The 'Wanna-Be' Hunt

IN THE ANNALS OF CRIMINAL investigations, this has to be one of the strangest chapters: there was the suspect, Richard Jewell, dressed in a T shirt and shorts, sitting on the steps of his apartment complex, looking like he was waiting for a pizza delivery. Inside, dozens of FBI agents swarmed through the two-bedroom apartment for 12 hours, removing scores of boxes of his belongings, including what looked to be a rug and stacks of videotapes. And outside on the street -- and above, in helicopters and a blimp -- were more than 100 clamoring members of the global press. If the chunky security guard isn't charged with planting the bomb in Centennial Olympic Park, killing two and wounding 111, somebody has a lot of explaining to do.

By the end of the week the FBI seemed, in fact, to be pulling back a bit, maintaining that it was looking at a number of suspects. Privately, Justice Department officials told NEWSWEEK they were worried whether they had targeted the right man. Although Jewell, 33, had been broadcast around the world as the FBI's chief suspect, there wasn't a scintilla of physical evidence tying him to the crime. And senior Justice Department officials were questioning whether they had the ""probable cause'' needed to conduct a legal search; if they didn't, any charges could be tossed out.

Inside the Justice Department, one source described FBI Director Louis Freeh as ""absolutely livid'' about the leak. With no bomber in hand, Freeh planned to start searching for the leaker, too, the source said, once he finished ""some stern discussions'' with the FBI's Atlanta office. Later, at a Senate hearing, Freeh was contrite: ""We regret ... that people's names surface as suspects who are later proven not to be connected.'' Jitters about the case may have prompted agents to give Jewell an early reading of his rights. That spooked the suspect, who earlier in the week had been cooperating and had even agreed to a polygraph test.

How did Richard Jewell become a suspect? He had started the week as a hero, the security guard who spotted the bomb knapsack near the AT&T sound tower, and had warned police. Humbly he told NBC's Katie Couric: ""I was in the right place at the right time.'' But according to a source familiar with the investigation, authorities became suspicious when he gave statements that somehow weren't consistent with surveillance-camera tapes of the tower he was guarding.

But the scrutiny intensified because Jewell appeared to fit what law-enforcement people call the ""wanna-be'' profile. It's typically a frustrated individual with a military or police background who might plan a disaster with the idea of rushing in and becoming a hero. That profile started to build when authorities received a call from officials at Piedmont College, where Jewell had been a security guard, alerting them to overzealous behavior. The Washington Post, quoting senior law-enforcement officials, reported that after Jewell left that job he told colleagues, ""If anything happens during the Olympics, I want to be in the middle of it.'' The FBI used the comment to help obtain the search warrant; some officials worry it may be too flimsy to withstand court scrutiny.

He does fit the wanna-be profile. As Jewell's checkeredjob history shows, he dearly loved playing law-enforcement officer. Born in Virginia but raised in the Atlanta area, he wrote on an employment application that his first job out of high school, in DeKalb County in 1982, was as a ""privite [sic] detective'' for an Atlanta security firm, making $10 an hour. After several guard jobs, Jewell headed north to rural Habersham County and found work as a jailer.

To say he was gung-ho doesn't begin to describe his adventures. Moonlighting as a security guard in 1990, he arrested a couple for making noise in a hot tub. But Jewell wasn't a cop. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and was sentenced to probation. Two years later Jewell was promoted to deputy sheriff. ""He'd work 12-hour shifts, go home, shower, then come back to work and ride with a day deputy,'' says former deputy Randy Bowden. ""That's how much he liked being in a patrol car.'' In July 1995 he totaled his county sedan pursuing a ""suspicious'' vehicle. Bounced back to jailhouse duty, Jewell quit.

Still, his former colleagues and acquaintances describe Jewell as a caring man, hardly someone to plant a bomb near thousands of people. That's the kind of thing they always say about suspects. But the FBI had to worry that if it could produce nothing more than a psychological profile, Jewell would turn out to be the bomb's 114th innocent victim.