’s notice. There’ve been times when he’s called me up and said, ‘We’re going to New York tonight; be ready in an hour.’ Not only do I have to keep something packed, but I’m only allowed to have a carry-on. I guess he hears so much of that on his show, luggage being lost or ruffled through. Can you imagine trying to get a week of skiing clothes into a carry-on? I’ll look like a refugee because I’ll have on, like, five layers when I get on the plane.”

Her husband also dislikes reservations, preferring to scout out hotels, looking for the best location and, of course, the best price. “In Italy we were rolling our little carry-ons down a cobblestone street, looking for a hotel,” she says. “And the most expensive place was the first place we went to. And he went, ‘No, no, we can’t afford that.’ It was something like $75. So we went to every other place in this little village. Nowhere else to stay. It’s now about 10 o’clock at night, and he’s so defeated: ‘I can’t believe we have to stay there.’”

Even at home he never breaks out of the mold. Before meeting Lane, he didn’t go to movies. He didn’t go to concerts or plays. If he’s not traveling, he’s sitting at the computer or studying the financial section of one of the four newspapers he reads each day. Or else he’s out shopping, engrossed in his perpetual search for the ultimate deal. Should he meet a stranger in the course of his business, his impulse is to reach out and confide to his new acquaintance just how to get a great deal.

For example, he asks his interviewer his shoe size.

“Good,” he’ll exclaim when he hears that it’s a 10 1/2. “If you ever have to have dress shoes, I’ve found the coolest thing.”

At such times he doesn’t so much speak as effuse, his voice filled with so much boyish enthusiasm that he’s almost breathless at the end of the sentence. “It’s a shoe store that sells Bass Weejuns. And I buy them for $34 a pair, because I’m buying them in the boys’ department instead of the men’s deportment, It’s a marketing thing. It’s still a men’s shoe, but kids’ feet have gotten so much bigger, they go up to size 11 in the boys’ department. So I buy all my dress-up shoes there.”

It’s just before 4:30 on the afternoon of Diane’s call about the problems with the big bank, and Clark Howard is in the last hour of his radio show, reading a promo for that evening’s Braves broadcast on WSB. About halfway through there is a sudden burst of laughter from an adjacent room, where Helen Lovern screens the dozens of calls Howard receives each afternoon. And sitting next to Howard, Kim Curley has her hand over her mouth, or else she’s going to start laughing, too.

Howard shoots them a look of feigned exasperation as he announces that the broadcast will be sponsored by NationsBank, the very bank that he has spent the earlier part of the show lambasting.

Minutes later the irony just gets richer. Lovern walks into the studio during a commercial break to tell him that Diane is back on the line. Earlier, Howard had encouraged her to contact the tag office and ask them to waive the late penalty because the bank, in fact, had been tardy. She’s calling with the news that they won’t refund the money. With that, Howard takes his cue and for the first time names NationsBank on air, mounting a full offensive, even though the target just happens to be a WSB sponsor that he promoted only five minutes earlier.

He doesn’t worry—he has a clause in his contract stipulating no sacred cows, WSB advertiser or not. “Now, Diane, what I think you have a perfect light to do is to march in a NationsBank branch and get $21 out of those people,” he says.

Then he smiles.

“Now, the year that you’re able to get that out of this big, giant bank, I will be interested in healing. You are just another piece of collateral damage from another monster bank gobbling up another of our local institutions. I feel bad for people who suffer from these mergers and the banks say, ‘Well, there’s just going to be some casualties along the way.'”

It’s a glimpse at the other side of Clark Howard, one that’s far removed from the flake. It’s the side that’s incredibly savvy and strongly principled and, most of all, compassionate, He cares. It’s genuine. It matters to him that Diane is out $21 through no fault of her own. And it’s the final ingredient of his success.

“When I don’t have that compassion anymore, I’ll have to go,” he says later. “Eventually it’ll be squeezed out of me, and I’ll know when that is—the person whose situation I’m really concerned about today, the time will come when I’ll hear that same thing, and I’ll shrug. That’s when I’ll know I’m done.”

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