National/World News : Wednesday, July 31, 1996

Close-up: `Hero' at the scene is often first suspect

by David Foster
Associated Press

Firefighters who set blazes so they can put them out. Nurses who poison patients so they can revive them.

It's called the "hero syndrome," and now comes suspicion it may have been behind the bombing at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park. A source said a security guard who first reported the bomb is the lead suspect.

Why would anyone supposedly dedicated to protect the public put lives at risk instead? Experts say people caught in the hero syndrome are driven by anger, egotism and a pathological need for recognition.

"Very often in these cases, it's a disgruntled personality," said Michael Rustigan, a criminologist at San Francisco State University who has taught homicide-investigating techniques for 20 years.

"It's someone who feels that somehow they've been wronged or overlooked," Rustigan said yesterday. "They have a very strong need for attention, and they have monstrous egos. Now they're going to show the world their importance."

A federal law-enforcement source speaking on condition of anonymity said yesterday that the investigation into Saturday's bombing at the Olympics is focusing on Richard Jewell, the security guard initially hailed as a hero for spotting a suspicious knapsack minutes before it exploded.

More injuries averted

Jewell's early warning allowed police to start clearing the area, averting more injuries. The bomb killed a woman and injured 111 other people.

Paul Miller, an FBI spokesman in Atlanta, would say only that investigators "have been questioning many individuals." Jewell, 33, said he is innocent.

If Jewell did plant the bomb, the case would fit a well-established hero-syndrome profile, experts say.

After the bombing, Jewell gave extensive TV interviews that were broadcast nationally.

"What we're looking at often is a nobody who becomes a somebody and gets his 15 minutes of fame," Rustigan said.

While everyone needs to feel appreciated, those who seek recognition through violence have much deeper problems, said Dr. Eric Trupin, vice chairman of psychiatry at the University of Washington.

"Anger is the fuel, the real driver," Trupin said. "People who engage in such acts of violence have a misconceived notion of being persecuted by the world."

Also, he said, "we often find these individuals have trouble putting themselves in others' shoes. They have a very selfish point of view."

Work out from the scene

The prevalence of the hero syndrome is hard to pinpoint, but Rustigan said it is common enough to be among investigators' first considerations.

"When bombings and murders occur at the workplace, you always start with those at the scene and work out," Rustigan said.

Any profession that honors lifesaving is prone to staged rescues. Nurses have been known to poison patients or disconnect life-support equipment, then race to help revive them.

Perhaps the most common false heroes are firefighters, usually volunteers in rural areas, who become arsonists. Craving the excitement and reward of coming to the rescue, they often are the first on the scene.

A volunteer firefighter in Hillsboro, Mo., was sentenced this month to 14 years in prison. Prosecutors said he set five fires, including one that destroyed a post office.

Three volunteer firefighters were charged this month in arsons that destroyed black churches in South Carolina, Texas and Alabama. In each of the unrelated cases, the suspect helped put out the blaze.

Self-made heroes

The law-enforcement profession has its own history of self-made heroes.

On Monday, a police officer in Gadsden, Ala., was accused of staging a June 11 rescue of a baby. Billy Vasser, 26, was first on the scene after a report that a woman had thrown a baby into a river.

Vasser jumped into the water and then emerged a few minutes later, clutching a tiny blue shirt. He said tearfully that he'd had the infant in his grasp but lost it in the strong current. No baby was ever found, and officials say they doubt there ever was a baby.

The case in Atlanta also stirred memories of a Los Angeles police officer lauded for disarming a pipe bomb during the 1984 Summer Games. Officer Jimmy Wade Pearson later admitted to planting the bomb. He resigned and was placed on five years' probation, fined $10,000 and ordered to undergo counseling.