Davis with Richard Jewell before bombing at 1996 Olympics
Anyone who happened to be watching “Outside the Lines” on ESPN July 24 may have seen a familiar face talking about an event that took place 25 years ago.
Tom Davis was featured in a segment about the 1996 Centennial Park bombing that took place during the 1996 Olympics held in Atlanta. Davis is a retired GBI agent who was with Richard Jewell when the backpack containing the bomb was discovered July 27, 1996.
Davis said a representative of ESPN contacted the Georgia Bureau of Investigations Headquarters in Milledgeville to contact him. The GBI then got in touch with him to find out if he was willing to talk to ESPN about the events of 1996.
Davis’s response was he was willing to talk about what happened, but he did not want to go to Atlanta. The agent saidhe was contacted by one of the show’s directors, Max Brodsky, who worked out the details for them to come to Gray for the interview.
Davis said he suggested Butler Hall as a venue, and all agreed. The interview took place June 29 with an ESPN sound and cameraman in Gray. He said Brodsky conducted the interview over Zoom.
“They were able to look at Butler Hall’s website. It worked well,” the agent said. “It’s a great facility.”
The agent said the interview took about 45 minutes to an hour.
The “Outside the Lines” segment focused on the impact the bombing had on the Olympics. In addition to Davis, sportscaster Bob Costas, Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Johnson, members of the band Jack Mack and the Heart Attack that was playing on stage that night and some spectators at the scene also recalled what took place. The ESPN segment was approximately 15 minutes in length.
Davis worked with the GBI for 31 years. He was Special Agent in Charge when he retired from Milledgeville Headquarters in 2013.
He recalled that his assignment for the 1996 Olympics was Assistant Venue Commander working under Capt. Tommy Tomlinson, who was the Venue Commander at Centennial Park.
Davis’ recollection of the events of 1996 is vivid. He said he was taking a last walk around the park before ending his workday when he was approached by Jewell. The security guard asked for his help with some kids throwing bottles at the NBC tower.
“He said he had no arrest powers and asked me to come with him. While walking around the tower, Richard saw the backpack and asked me how we should handle it,” the agent said.
He said he did not know Jewell well but had seen him around and knew who he was.
Davis said the GBI had already dealt with several backpacks that people had just forgotten. He said they had a protocol, which was to first ask people around it if the backpack belonged to them.
The agent said the backpack was under a bench that was on a grassy knoll. He said the knoll was a common spot for watching shows. After they did not find anyone to claim the backpack, he called it in as suspicious.
Davis said FBI and ATF agents responded, but he was still not thinking it was anything. He said the agents approached the bag. One cracked the end open and looked in with a little flashlight.
He pointed out that the way suspicious items are handled in reality is nothing like is portrayed in movies.
Davis said one of the agents stated that he was not sure but thought he could see a pipe and some wires. That agent asked to borrow Davis’s cell phone to call the Render Safe Team that would commonly be thought of as a bomb squad.
“We set up a small perimeter with help from other GBI agents and Georgia State Troopers and started clearing people,” he said.
Davis said Tomlinson came to the scene and brought Bill Hutchings, who would later become the Homeland Security Secretary and over the GSP.
“I was in the process of briefing them when the bomb detonated. We were about 18 yards from it,” he said.
Davis said the bomb was loaded with nails and screws and most of the injuries were due to the flying shrapnel. He said one lady died after being hit with a big piece of the shrapnel. The victim was later identified as 44-year-old Alice Hawthorne of Albany. A Turkish cameraman who was running to the scene, Melih Uzunyor, also died of a heart attack.
The agent said he was knocked to the ground. When he got up, he said he called the command post to report what happened.
“Help came quickly,” he said. “I advised Richard to write down everything he remembered, and he did that.”
After the bomb went off, Davis said his only active involvement in the investigation was being interviewed. He did say after the investigation it was believed that the bomb was intended to harm first responders. He explained that was because of the placement of a metal plate in the backpack to direct the force of the explosion and the timing of a 911 call placed to the Atlanta Police Department.
Davis grew up in southwest Georgia and worked with the GBI in Statesboro before taking a supervisor’s job in Milledgeville in 1995. He was Assistant Agent in Charge when he retired.
He and his family have lived in and around Jones County since 1995. He just completed the construction of a new home in Haddock so he and his wife can be close to grandchildren.
After retiring from the GBI, he started his own company, Insight Training. He said he contracts with agencies like the training center in Forsyth and enjoys teaching.
Davis pointed out the movies he has seen about the Centennial Park bombing are not even close to being accurate about how law enforcement handled the event.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years,” he commented.
It is interesting to note that Davis was the only one in the ESPN segment who mentioned the name of Richard Jewell.
Davis said he did not watch the July 24 airing of the segment. He said the director sent him a link to it, but as of the July 29 interview, he had not watched it.
A timeline complied of the events of July 27, 1996, begins with the 911 call to the Atlanta Police Department that reportedly took place about 20 minutes before the 40-pound pipe bomb exploded at 1:25 a.m.
Centennial Park was closed after the explosion but was reopened July 30, 1996. That was the same day Jewell was named as a suspect in the bombing. After being scrutinized by law enforcement and villainized by the media for three months, the U.S. Justice Department announced Oct. 26, 1996, that Jewell was no longer a suspect.
Eric Rudolph was named as a suspect Feb. 2, 1998, and indicted by a grand jury Nov. 15, 2000, after committing three more bombings. Rudolph was captured and arrested in Murphy, N.C., May 31, 2003.
He pled guilty to the Atlanta and other three bombings April 13, 2005. Rudolph was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences plus 120 years in prison Aug. 22, 2005.
Jewell died Aug. 29, 2007, at the age of 44 due to complications of heart disease and diabetes.