Sometimes — not often, but sometimes — life outdoes art. Plots that would have seemed too operatic, too far-fetched, too jaw-dropping for real life actually happen.
There are both entertainment and very real lessons for us in such stories.
On Thursday, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly is going to use the magic of Zoom — see box for details — to bring together co-authors Kent Alexander, who lives in Atlanta, and Kevin Salwen, whose home now is in Hawaii, to talk about their book, “The Suspect,” which looks at the extraordinary story of Richard Jewell, who discovered a huge bomb set to go off at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and then spent several never-indicted months convicted in the public mind as having planted it.
Mr. Alexander was the U.S. Attorney in Atlanta then; among many other accomplishments since he’s also the president of the Temple in Atlanta. (That’s the synagogue, more formally named the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, that was bombed by white supremacists in 1958.) Mr. Salwen, who is now in Hawaii as is his wife’s business, farming seaweed that can be fed to cows to reduce the methane they produce — another fascinating story, but not for today, but “I can write from anywhere,” he said — ran the Wall Street Journal’s southeast bureau during the Olympics.
Mr. Salwen, on the phone from Hawaii, set the stage.
“The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta was the largest peacetime event in history,” he said. “I believe that still is true. One hundred and ninety-seven countries were invited to send athletes, and 197 countries did sent athletes. It became a massive world event, and world party. And the center of this party is a new park — Centennial Park — the first new park created in an urban setting in the United States in a quarter of a century.”
The Olympics go well. “It’s Day Eight, and it’s just a wild party,” Mr. Salwen said. “Everything is going on — swimming records are being set. The U.S. wins its first women’s gold medal in gymnastics, when Kerri Strug does her spectacular vault on her damaged ankles and her coach, Bela Karolyi, carries her to the dais. Amanda Beard, the swimmer, is lighting up the pool, wins a silver, and carries her teddy bear to the podium. Michael Johnson, in his bright gold shoes, becomes the first man in Olympic history to win both the 200 and the 400 meters in the same Olympic games.
“And at 1 o’clock in the morning, on this eighth day, a security guard named Richard Jewell finds a backpack in a dark spot under a bench. It’s a dark green backpack, in the middle of the park, where roughly 500,000 people have come from all around the world.”
Mr. Jewell, who had wanted to be in law enforcement but had been unsuccessful at retaining a job in the field, reported the abandoned backpack, as protocol demanded. By that point in the Olympics, there already had been 104 “bomb events,” as they were called, Mr. Salwen said. Give the huge numbers of people at the Olympics, it wasn’t surprising that some of them had shed belongings. None of those 104 bags had held bombs, but “the reality is that the Olympic games bring in the crazy and the weird as well as the talented and the striving,” Mr. Salwen said.
So, as they had been mandated to do, members of the bomb squad showed up. They weren’t happy. “The deputy commander of the park was summoned, and he said to Richard, ‘What are we going to do? Blow up some kid’s Mickey Mouse toy?’ But Richard kept saying ‘What are we going to do about this situation?’ And the deputy commander said, ‘What situation?’”
So although they thought it unnecessary, members of the bomb squad set to work. First, they asked bystanders if they owned the backpack or had seen anyone leave it there. That didn’t work. Meanwhile, it’s crowded and noisy in the park. “The music is blaring,” Mr. Salwen said. “There’s a r&b band playing. The band is called Jack Mack and the Heart Attack.
“At this point, the bomb squad goes to Step 2 in the protocol. At this point a perimeter has been set up, and two guys crawl up to the backpack. They break protocol. They decide to open up the pack. You never do that. But one guy opens it and looks in. With his penlight in his teeth, he opens the cinch and sure enough he sees a timing device. He sees wires and pipes. He crawls away; as Richard Jewell later described it, he was ‘as slow as effin’ molasses in the wintertime.’
“Richard was a colorful talker,” Mr. Salwen added parenthetically.
“And then they help to create another perimeter. Richard races up and down the tower” that had held reporters and the band’s lighting crew. “They call the people who will defuse the bomb. They will be there in about 20 minutes.
“And then during that time, at 1:20 a.m., the bomb explodes.
“It is massive. It has pipes stuffed with explosives and wrapped with masonry nails.
“One woman, Alice Hawthorne, is killed immediately when she gets a piece of shrapnel through her brain. A Turkish cameraman has a heart attack running to the scene.” The cameraman, Melih Uzunyol, also died. “But because of Richard Jewell’s work, only those two people die.
“For the next few days, Richard Jewell is perceived as a hero. He does interviews with CNN, with USA Today — which you may remember was big at the time — with Katie Couric, America’s sweetheart, then on the Today show. She said ‘You are a hero,’ and he said ‘I was only doing my job. The officers are the real heroes.’”
The perception of Mr. Jewell as a hero was short-lived. “When he went back home, what he didn’t know was that the FBI was following him home. He had become the main suspect.” The FBI agent, who really was named Don Johnson, believed, based in part on work by the behavioral science unit at Quantico, that Mr. Jewell was “a hero bomber; he had attempted to draw attention to himself so that he could be seen as having saved scores of lives.”
As this is going on, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs, whom Mr. Salwen describes as an unlikely combination of a Southern good ol’ girl and Rosalind Russell in the 1940s screwball classic “His Gal Friday,” refused to be outdone by the visiting journalists. She was going to get a scoop — and she did. She broke the story.
Eighty-eight days later, Mr. Kent — Mr. Salwen’s friend and the co-author of the book, who will speak at the panel — “went to the FBI and said ‘What do you guys have? Do you have enough to arrest him or charge him?’ They said ‘Let us bring him in for one last interview.’ Kevin said that would be fine, but they had three weeks to either arrest and charge the guy or clear him.’”
The FBI had nothing. Mr. Jewell never was charged — but his reputation was gone.
He went on to have a more-or-less normal life; he lived on a large scale, was able to work in law enforcement, and died young — but most people who remember his name have some vague assumption of guilt attached to it.
Eventually, the real bomber, Eric Rudolph, was caught, charged, cried, and convicted; he’s in the Supermax prison in Colorado. “His neighbors are people like Ted Kaczynski and El Chapo,” Mr. Salwen said. “Rudolph is a virulent anti-Semite, who used to refer to his television as the Electric Jew,” because of course Jews control the media. “He is an anti-government racist,” Mr. Salwen said. “He was in many ways what you would expect of a white supremacist, New World Order type; he lived in the woods, completely off the grid, and decided that he would chose the Olympics as his first target because, as he later wrote, it represented a manifestation of John Lennon’s disgusting song ‘Imagine.’” (As John Lennon wrote, “Imagine all the people, living life in peace…”)
Mr. Salwen and Mr. Alexander decided to write the book together “because I wondered how this case went so horribly wrong, and Kent came to it because he felt that the real story needed to be told, and that it could teach us some cautionary tales.
“It is a story about the rush to judgment, about what happens when media and law enforcement go awry. Those are two of the most powerful institutions on the planet, and when they are wrong together, either accidentally or for nefarious purposes, they can be extraordinarily damaging.”
The story has many lessons and implications for now, and Mr. Salwen and Mr. Alexander plan to discuss them. Among them are “the question of tikkun olam, of justice, writ large in terms of this bombing, and also writ small in terms of a human being’s life. If one person’s life is worth the entire world, and when the entire world has made a decision about somebody based on inappropriate activities by both law enforcement and the media, then something truly has gone wrong.”
Mr. Salwen and Mr. Alexander have taken disturbing facts and combined them into a fascinating story, a prime example of how creative nonfiction can not only meld a plot and characters into a page-turner, but also how those stories can provide us with an unexpected lens on our culture and ourselves.
Who: Journalist Kevin Salwen and attorney Kent Alexander, co-authors of “The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, The FBI, The Media and Richard Jewell, The Man Caught in the Middle”
What: Will talk about their book for the JCC U of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly
Where: On Zoom
When: On Thursday, November 19, at 11 a.m.
How much: $10 for JCC members; $12 for nonmembers
How to register and get the Zoom link: Go to jccotp.org/adult-jcc- university or email firstname.lastname@example.org.