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People rush to the scene of an explosion at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, July 27, 1996.

On This Day: Bomb Explodes in Atlanta’s Olympic Park

July 27, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On July 27, 1996, a bomb killed one and injured 111 visitors at the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. Security guard Richard Jewell was wrongfully accused of planting the bomb and defamed by the media.

The Centennial Park Bombing

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Soon after midnight of July 26, a knapsack holding three pipe bombs was left in the Centennial Olympic Park, a gathering place for fans at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. It was one of the least secure Olympic venues, “in effect, the soft underbelly of an otherwise impregnable armor,” described Sports Illustrated’s S.L. Price.

Security guard Richard Jewell noticed the bag was unattended and told Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Tom Davis, who called in a bomb detonation team and ordered security guards to clear the area. Meanwhile, a “white American male with ‘an indistinguishable accent’” had called 911 to report that the bomb would explode in half an hour, reported The New York Times.

Within 20 minutes of its discovery, at 1:20 a.m., the knapsack exploded, shooting shrapnel and nails into the crowd. One woman, 44-year-old Alice S. Hawthorne, was killed and 111 were injured. A Turkish reporter, Melih Uzunyol, also died of a heart attack while racing to cover the explosion.

The Games went on as scheduled, but there would be a series of bomb threats and evacuations. “The fact is,” wrote Price, “the bombing irrevocably changed the tenor of the 1996 Olympics.”

The FBI Investigation

For the first three days following the bombing, Jewell was treated like a hero by the media. However, news that the FBI was looking at Jewell as a possible suspect was leaked to the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, which ran a story declaring, “‘hero’ guard may have planted bomb.”

The FBI suspected Jewell not because there was any evidence linking him to the bomb, but because he fit “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,” wrote Kathy Scruggs and Ron Martz for the Journal and Constitution.

The FBI launched an aggressive investigation, hoping to quickly solve the case and end any fear of a second Olympic attack. Agents searched the home of Jewell’s mother—where he was living at the time—and seized most of their possessions. He gave handprints, hair samples and voice recordings, and took a polygraph test.

They found no evidence to link him with the crime, but continued the case for three months. The bungled investigation and its effect on Jewell was chronicled in great detail by Marie Brenner in a February 1997 piece for Vanity Fair.

Finally, on Oct. 26, the FBI sent a letter to Jewell’s lawyer saying that Jewell was no longer targeted by the investigation. “For 88 days,” Jewell said, “I lived a nightmare.”

Even after his name was cleared he had trouble living down the allegations made against him. In 2007, he was diagnosed with diabetes; he died on Aug. 27 of that year at the age of 44.

“The tragedy was that his sense of duty and diligence made him a suspect,” said John R. Martin, an attorney for Jewell. “He really prided himself on being a professional police officer, and the irony is that he became the poster child for the wrongly accused.”

The Media Coverage

After news of the FBI investigation was leaked to the Journal and Constitution, the media began vilifying Jewell and ridiculing his appearance, accent and intelligence. After Jewell was cleared of wrongdoing, many in the media examined the actions of their colleagues who acted irresponsibly in reporting the situation.

I think everybody in journalism ought to be ashamed of themselves today,” said Marvin Kalb, director of Harvard’s Shornstein Center on Press and Politics, on PBS’s NewsHour. “They were hyping news. They were trying to get little bits of information and blowing it into a sensation.”

The Journal and Constitution was singled out for its lack of journalistic integrity by Nathan Tobey in Media Ethics. “Legally, the AJC may have been permitted to effectively put Jewell on trial when he was merely a suspect. Legally, the AJC may have been allowed to treat this private citizen as a public figure,” wrote Tobey in 2003. “But was it the right thing to do? In the frenzy to stay in front of the pack, the editors and reporters of the AJC stopped asking themselves that simple, yet all-important question.”

Jewell sued several media outlets (including NBC, CNN, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, and the New York Post) and reached out-of-court settlements with most. Many in the media pledged that they would learn from the experience and show more caution in reporting future stories.

“Doing everything we legally can has been disastrous for the reputation of the press in this country,” said Jonathan Alter, columnist and senior editor for Newsweek. “We have to draw a distinction between the right to do something and the right thing to do.”

Eric Rudolph: The Olympic Park Bomber

The FBI investigation was stalled until 1998, when authorities connected an abortion clinic bomb in Birmingham, Ala., to the Olympic bombing and two other Atlanta-area bombings. The FBI identified the car of Eric Rudolph, and issued an arrest warrant; Rudolph escaped to the mountains of Western Carolina and lived there for five years before getting caught.

Rudolph, who was part of an extremist Christian movement, targeted abortion clinics and a gay nightclub. After pleading guilty to his crimes and receiving four life sentences, he released a statement explaining his motives in the Olympic bombing: “the purpose of the attack on July 27th was to confound, anger and embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the world for its abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand.”
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