Some years ago, I had the opportunity to ride along with Richard Jewell when he was a police officer in Pendergrass, Georgia.
A few weeks earlier, his fellow officer was gunned down during a traffic stop along a highway. It was a small department in a small town, and the shooting rattled many nerves.
My goal was simple: Chronicle a day in the life of a police officer in Pendergrass.
From the moment I met Jewell, I could tell he was distrustful of reporters. I couldn’t blame him, given everything he went through; I wouldn’t have trusted any reporters.
It was less than a decade after the Olympic Park bombing.
But, he agreed to let me ride along with him. We chatted and talked about his role as an officer. We stopped for dinner at one point.
As the evening progressed, he opened up about the reason for his fame: the Olympic Park bombing during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
That experience followed him. People he pulled over would ask if it was, in fact, him. He couldn’t just serve his community as a police officer. He was always that guy.
Even some of my colleagues criticized the story I wrote, saying it didn’t focus enough on Jewell. Nearly a decade after the Olympic Park bombing, the media didn’t want to let Jewell live his life.
The story I wrote wasn’t about Jewell. He just happened to be in the wrong place and the wrong time. Again.
Maybe it was the right place at the right time.
My experience with Richard Jewell came to mind again with the release of the new Clint Eastwood movie. Even in death, he can’t find peace. Hopefully, this time around, people won’t look at him as that guy.
A few weeks after the article published, I noticed a framed copy of the front-page article I wrote was hanging in the city hall. I wouldn’t say I developed any significant relationship with Jewell, but our paths did cross again.
He told me he didn’t trust a lot of reporters. But, he said, he trusted me.
I had just one goal: to write what I saw. I would have written the same story even if the officer wasn’t the hero of the Olympic Park bombing.