Most people may think they know the whipsawing story of Richard Jewell, the vigilant security guard at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 who, in just days, went from being an acclaimed hero to the FBI’s main suspect in planting a bomb that killed one woman and injured scores. Then three months later, after unsuccessful digging for evidence against Jewell, the script was flipped again when the government declared him no longer a “target.”
The Richard Jewell of October 1996 was exactly the same guy who had spotted and reported an unattended backpack at Centennial Olympic Park on July 27 — a bona fide hero responsible for helping usher crowds out of the area before the bomb exploded. But FBI profiling, a media frenzy, and a public demand for immediate answers left a tarnished asterisk after Jewell’s name that he never quite lived down: “former suspect.”
Five years ago, Kevin Salwen, who ran the Wall Street Journal’s Southeast regional coverage of the Jewell story, and Kent Alexander, the U.S. Attorney positioned to prosecute a case against an actual bomber, teamed up to write a book reconstructing and examining those events. “The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle,” was published in November, just days before the Clint Eastwood movie called “Richard Jewell” came out. An Amazon bestseller, the book is due out in paperback this fall.
“In thinking about the case afterward,” says Salwen, who now lives in Redwood City, “I always wondered how it got so horribly wrong that a guy who should have a statue in the center of Atlanta for the scores of lives that he saved ends up being remembered incorrectly as either a guy who was involved with the bombing or possibly involved with the bombing. And I always wondered how this from a law enforcement and a media and a public perception went so wrong.”
Writing a book was Alexander’s idea, and he approached Salwen about possibilities for collaborating. Each thought they knew about half of the story before they started their research, but “In reality, neither one of us probably knew 25 percent of it,” Salwen says. They interviewed 187 people and read 90,000 pages of documents to create a detailed history that is also as gripping a read as a crime novel.
The book begins with the genesis of the “audacious dream” of bringing the Olympics to Atlanta, and the preparations that kicked in for welcoming the world to the largest peacetime event ever. That included ramping up security for everything from traffic management to terrorism threats. Jewell, who dreamed of landing a job in police work, hoped his stint as a member of the 30,000-person security force might provide a desperately desired entrée.
Salwen, 61, says it was eye-opening to learn what had been going on behind the scenes. “I didn’t understand anything about, for instance, how many bomb scares there are during the Olympic Games and how many crazies are out there and what the preparations look like from law enforcement.”
The co-authors did research and interviews separately and together. Alexander was able to secure interviews with current and retired FBI agents. “We weren’t getting in those rooms without Kent’s connection,” Salwen says. He had similar links with the news media and the knowledge of how editorial decisions are made in a news room. “Because he had been inside the FBI and because I had been inside the media world, we had a way to triangulate the story to give it a real sense of three dimensionality and depth.”
The authors decided not to write alternating chapters and strive instead for “a single harmonized voice that carries through the entire book,” Salwen says. They developed an outline and then a first draft, sending chapters back and forth for editing. In 2016, Salwen and wife Joan moved to Menlo Park to participate in Stanford University’s Distinguished Careers Institute, but he made frequent trips to work on the book.
Although authors often need only submit to publishers a chapter or two, Salwen and Alexander ended up writing a 110-page mini version of the book. “People believed that they understood the Richard Jewell story,” Salwen explains. “You had to prove to them that they didn’t and that took a bit of length.”
The three main characters had died years ago, Jewell of a heart attack in 2007 at the age of 44. Kathy Scruggs, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who broke the story that the Olympic Park hero was the suspect, was 42 when she died in 2001. Don Johnson, the relentless FBI agent who tried to make the case against Jewell, was 57 when he died in 2003.
After five years as a fugitive, the actual bomber, Eric Rudolph, who was responsible for three additional bombings, was captured in 2003. He is serving multiple life sentences in a Colorado penitentiary.
Fortunately, the three principal characters left abundant resource material that the authors used to develop them as real people. Family, friends and associates also sat for interviews. Jewell’s mother (portrayed by Kathy Bates in the movie) and his closest friends talked to the writers. Both Jewell and Scruggs gave depositions and did recordings about the case, which illuminated what they were thinking during and after that eventful summer.
Agent Johnson’s sons and colleagues also agreed to talk to the authors, and his estranged widow handed over “a treasure trove” of materials about the case.
Prior to working at the Olympics, Jewell had several security and law enforcement-type jobs, but various misadventures and personal quirks kept tripping him up. Still he was determined to get back into police work. Jewell’s history seemed to feed into a profile created at the FBI of a frustrated wannabe cop who would plant a bomb and then “discover it” to get public acclaim – and a job.
Salwen describes Jewell as “a very human figure,” a “goofy” person totally without guile. “He was over-zealous. … He was a guy who made deep friendships but also could alienate other people,” an interesting character to capture in all his facets.
Scruggs, a striking and effervescent blond who had established herself as the newspaper’s top police reporter, “was super fun to write,” Salwen says. “There’s a little bit of an archetype of the female police reporter and she took that and essentially put it on steroids.” Some people adored her. Others, especially women in the news room, thought she was setting back equality with her revealing leather miniskirts and high heels. “It just made her a fascinating character to write because she was so divisive and so larger than life,” Salwen says.
Originally, the authors had until April of this year to complete their book. On a separate track, meanwhile, work was under way in Hollywood to make a film about Richard Jewell. The producers had wanted to talk to Alexander, since he’d been involved in the case. On learning about the book that he and Salwen were writing, they asked them to provide information for the screenplay, which was being revised, and as script consultants, they could add background to give the characters more dimension.
With the revised screenplay, Eastwood got very interested. Early in 2019 when he decided he wanted to direct the movie, “Richard Jewell” moved on a very fast track indeed, filmed in just 37 days. Salwen and Alexander got to meet with him and cast members, answer questions about character motivation and provide access to their background material.
Their work on the film moved their April book deadline to November 2019 because the book had to come out before the movie. The authors were only on the set in Atlanta one time “because we were crashing to get the book done,” Salwen says. “I moved to Atlanta essentially for the summer just so Kent and I could be shoulder-to-shoulder and get the book finished.”
The movie has come in for some criticism from journalists because it implies that Scruggs slept with an FBI agent to get her big scoop. It’s a biographical film, not a documentary, Salwen responds, although that’s not a liberty he would have taken. “Our book certainly does not say that,” he adds. “But at the same time, it’s 20 seconds of the film.”
People who focus on that alone, he says, miss the broader message. “I think what Clint Eastwood was able to capture very well was the story of an unsung hero who gets caught in the crosshairs of two of the most powerful forces on the planet, the FBI and the media.” Salwen’s goal was to create a book people enjoyed reading that would spark debates about contentious subjects including the FBI, journalism standards, and the ways people using social media contribute to the spread of false information.
The co-authors got to walk the red carpet at the Hollywood movie premiere in December with its stars, Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, John Hamm, Olivia Wilde, and Bates. “It’s kind of crazy,” Salwen says. “Your book’s there and then eight days later, you’re walking the red carpet at the Chinese Theatre. What world did I drop into?”
A multicity book launch followed, and the two authors have had no shortage of speaking opportunities, among them a talk Salwen gave in January at the downtown library in the city he and Joan have called home since mid-2017. The Brooklyn native says they’ve always been urbanites and were attracted by Redwood City’s “small city” feel, as well as its diversity. The couple purposely chose a house within walking distance of downtown restaurants, Courthouse Square and entertainment. Joan is the CEO of a start-up called Blue Ocean Barns, whose office is also downtown. The Salwens have two children, Hannah, 27, who lives in New York; and Joe 25, who lives in Los Angeles..
Kevin Salwen has about “eight buckets of ideas” for books but is in no rush to settle on a next project. “I don’t work very fast,” he says, “so I’m very careful about not only what subject matter I write about but which characters I want to live with for several years.”
This story was originally published in the March print edition of Climate Magazine.