Thursday, November 7, 2019

Upended Lives at Olympics Provide Drama and Richard Jewell Revelations in "The Suspect"

In the next few weeks, Atlantans and media will be buzzing about the new nonfiction book "The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, The FBI, The Media, And Richard Jewell, The Man Caught In The Middle" by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen.

This page-turning volume, a triumphant feat of journalism, research and writing 23 years in the making, encapsulates thorough, at times revealing, details about Jewell, the hero security guard who moved hundreds of concertgoers out of harm's way before a hidden bomb he found detonated at the Atlanta Olympic Games. If contributors from Jewell's inner circle achieve their goal, folks everywhere will at last proclaim the praises of Atlanta's least celebrated hero.

The book also puts a magnifying glass on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporting team, notably Kathy Scruggs, as well as a specific FBI agent, Don Johnson and his colleagues, whose work in their respective fields forever impacted Jewell's and his mother Bobi's lives.

Monday afternoon a review copy finally landed on my Midtown front porch, and I delighted in devouring its 368 pages that are equal parts crime drama and unflinching critique of Federal investigations and investigative journalism.

An enclosed press release affirmed my hunch the book was optioned by Warner Bros. for the upcoming Clint Eastwood film "Richard Jewell" set for a world premiere at AFI Fest in Los Angeles on Nov. 20 (with Dec. 13 as the national release day).

One "reveal" of Alexander and Salwen's work is that the film's screenplay, at least in the movie trailer, is close to verbatim from their research of the FBI's interrogation of Jewell.

Juxtaposed with this fact, the book also reveals that Eastwood's screenwriter Billy Ray took at least one major liberty in the script: Jewell's attorneys aptly never allowed the hero guard to record the bomber's 9-1-1 call script, "There's a bomb in Centennial Park ... you have thirty minutes!" (I've previously taken Eastwood and his screenwriter for "American Sniper" to task for playing fast an loose with Olympic facts, the all-time most-read posts of this website).

"The Suspect" is a great read with relevance for anyone passionate about or in law enforcement, news media, Olympic organization, historians (of Atlanta, the USA, true crime or the Games) and the millions of people who experienced or have interest in the Centennial Olympics of 1996.

Make that a must read.

All of the one-time Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) staff and volunteers will appreciate and remember scores of long-forgotten Games-time intricacies.

Between the book's end pages -- noticeably featuring a hand-drawn bomb site map by Jewell and a Miranda rights form he reluctantly signed during his sideways interrogation (cue the "Richard Jewell" film trailer with John Hamm's stern voiceover) -- readers may be mesmerized about "The Suspect" by the numbers.

Following their 1996 roles that introduced them to their subjects, Alexander and Salwen spent more than five recent years pouring over "tens of thousands" of legal documents, 170,000 ACOG archive pages and reports, thousands of photos, dozens of cases of personal effects, 1,200+ news articles and hundreds of video clips.

They also conducted "187 original-source interviews" and read dozens of books or other materials, initially logging 2,139 footnote entries later converted to narrative source notes on their ABRAMS Books editor's suggestion. The years-long FBI investigation of Jewell and other dead-end leads exponentially adds to the mind-bending facets of the research.

The book project unfolded at a venue the authors dubbed "the cottage," which I envision resembled a "war room" like those seen on any crime drama investigation.

Notable details uncovered and documented include:
  • How Jewell's parents named him after auto racing legend Richard Petty, while nicknames the FBI adopted for too-blurry images of the actual bomber included "Blob Man" and "Goatee Man" (only one of them proved to be the man, Eric Rudolph). Beer-chugging witnesses earned the sobriquet "Speedo Boys"
  • Richard Jewell's secret lasagna recipe he cooked and served to a law enforcement peer from Centennial Olympic Park, only to later learn his invited dinner guest was wearing a wire for federal investigators
  • Which national TV reporters initially proclaimed Jewell a hero then later apologized in months-later follow-up interviews intended to rightfully exonerate him in the public eye (I had no idea Jay Leno apologized after his initial monologue quips comparing the guard to Nancy Kerrigan's attacker)
  • The Atlanta Magazine reporter who agreed to a date with Richard, only to later embarrass a crestfallen Jewell with an unflattering cover story
  • Which local radio station paid a $50,000 settlement after using Jewell's likeness in an unsanctioned outdoor billboard campaign around the song "Freebird"
  • Summaries of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Games-time "Peach Buzz" columns including the time Donald Trump lost his wallet at The Cheesecake Factory in Buckhead, and AJC non-Olympic reporters including Scruggs, who proudly reported on "distinctively non-sports coverage areas of Security, Neighborhoods and Olympic Transportation" in their "SNOT Pod" newsroom space
  • The downward spiral Scruggs endured years after her Games reporting, including shocking outdoor incidents involving a taxi she commandeered in the buff. 
Several Olympians provided interviews for the authors, including Michael Johnson, who recalled a hospital visit to injured bomb survivors before competing in second gold medal sprint.

Gold medalist Janet Evans, who witnessed the bomb explosion during an in-park TV interview, also garnered frequent mentions in the text (though it is not clear yet that she was interviewed for this book).

Personal revelations for this reader included notes on how Jewell attended the same Olympic baseball game (Cuba vs. Nicaragua) for which I held a ticket and cheered with friends. A day later, some of the federal agents of "The Suspect" watched over the India vs. Pakistan Olympic field hockey game at which I helped Pakistan fans hold aloft a giant green and white flag (my Minnesota State University-Mankato junior-year roommate spotted me on TV while watching at home with his family ... in Lahore).

I learned the most from the chapters about Rudolph -- his capture, prosecution and revelations about his post-Games movements were not on my radar in the early 2000s, though Rudolph's two other despicable attacks in Atlanta were. The book brought to mind vivid memories from news coverage of both events. The bomb he detonated in Birmingham was not "new" to me, but the authors' framing of the scene inspired chills.

Much of the Jewell narrative (until the final chapters) felt more like a fleshed-out version of previously seen reports, like a Titanic-sized version of Marie Brenner's extensive Vanity Fair article after she shadowed Jewell's legal team for months.

But I appreciated the details that at once revealed Jewell's relatable, jovial, every man nature while cracking me up, like this description from page one:
Hopping off the [MARTA] train, Jewell descended International Boulevard, the lime-green lanyard that held his credential swinging across his ample belly.
Been there, done that!

A much bigger revelation: the AJC assigned interns to interview Jewell or help report updates from his residence after Scruggs and colleagues broke their scoop under the screaming headline "FBI suspects 'hero' guard may have planted bomb."

I can't imagine receiving a federal subpoena to testify about either of my internships.

Readers also learn the less-reported aspects of the guard's later-career heroics, including touching stories of a CPR rescue and how he reflected on each anniversary of the night that changed his life. The love of his life provided some of the best heartfelt details, underscoring her own (and other Jewell inner circle members') "... hope that one day Richard Jewell would be remembered by all as a hero."

Writing of the book's biggest revelation -- which took my breath away -- would be an unforgivable spoiler (though I predict other book reviewers will not hold back).

It's fun to learn new vocabulary while reading, and the words bonhomie, putative, and lithe joined my lexicon thanks to Alexander and Salwen. And I was surprised that a book touted as a "gripping story of ... the advent of the 24/7 news cycle" did not include more mid-'90s context from the trials and tribulations of Tonya Harding and O.J. Simpson (especially the former's five-ringed connections).

Meanwhile, I found just two glaring errors and one minor one in "The Suspect."

First, the authors referred to the "seven-building Olympic Village complex" President Bill Clinton and the First Family visited. Come again?

In the "Blue Zone" of Georgia Tech's west campus -- where I was an ACOG-employed Village housing manager adjacent to the Olympic Aquatic Center -- we had more than 20 buildings including the dorms built to eventually house Team USA and delegations from Russia, Egypt, Indonesia, Germany, the U.K. and dozens of other national Olympic Committees including the heavily-fortified Israeli team quarters.

My sister worked in the distant "Red Zone" north of 10th Street, which had several buildings visited by Spain's Royal Family. And over in the "Green Zone" was my Games-time housing in a frat house (one of about 20 used by NOCs).

I don't recall what the brand new towers along the Downtown Connector were named ("Blue Zone?") but it was fun attending the opening press conference with ACOG in spring 1996.

Maybe the authors only considered the "International Zone" around Georgia Tech's Ferst Center for the Arts to be the "Village complex" they described. As Hillary Clinton has proven many times, forgiveness is key, and perhaps it takes a village to get these Georgia Tech and former Georgia State University towers counted. I forgave the miscount.

An even less intrusive-to-my-eyes flub was the writers' mention of a James Brown concert at a bar named "Tabernacle."

No doubt, they meant the festive church-turned-concert hall that's still rockin' and rollin' next to the Atlanta Ferris wheel installed years later.

I'm less forgiving and not forgetting the page on which the authors recounted memories of the host committee's COO, who famously slept in his office at The INFORUM, the ACOG headquarters building which overlooks Centennial Olympic Park, some nights of the Games.

According to Alexander's and Salwen's interviews, when the bomb exploded just after the A.D. Frazier conked out in his office,
He leapt from bed ... [and] ran to his balcony barefoot and stared at the chaos and emergency lights below. Bodies were strewn across the bricks of the park. His mind flashed to the movie Saving Private Ryan, with its vivid, brutal scenes of battle. Rattled, Frazier spun and hurried back inside his darkened office, switched on the desk lamp and dialed Payne. 'Billy, we've got a problem.
I know Frazier to be wicked smart, but not clairvoyant nor one who could predict future film scripts -- the problem with this recollection, as documented in "The Suspect," is that Steven Spielberg's epic war picture did not debut until 1998.

Sidebar: I also know A.D. did not sleep on the couch by his office 24 hours after the bomb, because I tearfully fell asleep on that sofa during my own visit to overlook the park in the early hours of July 28, 1996. The sodas in his mini-fridge provided comfort as well.

Atlantans have the opportunity to meet "The Suspect" authors at the Atlanta History Center on Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m.

They'll be joined on stage by former AJC Senior Managing Editor Bert Roughton, a book source who wrote this Sunday AJC opinion piece about his colleague Scruggs, as well as event moderator John Pruitt, formerly of WSB-TV. Tickets are $5 for members and $10 for non-members. For more information visit this link.

On the invitation of the ABRAMS Books publicist, I delivered questions tailored for each author and will follow-up this post with their Q&A responses. What questions do you have for this remarkable writing duo? Please post them in comments and I will try to ask at the AHC event.

Book and author images via ABRAMS. Book cover photo via Bobi Jewell with jacket design by Devin Grosz. Author photo by Allison Shirreffs. Other photos via Associated Press, DP/AFP/Getty, ESPN and GeorgiaEncyclopedia.org. 

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