In the newspaper business, they say nothing beats shoe-leather reporting. That means getting out there on the scene. Knocking on doors. Pulling documents from the courthouse. Getting reluctant people in the know to talk.
A classic case of such shoe leather was my Atlanta Journal-Constitution colleague Bill Rankin’s four-minute-and-45-second walk in August 1996 from a row of pay phones in downtown Atlanta to Centennial Olympic Park. In that hike, Rankin traced the path from where a bomb threat was called in to 911 to the site of the deadly explosion that occurred in the early morning hours of July 27, 1996.
Rankin’s reporting, his five-block walk, and his basic understanding of physics — that a person can’t be in two places at once — ended with him writing a front-page story headlined, “Timing indicates Jewell didn’t make bomb threat.”
It was the first public break in the case that went Richard Jewell’s way. And it gave Jewell’s defense team an opening to fight back against federal authorities who were investigating the security guard as the possible Olympic Park bomber.
Jewell’s story is well-known and tragic, a cautionary tale for both law enforcement and the media. Jewell was famously made infamous by this newspaper after we reported that he, the man who found the pipe-bomb-filled backpack at the crowded park, was being investigated as the one who planted it. The feds believed he fit “the profile of a lone bomber” and was a wannabe cop who longed to be a hero.
The story set off a media feeding frenzy that placed Jewell in a crucible where in the space of a few weeks, he went from unknown guy to modest hero to suspected villain to wronged man. He died in 2007 at age 44.
Now there’s a new movie, “Richard Jewell,” directed by Clint Eastwood that takes to task both the feds and the media. This newspaper in particular has been much-criticized for breaking the story that the FBI was investigating Jewell, and for not revealing its sources. After 15 years in court, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution prevailed because it printed the truth, as ugly and as messy as it all was.
Eastwood’s movie has been disparaged by some for portraying AJC reporter Kathy Scruggs as a stop-at-nothing journalist who’ll even have sex with a source to get a story. The movie, however, does a great job of portraying Jewell as a salt-of-the-earth fellow who just wanted to do his job. It is wonderful to see him get his due.
The newspaper? We’re the bad guys who will roll over anyone for an exclusive. The movie is heavy-handed on that end, and I sort of get it. Movies based on the truth usually synthesize characters and invent scenes for dramatic effect. It’s playing to the cheap seats. Nuance and fact get in the way of a two-hour celluloid romp.
But the thing that’s really irksome (apart from the portrayal of Scruggs) is that the movie goes all out to stick to its cartoonish notion that this newspaper went all out to stick it to Jewell. Any sense that we can be fair, forget it. It doesn’t work with the script.
In the movie, it is defense attorney Watson Bryant who walks from the park to the phone booth, looks at his watch and says, “He couldn’t have done it,” realizing that Jewell would’ve had to make the nearly five-minute walk in one minute. It’s a turning point in the film that changes the momentum of the case in favor of Jewell.
One thing is true. It was a turning point for Jewell. But it was brought about by an AJC reporter, not a defense lawyer. I know, I know. We’re the bad guys in bed with the feds. It runs counter to Eastwood’s preconceived ideas to show the paper breaking stories that help prove Jewell’s innocence.
Here’s how it really went down. Rankin, who’s about as square a fellow as you’d ever want to meet, was assigned to the AJC’s ongoing coverage of the park bombing after the Olympics ended. He had wondered about the timing of the 911 call and the timing of when Jewell found the backpack. As Rankin started his assignment, he says he got a mailer from his pastor, Larry Burgess, who then headed Clairmont Hills Baptist Church. Burgess talked about how Jewell couldn’t have done anything like that.
“I’m always skeptical,” Rankin recalled. “But this was the first account from someone I know who had talked to him (Jewell). It had a profound effect.”
In fact, Jewell’s mother, Bobi, watched kids at Sunday school, including Rankin’s.
A couple of days into his stint, on Thursday, Aug. 8, authorities released documents saying the 911 call was made at 12:58 a.m. at a pay phone at Baker and Spring streets. “There is a bomb in Centennial Park, you have 30 minutes,” said the caller.
The pipe bombs in the knapsack exploded at 1:20 a.m.
So, Rankin needed the other piece of the puzzle: Where was Jewell at that time?
He knew that Georgia Bureau of Investigation Agent Tom Davis, who was stationed in the area, had said that Jewell pointed out the suspicious green knapsack near a sound tower during a concert.
Rankin was hoping Davis would talk. So on Friday, Aug. 9, he called. And called. And called. Rankin avoided the official channels — calling the GBI spokesman — because he figured he’d get brushed off with a “no comment.”
Finally, on the seventh or eighth call, Davis picked up.
“It was clear he knew exactly what I wanted. He knew how important it was,” Rankin recalled. “It was like he wanted to tell me. I suppose he knew Jewell didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Davis told Rankin he called the bomb squad right after Jewell pointed out the knapsack. “The log says that call was made at three minutes to 1,” Davis told him. That’s 12:57 a.m. Remember, the 911 call five blocks away came at 12:58 a.m.
Rankin asked Davis if he had waited several minutes before making the call. “No way,” the GBI agent said.
“I hung up the phone and said, ‘Holy crap,’ ” Rankin recalled.
He then did the walk from the phones to the park. It was a brisk walk on uncrowded streets, certainly far less jammed than they were during the night of the bombing.
Rankin’s story was a life preserver to a drowning man.
“The next morning the Jewell camp was thrilled. They finally had a truly positive news break,” according to a new book, “The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle,” written by former U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander and journalist Kevin Salwen.
According to the book, Jewell’s criminal defense lawyer Jack Martin (who was cut out of the movie) decided to “use the AJC story to create good theater and flip the narrative. On Aug. 13, he summoned the media to the bomb site. Then, in a perfect made-for-TV moment, Martin led the journalists to the bank of pay phones outside the Days Inn, while dramatically timing the walk.”
“News organizations finally had a galvanizing event that portrayed Jewell as the possible victim.”
I called Martin on Thursday. Rankin’s story “was the first big break for us,” he said. “That was the first definitive fact that would have reflected the investigators were onto the wrong man.”
Early on, investigators knew the timing meant that Jewell couldn’t have been at both places at once and that he wasn’t a “lone bomber.” They then trotted out a theory that he had an accomplice. But the tide had turned for Richard Jewell. The public started to believe he wasn’t the terrorist. A couple of months later, Alexander delivered a letter to Martin clearing Jewell of anything to do with the crime.
Years later, Eric Rudolph was arrested for a string of deadly bombings, including the one at Centennial Olympic Park. He is serving life imprisonment.
Rankin, who was taking care of his 100-year-old mom when I spoke with him, remains extremely proud of his Jewell story. He has been the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s lead legal affairs reporter for decades, writing 4,674 stories over 30 years. He takes on both prosecutors and defenders, not to mention judges, investigators and all others who play a part in this thing called justice. He tells it straight, and goes wherever the story leads. He once had to flee his home under guard after getting death threats from a prisoner’s family. It’s a tough business sometimes. But it’s in his DNA: His father was a longtime editor at the paper.
“This is a story where the pressure was intense,” Rankin said. “We didn’t want to get beat. But we wanted to be fair.”
He continued, “You don’t get to write stories like that very often.”
He’s so glad he did. Almost as glad as Richard Jewell’s team.
Bill Torpy, who writes about metro Atlanta for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, joined the newspaper in 1990. He has covered politics and government, the police, the courts and the justice system.