Suspect in Atlanta Court Killings Now in Custody

by | Mar 12, 2005 | Press

Judge, Two Others Fatally Shot Friday; U.S. Customs Agent Found Dead Today

By RUSS BYNUM, AP DULUTH, GA. (March 12) – A man accused of killing three people at a courthouse was captured Saturday after taking a woman hostage at an apartment complex, officials said. The man is also a suspect in the fatal shooting of an immigration agent hours earlier.

“Brian Nichols is in custody. He turned himself in without incident. Everybody is safe,” said Officer Darren Moloney of the Gwinnett County Police Department. Moloney said Nichols was armed and had a female hostage when he was caught. The woman was not identified by authorities, and it was unclear what relationship she had with Nichols.

Nichols, 33, was taken into federal custody. FBI Spokesman Steve Lazarus said Nichols is a suspect in the courthouse shootings and the fatal shooting of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent found dead early Saturday. The agent was discovered shot to death at an upscale townhouse complex, and his blue pickup truck, pistol and badge were missing.

After Nichols’ arrest, a crowd of people across the street from the apartment complex cheered as a black sports utility vehicle drove away, escorted by multiple police cars with lights flashing and sirens on. The courthouse shootings Friday set off a massive manhunt and created widespread chaos across Atlanta, where schools, restaurants and office buildings locked down amid fears that the suspect might strike again.

Nichols was being escorted to his retrial on rape and other charges Friday when he allegedly overpowered a court deputy, taking her gun, before killing three people: the judge presiding over his case, a court reporter and a deputy who confronted him as he escaped the courthouse. The deputy from whom he stole the gun, Cynthia Hall, remained in critical condition Saturday. He then allegedly pistolwhipped Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Don O’Briant and stole his car. Throughout Friday, police said they were looking for the reporter’s green Honda Accord, and highway message boards across the state issued descriptions of the vehicle. But later that night, the car was found in the parking garage where Nichols stole it. Police said Nichols attempted more hijackings, and it was suspected that Nichols had stolen another vehicle from the same parking garage.

Surveillance tape showed him going to the garage’s lowest level, wearing a jacket that CNN said belonged to O’Briant. O’Briant wrote in Saturday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he had just parked his car when a young man pulled beside him and asked for directions to a nearby mall. Before O’Briant could oblige, the man pulled a gun and said, “Give me your keys or I’ll kill you,” then told him to get in the trunk. O’Briant refused and started to run. “I figured it was better to be shot at while I was running than to just stand there and be executed,” O’Briant wrote. The man pistol whipped him as he tried to escape. O’Briant fell, but got up and ran again. “I scrambled into the street, waiting for the shots to come, but they didn’t come,” he wrote. “I guess it just wasn’t my day to die.”

On Friday, carloads of law enforcement officers in riot gear swarmed the buildings and parking lots surrounding the north Atlanta condominiums where Nichols once lived, residents said. “I’ve just kept my doors locked,” said James Spice, 18, whose home is around the corner. “I always lock up, but I’m just making sure. My mom called and told me to.” At the state Capitol, just down the street from the site of the shooting, flags flew at half-staff as lawmakers prepared for a rare Saturday session. Legislative leaders had considered canceling their weekend “family day,” after the shooting, but decided to go ahead with it.

The killings came less than two weeks after a Chicago federal judge’s husband and mother were slain in their home and set off a fresh round of worries about the safety of judges, prosecutors and others involved in the criminal justice system. On Thursday, the judge and prosecutors in Nichols’ case requested extra security after investigators found a shank – or homemade knife – fashioned from a doorknob in each of Nichols’ shoes, prosecutor Gayle Abramson said. District Attorney Paul Howard did not say what measures were taken to beef up security, but Assistant Police Chief Alan Dreher said no other officers assisted Hall with taking Nichols to court.

In the rape case, Nichols was accused of bursting into his ex-girlfriend’s home, binding her with duct tape and sexually assaulting her over three days. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said Nichols brought a loaded machine gun into the home and a cooler with food in case he was hungry. Nichols had been dating the woman for eight years, and she tried to break up with him after he got another woman pregnant, Hazen said. Though he is accused of imprisoning the woman and raping her, Hazen said his client claims she invited him over and they had consensual sex. Nichols faced a possible life sentence if convicted in his retrial on charges of rape, sodomy, burglary, and false imprisonment, among others. His earlier trial was declared a mistrial on Monday when jurors voted 8-4 for acquittal. “My guts tell me he faced a greater chance of conviction in the second trial,” his attorney, Barry Hazen, told a local television station. Prosecutor Gayle Abramson said she believes Nichols, who had been jailed since Aug. 23, was certain he would be convicted and was willing to kill to avoid it. Hazen described his client as a “big, strong guy” with a laid-back personality. “Even the larger deputies I don’t think would be any match for Brian Nichols,” Hazen said.