Rudolph caught, but Jewel's life still tarnished

You'll hear the word "closure" a lot with regard to the Eric Rudolph case, and if you have no idea who Rudolph is, you're probably living a wonderful life. He's the humanoid who bombed Centennial Park at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, bombed a lesbian night club, bombed two abortion clinics, killed two people, maimed a nurse, and injured 120 folks unlucky enough to be caught on planet Earth in the same tiny sliver of lifetime as this unbridled loser.

Now Rudolph has cut a deal with federal officials under which he will go to prison for the rest of his natural life but avoid the death penalty. He also already has led authorities to more than 250 pounds of buried dynamite. It was a good trade for the government.

But closure? Well, let's run that one past Richard Jewell.

Remember that name, Richard Jewell? You may, and there's a reason for it: He is the man who was identified, first privately by federal investigators and then publicly on the screaming front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, as the No. 1 suspect in the Olympic bombing case.

It was an almost unbelievable story, incredible in its irony. On the night of the bombing, a sweltering July post-midnight party in the park that turned into a terror siege, Richard Jewell had emerged as a hero -- a security guard who had alerted fellow workers to the abandoned backpack that wound up being a bomb, moving them away from it before it detonated; a man who helped evacuate panicky Olympic visitors from the park in the hazy wake of the tragedy.

Only later did the word leak out that investigators had decided Jewell was suspicious more than heroic. Only then, a few days after the blast, when the newspaper named him as the top guy on the FBI's list, did people begin to realize that, now that they thought about it, Jewell almost perfectly fit the role of a madman bomber.

After all, Jewell, a portly type who took a bad photograph, lived a loner's existence in an apartment with his mom. And he was a wannabe cop, a security guard with designs on getting into a police academy and maybe joining the force someday. He was obviously starved for attention; otherwise, he wouldn't have been so willing to do those TV and newspaper interviews that he granted with such immediacy in the aftermath of the bombing and his "help" in Centennial Park.

It all added up. The thing got rolling. The worldwide media had a ready-made villain. Again, incredible story: The guy who pretended to be helping people that terrible night was really an American who bombed the park to begin with. It had an awfulness that just rang of some kind of truth.

And it was, of course, a complete crock.

The case against Richard Jewell was bad from the start; the FBI sent Jewell's attorney a letter within three months of beginning its investigation to tell him Jewell was not a suspect. But it didn't matter out there in the public and in the media, where Jewell already had been tried and convicted by the people who needed their vengeance sooner than the government was able to provide.

It took authorities seven years, in fact, before they were able to bring in Eric Rudolph, the man who actually appears as the kind of soulless cretin that people wanted to believe Richard Jewell to be. Rudolph, a man with reported ties to a white supremacist religion that is anti-gay, anti-Semitic and anti-abortion, had managed to evade capture for much of that time by living in survivalist style in the mountains of western North Carolina.

His ability to elude the agents searching for him was reported, along with his identification as a person quite possibly connected with the Olympic tragedy and the other bombings as well. But he wasn't caught, and he wasn't caught; and in the meantime, Richard Jewell's was really the only name out there.

When Rudolph was brought in two years ago, Jewell's lawyer, Lin Wood, didn't sound too hopeful that the arrest would bring to an end the damage done to Jewell's life. "The portrayal of Richard Jewell as the bomber was so intense," Wood said at the time. "Richard is always remembered as the person who bombed the park and is never remembered as the man who reacted heroically that night to save so many lives."

Wood commented again on Friday, saying that it wouldn't be difficult to imagine Jewell's feeling of "final and total vindication" at hearing the news of Eric Rudolph's arranged guilty plea. Imagining it will have to do; Jewell, his life wrecked beyond all reason, has long since gone underground.

He lives in an undisclosed Georgia town now, a place where, some might say fittingly, he finally realized his dream of becoming a police officer. He has moved forward in his life. But closure in the Olympic bombing case? That's a word for just about everybody but Richard Jewell, the most notorious hero of the age.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com