Photography by David Rams
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?”
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.”