Mayor: Bus hijacking, Peachtree Center shooting raise mental health concerns

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens answered questions about Tuesday's shooting in a food court and a bus hijacking at a news conference Wednesday, June 12, 2024.   (Ziyu Julian Zhu / AJC)

Credit: Ziyu Julian Zhu/AJC

Credit: Ziyu Julian Zhu/AJC

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens answered questions about Tuesday's shooting in a food court and a bus hijacking at a news conference Wednesday, June 12, 2024. (Ziyu Julian Zhu / AJC)

Atlanta’s mayor on Wednesday said the previous day’s shooting at a downtown food court and a deadly bus hijacking later the same day raise difficult questions, including how the courts treat repeat offenders and how local governments handle mental health care.

At an annual news conference about the city’s plan for summer safety, Mayor Andre Dickens and Police Chief Darin Schierbaum said mental health issues were a factor in the hijacking of a bus that led police on a chase spanning Fulton, Gwinnett and DeKalb counties.

After the food court shooting at the Peachtree Center, the man later arrested in the bus incident told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other reporters that he had witnessed the Peachtree Center shooter and heard those gunshots. The man, Joseph Grier, also explained to reporters in a rambling five-minute interview ways that he could have stopped the gunman at the Peachtree Center, including by taking his gun from him.

“I’m bigger than this dude, he got a little pistol that ain’t gonna do (nothing), I’ll take that from him,” Grier said to reporters.

Thirty minutes later, Grier is accused of getting on a bus, taking someone’s gun and using it to fatally shoot one person and to hold the bus driver at gunpoint, authorities said Wednesday.

The gunshot victim, Ernest Byrd Jr., 58, was taken to the hospital but later died from his wounds, police confirmed. Authorities said 17 people, including the driver, were on the bus. No one else was physically injured.

“I think mental health is at play,” Dickens told reporters Wednesday at the old Atlanta Civic Center on Piedmont Avenue NE. “The individual did comment very boldly, ‘I have bipolar, I am bipolar,’” Dickens said.

“You’re talking about an individual who knows that he has a mental health challenge, so that enters the conversation,” the mayor added. “How do we as a society deal with individuals who have mental challenges?”

Byrd’s family issued a statement Wednesday afternoon that said he was a “beloved husband, father, friend, uncle and grandfather” who was “known for his unwavering dedication to resolving conflicts and protecting others.”

“We acknowledge the complexities of mental illness and the importance of compassion,” the family’s statement says. “However, more details are needed to fully comprehend the nature of this tragedy. We urge the community to refrain from judgment and to respect the dignity of all individuals involved.”

Officials said a passenger on the bus called 911 and kept the line open during the ordeal, even as the hijacker was “giving instructions not to use phones.”

Schierbaum praised the collaboration of various agencies that reacted to the hijacking and pledged to hold the suspect accountable.

“Our concern is: was he receiving the assistance he needed?” the chief said of the suspect. “Our concern is: why did he disarm an individual and do what he did? And we’re going to hold him accountable for that.”

The bus began its chaotic ride after a fight broke out on the vehicle while it was in downtown Atlanta at 45 Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard, police said. Dispatchers received their first call around 4:30 p.m. about a gunman holding people hostage.

Peachtree Center in downtown Atlanta is seen returning to business Wednesday morning, June 12, 2024 after a shooting on Tuesday afternoon left the suspect and three other people injured. (John Spink/AJC)

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink

In the earlier incident at the food court at Peachtree Center, the gunman shot a man, a 47-year-old from Grayson, after a brief altercation with him. He also shot two sisters, a 69-year-old from East Point and a 70-year-old woman from Atlanta, officials said Wednesday. All of the victims are expected to fully recover.

An off-duty Atlanta officer shot the suspected gunman before anyone else was injured, according to police.

There appears to be no relationship between the gunman and any of the people he shot, officials said.

“It looks like it was just a mild brush up against each other that led to a scuffle that was quick and he used a gun and shot multiple people,” Dickens added. “I think that also demonstrates that he has mental challenges as well.”

Grier, the 39-year-old suspect in the bus incident, has 19 previous arrests, authorities said. The 34-year-old suspect in the food court shooting, Jeremy Malone of Morrow, has been arrested 11 times and has served time for an armed robbery, authorities said.

At Wednesday’s news conference, Dickens posed questions suggesting that the courts have been too lenient on the men.

“What is the proper way to sentence someone who has committed that many crimes?” he asked. “Let’s unwind this and look back at these individuals’ history with law enforcement.”

Reporter David Aaro contributed to this article.