Hero or villain of the Games?

Did the Atlanta security guard save lives only by endangering them, asks Phil Davison; PROFILE: Richard Jewell
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The Independent Online
He could pass for the late comedy actor John Candy, the jowly 17-stone guy that always sits next to you at a baseball game, downing burgers and Bud. A "regular fella", as one neighbour said, "who would give you the shirt off his back".

Like most white men in mainly black Atlanta, Richard Jewell, 33, security guard and former policeman, drove a pick-up truck, collected guns and liked to shoot duck around his cabin on the Chattahoochee River in northern Georgia. He'd watch old movies at home or go out for a couple of beers or a session of laid-back "pick-up" basketball with whomever he could find in his neighbourhood.

But was he capable of placing the bomb in Atlanta's Centennial Park that caused two fatalities and wounded more than 100 people? Was his voice that of the "white male with an indistinguishable accent" who placed a warning call before the blast? And do all this so he could find the bomb himself, save some people, make sure he was at a safe distance and get billed as an American hero?

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) seems to think so. Although the agency had not charged, or even detained, Mr Jewell by yesterday, and had said "nobody is about to be charged with a crime", FBI agents at first described him as a leading suspect.

They continued to search his apartment and country cabin for the third straight day yesterday, removing bags full of material including a rolled- up carpet. One US TV report said nails and screws of the type packed into the Centennial Park pipe bomb were found in his flat, but that he claimed to have picked them up as souvenirs after the 27 July blast. It was nails, ripping through her head from an explosive-packed pipe, that killedAlice Hawthorne, a mother from Georgia, instantly. A Turkish TV cameraman died of a heart attack as he raced to cover the bomb, only 50 yards from the Olympics' downtown press centre.

If charged and convicted, Mr Jewell could face the death penalty. If cleared, as his lawyer Watson Bryant noted yesterday, his life will never be the same. If the case is never solved, he will always be ostracised. Only if another perpetrator is found will his name be cleared; and in that case, he could rightfully reclaim his hero status and, no doubt, cash in on the talk shows, the book, the movie.

Richard Jewell, who was out of work shortly before he got a job as a security man guarding the AT&T pavilion at the Centennial Park, first alerted police to a "suspicious" green knapsack at 15 minutes before 1am on Saturday, 27 July. At 12.58 am, police received an emergency call (which turned out to be from a payphone a few hundred yards away) saying there was a bomb in the park, but that information did not filter down to officers at the park before the bomb went off at 1.27 am.

Mr Jewell, who was not injured but said later he had been "blown off my feet", had helped to push revellers back from a grassy area around the knapsack, which turned out to contain a lethal pipe bomb.

In the aftermath, the chubby, rosy-cheeked security man with the mousy moustache became a media celebrity, appearing on NBC, CNN and in major newspapers. "He looked shy. Sometimes he lowered his eyes, the way a modest man would when praised," wrote columnist Dave Kindred of the local Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper. "Saturday's hero looked like a workaday guy who'd eaten too many doughnuts and sat too long in one place." He posed for media photographs at the site of the blast, in the shadow of a damaged concert sound-and-light tower, and attended a memorial service for the victims.

While many neighbours, colleagues and others continued to defend him - some accused the FBI of seeking a "fall guy" to enhance its image during the Games - others painted a portrait of a frustrated, disgruntled, erratic former policeman who had lost several jobs through "overzealousness".

The FBI was first cautioned about Jewell by the president of Georgia's Piedmont College, Ray Cleere. Jewell had worked for a month as a security guard at the college in spring this year, but he had been advised to leave after showing "behaviour that was a little erratic". After seeing him billed as a hero after the bomb, Mr Cleere called the authorities to advise them to question him. "He had been very sporadic. Almost too excitable," Mr Cleere said.

"He was very macho and he could get very belligerent. I've seen him go from calm to angry, back to calm, and back to angry in a matter of seconds," said 20-year-old Piedmont College student Nikki Lang.

"He was always investigating everything," added graduate Patrick Young, 23. "He wouldn't even be on duty and he'd be patrolling the area. And he had a very bad temper."

College officials said Mr Jewell would write lengthy reports on minor incidents and kept pressing to go "undercover" to solve campus crime.

Richard Jewell was born in Danville, Virginia, but brought up in Atlanta where he lived with his mother, Barbara, in a middle-class flat at the Monaco Station Apartments on Buford Highway, seven miles north-east of Centennial Park. The area is known as "the melting pot" because of its growing Hispanic and Asian communities.

The apartment block became the site of a media circus this week as cameras sought to sneak pictures of Jewell on the stairwell while FBI agents searched the apartment. "Richard's just a regular fella," said neighbour Leonard Shinew, 78. "If you needed something done, who should you ask? Richard. Get my car started. Give me a ride somewhere. Regular fella."

Before the brief Piedmont College job, he worked as a deputy sheriff in Georgia's Habersham County for five years. He was demoted to jailer on 7 July last year after wrecking his patrol car by colliding with another driven by a colleague. His superiors did not believe his assertion that he was "pursuing a suspect". He had always wanted to be a policeman, and some former colleagues here say he hoped to get back into the force after the Olympics. He may have hoped his "hero" status would swing a job.

When the FBI leaked the news that Mr Jewell was a suspect, local TV channels and the rest of the media wheeled out a serious of psychologists who said he was suffering from "hero syndrome". They compared him with firemen who become arsonists so they have something to put out, or nurses who poison patients so they can revive them. There were comparisons with Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother who reported her two youngsters kidnapped but later admitted she had let them drown by letting her car slide into a lake.

"Very often in these cases, it's a disgruntled personality," according to Michael Rustigan, a criminologist cited by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It's someone who feels that somehow they've been wronged or overlooked. They have a very strong need for attention and monstrous egos. Now they're going to show the world their importance."

"Anger is the fuel, the real driver," according to Dr Eric Trupin, a psychiatrist at the University of Washington. "People who engage in such acts of violence have a misconceived notion of being persecuted by the world."

On Friday, the Washington Post quoted Mr Jewell telling acquaintances during his tenure as a college security guard: "If anything happens at the Olympics, I want to be in the middle of it." Guilty or innocent, he is now.