Penny Furr was Kathy Scruggs’ roommate when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter got a major scoop involving the investigation into the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. Scruggs had discovered that Richard Jewell, the security guard who had evacuated the area before the bomb exploded, saving dozens of lives in the process, was a suspect in the attack. The story would have tragic consequences for both Jewell, who was ultimately exonerated after being caught up in a media firestorm, and Scruggs, who spent her final years battling a lawsuit. Jewell died of heart failure in 2007 at the age of 43, while Scruggs died in 2001 at the age of 42 of an overdose of prescription pain pills.
“It bothered her,” Furr told Variety. “When things blew up, she discussed it with me. She didn’t understand how the police could have gotten it wrong. But what she printed was true. Jewell was a suspect. She never said he did it or not. She never said he was guilty.”
In 2011, a lawsuit against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution by Jewell was dismissed by the Georgia Court of Appeals, which concluded the reports about the investigation into the guard were “substantially true at the time they were published.” Nearly two decades after her death, Scruggs is back in the headlines thanks to Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell,” which portrays her as a sharp-elbowed reporter, willing to cross ethical lines to get a good story. Scruggs’ friends, former colleagues, and family members are upset about the way the film tarnishes her reputation. They’re particularly incensed by the suggestion that she slept with an FBI agent in order to get the Jewell scoop. There is no evidence to support the film’s claim that Scruggs had a sexual relationship with a source.
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“She didn’t do it,” says Furr. “I was living with her at the time. I would have known.”
“It’s frustrating,” she adds. “Eastwood says he wants to exonerate Jewell and then he takes Kathy and makes something up. He’s raking her over the coals and she’s not guilty. I’m very angry that they would destroy a good, hard-working journalist who had an incredible reputation when she’s not alive to defend herself.”
Furr wants Warner Bros., the studio behind the film, to take out the scene that suggests that Scruggs slept with a source. Lewis Scruggs Jr., Kathy’s older brother, hasn’t seen “Richard Jewell,” but he says he hopes the filmmakers will do a better job of making it clear that the movie takes liberties with the facts.
“It bothers me because she’s family, but it would bother me if they did that to anyone,” says Scruggs Jr.. “If you’re going to dramatize something, tell people this is a dramatization and it’s not based in facts.”
Scruggs Jr. says his sister was a larger-than-life figure, one who, in his telling, sounds like the perfect embodiment of a hard-charging journalist. But he also insists that “Richard Jewell” goes too far in suggesting that she would be willing to sleep with a source.
“Kathy was a pro,” says Scruggs Jr. “Any insinuation that she would trade sex for scoops is just wrong and I pity the poor fool who would suggest that. She had big hair, wore short skirts, smoked cigarettes, and cussed like a sailor. She was no saint, but she always told the truth. I’m glad she didn’t live to see her good work taken down the wrong road.”
Warner Bros. declined to comment for this story. Earlier this week, however, the company hit back at a legal letter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that suggested Eastwood’s film defamed Scruggs and falsely portrayed the paper’s reporting.
“The film is based on a wide range of highly credible source material,” the studio’s statement reads. “There is no disputing that Richard Jewell was an innocent man whose reputation and life were shredded by a miscarriage of justice. It is unfortunate and the ultimate irony that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, having been a part of the rush to judgment of Richard Jewell, is now trying to malign our filmmakers and cast. ‘Richard Jewell’ focuses on the real victim, seeks to tell his story, confirm his innocence and restore his name.”
In an email to Variety, Bert Roughton, the editor of Scruggs’ initial story on Jewell becoming a suspect, pushed back at the film’s characterization of her reporting.
“Without a foundation in fact, the film’s creators depict Kathy as a shrill and repugnant reporter who slept with her purported source to get a scoop,” he wrote. “This is reprehensible and does to Kathy what the film argues the ‘media’ did to Richard Jewell. I was Kathy’s editor on the Jewell story and found her aggressive and colorful but professional and serious about her work. Her reporting on the Jewell story was detailed and accurate and was the product of talking to a number of confirming sources over two days. Her reporting was tested in court and found accurate. It’s a shame she isn’t around to defend herself against such a scurrilous portrayal.”
Both Furr and Lewis Scruggs Jr. say that no one from the film reached out to them or to other friends of Kathy Scruggs in researching the story. For his part, Scruggs Jr. sounds resigned to the fact that he’s unlikely to get any kind of apology from Eastwood or the rest of the team behind “Richard Jewell.”
“I wish I could say it surprised me,” he says. “I don’t think anyone is going to call me up and say sorry.”
Furr, who is a defense attorney, thinks she knows how her friend would have reacted to the movie.
“She would be furious,” says Furr. “They would already have been sued. If Kathy were alive, they’d already be in court and I would have represented her if I needed to.”
“Richard Jewell” premiered on Friday.