Richard Jewell, hero-turned-suspect in 1996 Olympics bombing, was 'torn,' mother says

The world first came to know Richard Jewell during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. The former security guard was working at Centennial Olympic Park when a pipe bomb exploded. His quick thinking saved countless lives and he was hailed as a hero -- until he wasn't.

Shortly after the bomb blast, which resulted in two deaths and over 100 people injured, Jewell was named a suspect, and for weeks, his life was at the center of a media firestorm.

"I think everybody then started focusing on Richard Jewell and turning his life inside out, and making their life a living hell, instead of running around and trying to see whether or not there's other people that could've done this," G. Watson Bryant, Jewell's longtime friend and attorney, told ABC News.

Twenty-three years later, the story of Jewell, who died in 2007, will be depicted in the eponymous film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell and Kathy Bates as his mother, Bobi Jewell.

Richard Jewell was working as a security guard at Centennial Park on the evening of July 27, 1996. On that night, there was a Jack Mack and the Heart Attack concert and "tens of thousands" of people were in attendance, according to Tom Davis, a retired police officer who was stationed at the park with Jewell.

Thirty minutes before the bomb went off, a man called 911 warning of a bomb in the park and saying that it would detonate in 30 minutes. It released shrapnel everywhere once it detonated.

"I remember the heat," Davis said. "I remember the smell of gunpowder. I remember seeing things falling from the sky as I started to get my wits about me. ... It didn't knock the wind out of me but it was like everything was in slow motion. It put me in a state of confusion for a few seconds because I just didn't know what happened."

There could've been scores more concertgoers killed or injured. But Jewell had spotted the bag holding the bomb underneath a bench shortly before it went off. In that critical moment, which is also depicted in the film, Jewell cautioned his colleagues about getting near the bag and instead called it in as a suspicious package.

"I think that lives were saved because of actions that we all took that night of trying to get that perimeter established as quickly as we possibly could," Davis said.

Richard Jewell's quick thinking thrust him into the international spotlight. He appeared on TV news for interviews and journalists were staking out at his home.

"I couldn't believe it. I mean, he was just Richard to me. But then when there are 97,000 photographers out front, and a few more phones know, it's surreal," Bobi Jewell told ABC News.

Within days, however, the public's view of Richard Jewell flipped once Jewell's hometown paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ran a headline reading, "FBI suspects 'hero' guard may have planted bomb."

"A great reporter named Kathy Scruggs managed to get this incredible scoop, which means somebody in law enforcement had leaked it," said Kent Alexander, the U.S. attorney assigned to investigate the bombing and author of a book on the incident titled "The Suspect."

"When this story broke, it was like nothing anybody in law enforcement had ever seen, because it was...everywhere," he continued.

Reporters who were once seeking comment from the Jewells about his heroism were now asking about the allegations that he'd planted the bomb. It didn't help when he left his home escorted by two FBI agents.

"He was worn, torn and tattered. He really was," said Bobi Jewell of her son's reaction to the turn of events.

The FBI agents had told Richard Jewell that he was going to their Atlanta headquarters to help create a police training video. However, when he arrived, they began questioning him about the bombing.

In never-before-released video from his interrogation, an FBI agent can be seen telling Richard Jewell: "The reason you're here today is we're interviewing all the individuals that were at Centennial Park when the bomb went off."

"Richard Jewell, he's mic'd up, he's got his Olympics hat on, he's sitting in the corner with the two agents facing him -- the cameraman in the back -- and they start going through lots of questions," said Alexander.

It wasn't until the FBI agents handed Richard Jewell a form with his Miranda Rights that his disposition changed, and he wondered out loud if he should have an attorney present.

"I don't know if I should call an attorney now or not because I don't know if this video is for -- after what the news people [said] -- I don't know if I'm being investigated for this or if this is what you told me it's for," Richard Jewell said in the interrogation tape.

Richard Jewell called Bryant and asked Bryant to represent him. Of that moment in the interrogation room, Bryant said, "I think I told him to shut the hell up and get his fat ass out of there."

Bryant, who is portrayed by Sam Rockwell in the film, became a fierce defender of Richard Jewell. He said he believed Richard Jewell didn't commit the bombing because he knew him to be a good person.

"I knew him to be a good, decent guy," Bryant said. "If he had $2, he'd spend $4 buying you presents. He'd give you the shirt off his back."

As part of their investigation into Richard Jewell, the FBI searched the home he lived in with his mother and left with some of her possessions, including VHS tapes and tupperware.

"I couldn't believe it. They had taken -- and I love to say this, because I love tupperware -- they had my flour, my sugar, my macaroni, anything that I had in tupperware," Bobi Jewell said.

Bobi Jewell ultimately chose to speak publicly in defense of her son. During a press conference, she made an emotional plea to then-President Bill Clinton to clear his name if the FBI didn't intend to charge him with anything.

"She was uncomfortable," Bates said of the mother she portrays on screen. "She was in a room full of people that had maligned her son. ... I think that tension of really trying to hold on to emotion, really trying to keep it in, and then not being able to at the end."

Bates has earned praise for her performance in "Richard Jewell," but the film itself stirred up controversy for the way it portrays Scruggs, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter played by Olivia Wilde. In the film, Scruggs' character trades sex for the scoop that placed Richard Jewell as a suspect.

A letter to Clint Eastwood and his team sent by lawyers representing the Atlanta newspaper said that the film "falsely portrays the AJC and its personnel as extraordinarily reckless, using unprofessional and highly inappropriate reporting methods. ... Such a portrayal makes it appear that the AJC sexually exploited its staff and/or that it facilitated or condoned offering sexual gratification to sources in exchange for stories. That is entirely false and malicious, and it is extremely defamatory and damaging."

Both Eastwood and Hauser pushed back on these assertions.

"I can understand why everybody would get defensive on this thing, but the plain facts are they were the first ones to notify the public that this was going on," Eastwood told ABC News. "But I don't hold it against them. I read their paper. It seems fine. I assume that they just got wrapped up in the euphoria, like everybody else."

"I know that working in Hollywood, Hollywood takes artistic liberties in their storytelling to tell a narrative," Hauser added. "So, while I appreciate their opinions, if they think it's going to extinguish what we're trying to do with the Jewell family, they would be incorrect."

On Thursday, Olivia Wilde tweeted that she doesn't believe Scruggs "traded sex for tips," but rather, that her character was in a "pre-existing romantic relationship" with the "FBI agent who leaked false information to her."

Richard Jewell's 88 days of scrutiny and investigation ended on Oct. 26, 1996, when authorities cleared his name as a suspect. Seven years later, the actual bomber, Eric Rudolph, was arrested. Rudolph, it turns out, was wanted for a series of bombings across the country.

Bobi Jewell said the film will "finally" vindicate her son in history, although she wishes it had happened 23 years ago.

"You're making a film. You hope that you can make it so it has an entertainment value and a value of information out there," Eastwood said. "But then, all of a sudden, here's somebody who's living now, [who] has lived through the whole thing. And she feels there's some vindication in the film. That's very humbling."

Richard Jewell was 44 years old when he died in 2007 of a heart attack. Bobi Jewell said she thinks the intense scrutiny and misjudgment her son endured took a toll on his life.

"I think it killed him," Bobi Jewell said, "I really do."
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