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Atlanta’s bombing fallout

With the impending arrival of thousands of law enforcement officers from around the nation and the world to serve as part of the security grid blanketing the Summer Olympic Games, Atlanta police Major John Gordon observed, “When all is said and done, this city might be the safest place on the planet.”

But when all was said and done, no place or event on the planet could be declared totally safe from the threat of harm, and the Atlanta Olympics proved no exception.

The explosion on July 27 of a crude pipe bomb in Centennial Olympic Park did more than just shatter the crowd noise and amplified rock music at the popular tourist spot. It claimed the lives of two people, resulted in injuries to more than 100 others and, in the end, left police agencies and news organizations with public-image black eyes.

 

Led by former Dallas Police Chief Bill Rathburn, who headed security for the Summer Games in Los Angeles in 1984, officials began weaving the security net in Atlanta shortly after the city was chosen to host the Olympics.

Although terrorism has been a critical Olympic security concern for more than two decades, a major concern in Atlanta was the city’s high crime rate, which was the highest in the nation in 1995. Its per-capita violent crime rate ranked second, after Newark, N.J. Still, Atlanta Police Chief Beverly Harvard said she was confident in her officers’ ability to maintain order.

Members of the unprecedented security cohort  nearly 30,000 Federal, state and local officers in all received week-long crash courses in Georgia law and venue-specific security procedures. Seven hundred Federal officers were cross-deputized as Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents. Another 100 were assigned to the Atlanta Police Department, which also supplied training.

Human efforts were to be supplemented by sophisticated surveillance techniques that included cameras mounted on light poles and a blimp that served as an airborne observation post.

 

There is nothing like a bomb when it comes to abruptly altering a security agenda. The Olympic Park bomb, which authorities said was hidden in a knapsack, exploded just minutes after officials received a warning call that eventually was traced to a nearby pay phone. “You have 30 minutes,” the caller said ominously.

The early-morning blast was blamed for the deaths of two people  a Georgia woman who died instantly and a Turkish television cameraman who suffered a fatal heart attack after the explosion. More than 100 people were injured in the blast. 

The explosion was all the more unnerving to security officials and the public in that it occurred just 10 days after the mysterious crash of a TWA jetliner off Long Island, N.Y. The Atlanta Police Department, for its part, came under fire when it was reported that dispatchers were slow to react to the telephoned warning.

As the search for suspects began, suspicion first fell on members of Georgia militia groups, whom authorities had been scrutinizing as potential security threats in the months leading up to the Games. In late April, the FBI had arrested three men with ties to militia groups who allegedly plotted to make dozens of pipe bombs and launch a “war” against the United Nations and the so-called New World Order.

 

Only three days after the explosion, The Atlanta Journal reported that Richard Jewell, a security guard who was the first to notice the suspicious knapsack, was the prime suspect in the case. Jewell was quickly transformed from a modest hero who had steered people out of harm’s way to a criminal suspect whose every move was monitored by the FBI and the news media.

A former Habersham County sheriff’s deputy, Jewell, 33, had had a spotty career as a law enforcement officer and security guard. Some former employers said he was nudged out of jobs because he was overly zealous in carrying out his duties.

In 1990, Jewell was charged with impersonating an officer stemming from an incident at the Atlanta apartment complex where he lived and worked as a security guard. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, and was sentenced to probation and ordered to undergo psychological evaluation. He reportedly told co-workers that he would emerge as a hero during the Games, but gave no reason why.

From the start, Jewell denied any involvement in the bombing. He was never arrested or charged in the case, but his life was turned upside down, he said. His pickup truck was seized, as were his guns and other items from his apartment, which investigators scoured for clues. Jewell’s mother made a tearful, public plea to President Clinton to end the constant surveillance.

Finally, after 88 days of feeling “like a hunted animal,” Jewell was formally cleared as a suspect. A letter written by U.S. Attorney Ken Alexander, which was hand-delivered to one of Jewell’s attorneys on Oct. 26, noted that the Jewells had “regrettably also endured highly unusual and intense publicity that was neither designed nor desired by the FBI.”

At a news conference held shortly thereafter, Jewell hinted that he intends to file suit against The Atlanta Journal and NBC News, which first named him as the suspect, and possibly the FBI and the Atlanta Police Department.

Shortly thereafter, Jewell reached a settlement with NBC News for an undisclosed sum, thus averting the threatened lawsuit.

The FBI, which is continuing its investigation but has not disclosed information about possible suspects, has not issued a formal apology to Jewell, and Jewell apparently doesn’t expect to receive one. “They’re more interesting in saving face, covering their own rear ends,” said G. Watson Bryant Jr., one of Jewell’s attorneys.

FBI Director Louis Freeh ordered two investigations into the handling of Richard Jewell as a suspect. One will examine the tactics used by agents in their initial questioning; the other will try to find out the source of the leak that made Jewell’s status public.

The ongoing investigation quickly appeared to bear fruit after the FBI opened a hot line offering a $500,000 reward for information leading to the bomber. More than 1,500 people called the hot line in the first two days it was operational, including Ted Militiades of Atlanta, who gave the FBI a photograph he took of someone at Centennial Park wearing a military-style backpack similar to the one that concealed the bomb.

The FBI has also created a Web page on the bombing, located at www.fbi.gov/centbom/centbom.htm.

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 31, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]