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Richard Jewell and the Atlanta Serial Bombings – 2 Lessons on Life and Leadership

What we can learn from a singular moment in American history

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1996 Olympics
The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta were bombed by a deranged killer who used nails to maximize the deadliness of the explosion.

Clint Eastwood’s upcoming movie, Richard Jewell, brings forth a flood of personal memories and lessons learned from the surreal and chaotic events that began with the bombing of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

I was a 26-year-old forensic scientist working at the nearby headquarters of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.  Early morning news reports told of a deadly explosion at Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta – a small but vibrant social hotspot created for the enjoyment of the Games’ visitors.  

I had no reason to believe I would play any kind of role in helping to solve the Olympic bombing.  After all, a case of international significance would be under federal jurisdiction.  I was working in a state laboratory helping to solve state crimes.  

Going about my business one morning, I carried out a series of forensic examinations that were a somewhat macabre but routine part of my job.  It was common for our laboratory to assist Atlanta homicide detectives by taking custody of fired bullets collected during the autopsies of shooting victims brought to the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office.  Today was my turn.

Each bullet was contained in its own envelope with the name of the victim and date of the autopsy written on the side.  As I’d done countless times before, I documented each bullet’s caliber and other specifications of forensic significance.  The purpose of the task was to provide investigators with a possible make and model of firearm that may have been used in each shooting.

One of the envelopes, however, did not contain a bullet.  It contained a nail.  On the side of the envelope was written the name of Alice Hawthorne.  

Alice, 44, was killed at the scene of the Centennial Park explosion.  Another gentleman, a camera-man, died of a heart attack running to the site. Hundreds of others were injured.

In that moment, I became a small part of history as among the first forensic experts to examine evidence in the bombing of the 1996 Olympics.  I did not realize, however, this nail would become the first of several thousands of nails I would examine over the next two years.

The Olympic bomb was constructed out of pipes containing gunpowder.  Each pipe was packed with masonry nails – long, tapered, rectangular-shaped nails used for brick or concrete applications – to increase the lethality of the explosion.

Coincidentally, I’d been recruited earlier that year by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) to fill a vacant scientist position in its Atlanta laboratory where testing of forensic evidence in the Olympic bombing was now in full swing.  Upon taking the position, I played only a small supporting role in the investigation.

That all changed on January 16, 1997 when two powerful dynamite bombs detonated at a medical clinic in Sandy Springs, Georgia just north of Atlanta.  When we initially learned of the bombs, which were far more powerful than the Olympic bomb, there was only passing suspicion they may have been the handiwork of the Olympic bomber, but we didn’t know for sure.

When my colleagues and I learned the Sandy Springs bombs were packed with nails and other components similar to the Olympic bomb, we knew we might be dealing with a deranged serial bomber who would likely strike again.  The urgency of the situation was beyond anything I could have imagined.

I now had two specific responsibilities.  The first was to analyze the carpentry nails from the Sandy Springs bombings to determine if they exhibited any microscopic manufacturing patterns that could be used to identify a maker, distributor, and possibly a suspect in possession of the same kinds of nails.  

Second, I was to gather forensic intelligence on pieces of steel plate used in the construction of both the Olympic and Sandy Springs bombs.  The steel plate was used to direct the force of the blasts toward innocent bystanders.  It was among the first indicators that the bomber likely had military experience.  

About one month after the Sandy Springs bombs, another dynamite bomb detonated outside a night club in Atlanta.  That bomb also contained carpentry nails of the same size as the Sandy Springs bombs.  So did the final serial bomb that detonated outside a medical clinic in Birmingham, Alabama in January of 1998, killing an off-duty police officer, Robert Sanderson.  

Sanderson died just as he was approaching a suspicious package near the entrance of the clinic.  The timing of the explosion led investigators to believe the bomb was manually detonated by the perpetrator, meaning he was likely nearby.

Witnesses saw a suspicious figure leaving the bombing scene in Birmingham and caught a glimpse of his license plate.  By the time authorities could locate the vehicle, it was ditched  on the side of a North Carolina road by its owner, who would not be seen again for over five years.  

His name was Eric Rudolph of Murphy, North Carolina.  

I’m glad most people don’t think much about Eric Rudolph, a disgruntled Gulf-War veteran reportedly discharged for illegal drug use.  His arrest for the bombings came unceremoniously while scrounging for food in a dumpster.  He went on to plead guilty to all of the bombs.  

The man people remember is Richard Jewell, the poor soul erroneously accused of the Olympic bombing and whose life was largely destroyed by his portrayal as a reclusive, wayward loser who planted the bomb only to make himself look like a hero by directing people to safety just before it exploded.  He was a strange, eccentric young man, which didn’t help his cause.  

The fact is that Richard Jewell’s alertness and fast action saved many people from either death or serious injury.  

It is fair to blame Jewell’s plight on investigative and journalistic incompetence.  Movie audiences can decide for themselves why things played out as they did.

My personal recollection was that all of us were under great pressure to solve the Olympic bombing, including the investigators, prosecutors, and reporters who falsely implicated Jewell.  

But the zeal to take down Jewell wasn’t just about incompetence, negligence, or malicious intent.  There was more to it than that.

Even before the Games, the U.S. was working diligently to establish credibility in combating terrorism.  The 1993 car-bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City were fresh on people’s minds. 

By 1996, federal law enforcement agencies were reinventing themselves – shifting much of their focus from criminal investigations to the prevention and investigation of terrorism, both domestic and international.

But now, on our own soil, hosting the biggest international spectacle on earth, we were attacked and had no viable suspect in custody.  

Richard Jewell became a convenient scapegoat.  He seemed naïve, awkward, and careless with his words to the point of appearing dishonest.  Not to mention the fact he was exactly in the right place at the right time to not only clear people from danger but to avoid being injured himself. 

That Richard Jewell became a suspect was entirely reasonable.  That he remained a suspect as long as he did was inexcusable.  But why did it happen?

Jewell was the victim of a classic series of compounding failures that occur in all kinds of high-stakes, high-pressure situations – affording those of us who lead and work under difficult circumstances two valuable lessons worth remembering.

Lesson #1:  Never create a fictional crisis when a genuine urgency needs your full attention.

Urgency is real.  A crisis is nothing more than a story we tell ourselves, often to our own detriment. 

When an urgent situation demands our very best, it is crucial we focus only on the job to be done.  There is no time or need to distract ourselves by a crisis we manufacture in our own heads.

The urgency in Atlanta, of course, was the need to solve the bombings and to do so accurately.  But the self-imposed pressure to save-face, break the big story, and impress the world with a dramatic close to one of the biggest investigations in human history was a crisis that didn’t need to exist.  

But to those authorities and journalists most vulnerable to the pressures of the situation, it did exist, and Richard Jewell paid a dear price for it.  He died at the young age of 44, the same age as Alice Hawthorne – the woman he was unable to save.

Those of us working behind the scenes in the forensic laboratory steered clear of the press and politics that inflamed the crisis.  Like everyone else, we felt the stress and desperately wanted to save lives by identifying the bomber, but we needed to be accurate.

We functioned incredibly well as a team.  In fact, it is remarkable how such a momentous occasion can neutralize one’s self-interests and idiosyncrasies, directing her/his full attention to the task at hand.  

The renowned clinical psychologist Abraham Maslow would have predicted it.  With his famous Hierarchy of Needs, Maslow demonstrated that among the greatest motivators of human performance is the need to feel relevant.  

During the bombing investigation, I had never felt more relevant in my life.  Yes, it was a difficult and stressful situation, but I felt like I was floating.  I couldn’t wait for work each morning, then felt disappointed when it was time to take my blood-shot eyes home for some rest.

For me, the implications for people, teams, and organizations are pretty clear. Routine is comforting, but urgency is motivating.

Lesson #2:  If you want your team to function at its very best, strategically engineer urgencies that raise everyone’s relevance.    

I was sitting about ten feet from the man who made the first forensic connection between the Centennial Olympic Park bomb and Eric Rudolph.  Although Rudolph escaped into the woods and caves of North Carolina, police searched his property.  There, they found nails.

Jerry, one of my dearest mentors and a world-class forensic examiner, was working at his microscope.  Whenever he wanted to get my attention he would clear his throat and shoot me a glance that said “get over here, I wanna show you something.”

I bellied up to the microscope and immediately knew what I was looking at.  Jerry had identified manufacturing marks on the Olympic bomb nails as being the same as nails recovered from Eric Rudolph’s property.  It was the beginning of a cascading series of events that would officially tie Rudolph to the Atlanta bombs.  

In the years that followed, my career path led me to the management ranks.  I went on to become the director of forensic science for the state of Michigan, overseeing seven laboratories and about 260 professionals before retiring my career to pursue my dream of starting my own consulting business.

In my practice as a high-stakes executive coach and leadership strategist, I’m keenly aware of the impact the bombings and the story of Richard Jewell had on me and the way I think about human behavior in high-pressure situations.  

People who enjoy the most success are those who prioritize the acceleration of their own learning, growth, and self-improvement to the point of urgency.  The effort they bring to this urgency creates feelings of purpose and relevance that build on themselves, like gusts of wind fueling a fire.  

In my view, this is the point of perfect – when a person no longer feels like they are making an effort because the effort is making itself.  Everything seems to come easy.  Energy flows; creativity rises; collaboration dominates; and even the most difficult challenges seem surmountable.

The chase to find the perpetrator of the Atlanta serial bombings was among the largest and most expensive manhunts in recorded history.  The prominence it holds in our collective memory was dulled somewhat by the horrors of September 11th, but it’s significance as a singular event in the history of American law enforcement is hard to overstate.

I wish the Atlanta bombings never happened because innocent people were killed and injured.  But I’m grateful fate gave me the opportunity to be part of the forensic team that helped the United States meet such a historic urgency.  In my opinion, our team hit the point of perfect, an experience that forever changed the trajectory of my life.

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