This column originally appeared in our July 2003 issue.
I recognized her immediately. She first appears on page 79 of Jack Warner’s riveting novel, Shikar. Warner changed her name, of course. In the book, she is Kathleen Bentley. But there’s no mistaking Kathy Scruggs.
In the thriller, Kathleen Bentley is a husky-voiced reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who barges into a North Georgia forest with a photographer in search of a man-eating Bengal tiger that is gobbling hill folk.
This is precisely what Scruggs would have done, had the world not fallen on her shoulders after the 1996 Olympics and had a 12-foot tiger invaded the wilds of North Georgia instead of Warner’s fertile imagination.
In her heyday, Scruggs was a hard-drinking, tough-talking police reporter who wasn’t afraid of anything.
Kathleen Bentley is not the first fictional character inspired by Scruggs. Atlanta author Robert Coram borrowed liberally from Scruggs to reporter Kitty O’Hara in his 1997 Atlanta Heat. “You can tell how badly she needs a story by how short her skirt is that day,” the cops say in the book. Scruggs later laughed about the portrait over drinks with Coram at Manuel’s Tavern.
Her raucous sense of humor was what I loved most about Scruggs. One morning when I worked at the AJC, I read a brief she wrote about a guy who was arrested for carrying a shotgun in his pants.
“Hey, Kathy!” I shouted. “This is not news! I often carry a shotgun in my pants!”
“Yeah,” she growled. “Sawed-off.”
Cops still talk in amazement about her bravado. She once beat the police to a murder scene and brazenly crawled in through a back window. When the officers arrived, Scruggs was waiting with the corpse. “Where have you been?” she demanded.
“The cops just loved her,” Coram says. “I don’t think there has been a reporter in town since Orville Gaines who had the sort of trust and access she did.” Gaines was the Atlanta Journal police reporter from 1947 to 1988.
Scruggs grew up in a prominent family in Athens, attended the University of Georgia and graduated from prissy Queens College in Charlotte. But she acted more like the Queen of the Silver Dollar.
She was blonde and wore miniskirts and gaudy stockings. She smoked. She drank. She cussed. She flaunted her sexuality. She dated Lewis Grizzard. She dated an editor who allegedly beat her with a telephone. She dated cops, including one who was accused of stealing money from the pockets of the dead. “Kathy was a bigger-than-life figure,” Coram says. “She was over the top in many ways.”
She also had a keen eye. David Pendered, a veteran AJC reporter, told this story about her: Scruggs was trying to track down the mother of a shooting victim. Relatives said the woman had gone to a beauty parlor to look nice for her son’s funeral. Scruggs took off and tracked down the woman, who was walking with hat in hand. “Any woman carrying her hat instead of wearing it had to be coming home from the beauty parlor,” Scruggs explained.
Seven years ago this month, Scruggs’ career and life came to a head when she was the lead reporter on the biggest story in the world. On July 30, 1996, she broke the story that security guard Richard Jewell was the focus of the federal investigation into the bomb that killed one person and injured 100 at Centennial Olympic Park.
A couple of days after the story ran I congratulated her on the scoop. “Yeah,” she said. “We think he’s the guy.”
But he wasn’t the guy. Jewell was cleared and sued The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a bunch of other news outlets. Most of them settled. The AJC fought the suit and, in 1999, Scruggs was ordered to jail if she didn’t reveal her source for the story. She refused and avoided jail on appeal.
I think the Jewell case killed Kathy Scruggs. Certainly, the stress that plagued her in the aftermath of the story contributed to the health problems that lead to her unspeakably sad death.
She was found dead in her Cherokee County home, wearing an Atlanta Motor Speedway T-shirt and panties, on September 2, 2001, just 24 days shy of her 43rd birthday. The cause of death was acute morphine toxicity, according to the GBI medical examiner, who was unable to determine whether the overdose was intentional or accidental. The examiner also said severe coronary artery atherosclerosis might have contributed to her death. Cherokee Coroner Earl Darby said Scruggs appeared to have died peacefully in her sleep.
I’ve often wondered what would have happened to Scruggs if the AJC had just admitted the obvious fact that it made errors and settled with Jewell. But Scruggs never wanted the paper to settle. She adamantly felt she had done nothing wrong. She was a reporter who came back with the story from her sources and went to her grave protecting their identities. The essence of her initial story was correct: At the time, investigators were indeed looking at Jewell.
But as soon as she brought back the scoop, her work was fed into an editorial meat grinder that spewed out copy like chum. In story after story, the paper’s relentless coverage of Jewell, with Scruggs as the key reporter, was the journalistic equivalent of a “shock and awe” campaign. Critics later said the AJC failed to exercise healthy skepticism about information from law enforcement sources. And some cops and friends feel Scruggs became the scapegoat for errors of fact and judgement made by her editors.
The paper said Jewell contacted the paper looking for publicity, which wasn’t true. The contact was made by a public relations man for AT&T, which had hired the company Jewell worked for. An editor inserted that line into the story. The paper also published a column comparing Jewell to convicted murderer Wayne Williams, but it was written by Dave Kindred, not Scruggs.
Scruggs may be dead, but the Jewell libel case is still alive. It was hobbled when a judge ruled that Jewell was a public figure. The FBI’s current suspect, Eric Robert Rudolph, escaped capture until May. [Editor’s Note: In 2011, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the AJC, noting that “the articles in their entirety were substantially true at the time they were published.” In 2005, Rudolph plead guilty to the Centennial Olympic Park bombing and three other bombings and was convicted and sentenced to four life sentences.]
The stress of the libel lawsuit took a terrible toll on Scruggs over the years. She didn’t go to jail for refusing to identify her source, but she was arrested twice in Buckhead on charges involving intoxication. A friend thinks she was slipped a date-rate drug in one of the incidents.
Scruggs’ health declined horribly. She was hospitalized and had intestinal surgery. She moved from her Cross Creek condo near Buckhead to a remote place in Cherokee County that had a big backyard for a new dog. She was trying to get better. But she was also under stress from financial problems as her medical bills mounted. She felt treated as a pariah in the newsroom and complained that she no longer had a desk.
All my feelings about Scruggs were stirred by Jack Warner’s respectful memorial to a controversial, colorful and troubled reporter. I e-mailed Warner, a legendary UPI editor and former AJC writer now living in retirement in New Mexico. He confirmed Scruggs had read the novel and approved of the Kathleen Bentley character long before the book was published.
As I read Shikar, I got a powerful feeling that Warner created a character that imbues the memory of Kathy Scruggs with lasting nobility and dignity. He perfectly captured what she might be doing in heaven: talking tough and tracking tigers.
This column originally appeared in our July 2003 issue.