FROM FAME TO INFAMY

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Richard Jewell had run to the limelight, and now he was frying in it. After a bomb exploded in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, killing one woman, injuring 111 and blowing a hole in the middle of the Olympic festivities, Jewell, a park security guard, had spoken with the press about his fortunate discovery of a bag containing the three-pipe device. He hadn't said he was a hero, but others were happy to, and for a while he achieved almost gold-medalist status as an instant inspiration.

By midweek Jewell, 33, was in a different media glare as the man whom FBI officials had identified as a suspect in the bombing. He sat on the steps outside the modest Atlanta apartment he shares with his mother and his dog while FBI agents searched the premises for evidence. Nearby, the guardians of the press kept vigil on the Rush Limbaugh weigh-alike with the forlorn white mustache. Technically Jewell has not been charged and is only a suspect. But tabloid journalism's hope for heroes had given way to its need for villains. SAINT OR SAVAGE?, the New York Post's front page mused. The answer waited while reporters and lawmen turned his life upside down for clues. Saturday, the feds returned for another sweep of his apartment.

Whoever the culprit, officials said, he was no mad-genius Unabomber type. Only one of the three pipe bombs in the duct-tape-clad package actually detonated. Match this criminal klutziness with a Southern accent and down-home demeanor, and the composite portrait was enough to inspire a spasm of dark humor. "The Una-doofus," joked Jay Leno. "Unabubba," a federal agent said.

Others in Atlanta were accused of substandard performance. The police took 10 minutes to alert officers on the scene after they had received the 911 call from a male voice with no discernible accent announcing, "There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have 30 minutes." No one wanted to take responsibility for giving guard credentials to Jewell, who has worked for the law and, by some accounts, outside it. The FBI was steamed that Jewell's name had been leaked, perhaps by local officials. That may have stymied the bureau's interview strategy designed to trip up bomb suspects who are small-time law enforcers and may have a "modified Munchausen complex"--a need to spark a potential tragedy from which they can emerge as heroes. The publicity may have prevented this line of questioning of Jewell. FBI Director Lewis J. Freeh, says an agent, is "beyond angry on this one."

For most of his life, Jewell has drifted through jobs ranging from private detective to manager of a TCBY yogurt shop. But for five years in Georgia's Habersham County, Jewell worked for the sheriff's office, first as a jailer, then as a squad-car deputy. In 1990, according to published reports, he made an arrest when he was not certified to do so. Jewell then reportedly pleaded guilty and, after a year's probation, had the conviction erased from his record. Last summer he was reprimanded and demoted again to jailer after the squad car he drove butted the car of an officer from a nearby county. Shortly thereafter, he voluntarily resigned.

Jewell has no job now except for waiting, as the FBI examines articles seized from his home, especially his tools, which may offer evidence of a bomb's assembly. "Tools make peculiar marks," says an agent. "You can match them like a fingerprint." Voiceprints are much less exact, so it cannot be determined with scientific accuracy that Jewell's voice does or does not match the 911 caller's. The FBI is also said to be questioning some of Jewell's friends. Still, a week of sleuthing had unearthed no immediately incriminating evidence.

Jewell has proclaimed his innocence. Two of his neighbors made a related point last week when they brandished hand-lettered signs that read STOP MEDIA HARASSMENT and INNOCENT TILL PROVEN GUILTY. Either way, the anonymity of Richard Jewell is over. If he is cleared, his story will probably be turned into an outrage-of-justice TV movie. If convicted of conspiracy, he can be the subject of an Oliver Stone film.