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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Richard Jewell, hero, 1962-2007

The last time I heard from Richard Jewell was almost exactly a year ago. I had written a column about Gov. Sonny Perdue’s decision to give Jewell official recognition for having saved lives when he spotted a bomb placed in Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympic Games by Eric Robert Rudolph. Jewell helped hustle people away from the bomb before it detonated — putting himself in danger while doing so.

The irony was that even though he was a true and real hero, he was robbed of the opportunity to be the hero because two days after the bombing, the AJC fingered him as the No. 1 suspect.

Jewell sent me an e-mail after the story ran, thanked me for it and offered to give me an interview. I was holding that offer in reserve until new news broke and there was a reason to interview him. But that news never came. Instead, there was the news today that he died today at the age of 44, apparently due to complications from diabetes.

I didn’t know Jewell well, but I knew him well enough to know that he was a decent man who was thrust into a spotlight he never wanted, despite what the AJC would have you believe.

The last time I saw Richard Jewell was in the tiny police chief’s office in Luthersville, a little one traffic light town south of Atlanta. Jewell was working as an officer there, and had saved a baby’s life with his quick thinking. And even though he was a hero yet again, by then he was also a man who had been battered by the media in ways you and I will never, ever be able to understand.

His boss, literally, had to order Jewell to talk to me.

On the Drudge Report website, the headline for the story on Jewell’s death was: “The Man The Media Murdered.”

There’s no small degree of hyperbole there. But in its essence, it’s also true. One day the guy is being interviewed by Katie Couric on “The Today Show” and the next, he’s being compared in the AJC to Wayne Williams, the convicted serial child killer.

I got the distinct feeling that the incident robbed Jewell of something elemental. No matter where he went, no matter what he did, no matter how long he lived, he told me that he knew forever and always he’d be remembered as the guy who was a suspect in the bombing. And he was right. The New York Times story on his death doesn't identify him as a hero in the first paragraph, it identifies him as the guy who was falsely accused of planting the bomb.

Jewell was only able to be a hero for two days. Then the headlines started and the FBI swooped in to falsely accuse him, and his world was turned upside down.

''For that two days, my mother had a great deal of pride in me — that I had done something good and that she was my mother, and that was taken away from her,'' Jewell said last year. ''She'll never get that back, and there's no way I can give that back to her.''

There was no way we could give him back what he lost, either.

But at least we can remember him for what he was:

Richard Jewell — the hero of 1996 Olympic Games.

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