Former FBI agent looks forward to ‘Richard Jewell,’ investigated 1996 Olympics bombing

Reporter: Lois Thome Writer: Jack Lowenstein
Published: Updated:
Still image from film “Richard Jewell” directed by Clint Eastwood.

Clint Eastwood’s film “Richard Jewell” opens Thursday. It tells the story of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta and focuses on the 88-day nightmare that thrust a man into the center of that crime.

Richard Jewell, a security guard at the park, went from hero to villain in the blink of an eye after alerting authorities to a suspicious backpack at the 1996 Olympic Games.

And we have a direct connection here at WINK News to the events that played out 23 years ago. Rich Kolko, WINK News safety and security specialist, was on the FBI team that investigated the deadly bombing. We sat down to talk with him about this movie and the blame it places on both the media and law enforcement.

“My job was overnight, command post at the Atlanta Police Department,” Kolko said.

In 1996, an anonymous call came in that said a bomb was about to explode in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, which was crowded with people for the Summer Olympics.

Enter Richard Jewell, who saw a suspicious backpack that had a 40-pound bomb inside, so he alerted police. Evacuations began, but the bomb exploded before everyone got out, killing one and injuring 111 others. Jewell was a hailed a hero for saving lives – until fingers started pointing at him.

“It’s pretty standard that the person who discovers the bomb is looked at as a potential suspect, fairly routine,” Kolko said. “You’ve got to check them out, clear them and continue your investigation.”

However, Jewell became the villain. And, as part of the FBI at the time, Kolko started watching his every move.

“When you think of surveillance, you usually think of trying to be covert, so they don’t know they’re being surveilled,” Kolko said. “But Richard Jewel would get in his car with his attorney; there would 10 FBI cars. I was in one of them several days. And, then, there were 20 media vans snaked through the streets of Atlanta to his lawyer’s office and his meetings.”

A media frenzy ensued, which made matters worse. Jewell has often been called a victim of the 24-hour news cycle.

“I think one of the big problems looking back at it now is the number of media,” Kolko said. “It was so focused. Somewhere between 10 and 20,000 accredited media there for the Olympics in addition to all the Atlanta media and everybody focused on that case.”

Jewell was also the victim of intense pressure on the FBI to make an arrest.

Following the debacle of what happened to Jewell, to the FBI, to the media, a lot of new rules were instituted from very high up at the FBI, which shut down a lot of the communication with the media.

It was the perfect storm that indicted an imperfect suspect. Richard Jewell was eventually cleared after 88 days. The film directed by Clint Eastwood retells an account of Jewell’s story.

Four others were eventually indicted for the bombing, and Jewell filed lawsuits against several media companies for defamation. Most were settled with large payouts. Jewell also received an apology from former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

“Looking forward to this movie,” Kolko said. “Among the FBI I’m still in touch with, there is a lot of consternation about how the FBI and media are going to be represented, but I hope I make it there this weekend and look forward to seeing it right away.”

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