True confession: The day Brian Nichols fessed up

The law enforcement motorcade noisily worked its way from DeKalb County to Atlanta police headquarters. Inside one of the SUVs was the man who, for a day, was the most wanted and dangerous person on American soil.

The day before, Brian Nichols had murdered a judge and two others during an only-in-the-movies escape from the Fulton County courthouse. The killings kicked off a frenzied manhunt and wave of fear. A vicious killer was loose in our midst.

Now, Nichols was shackled, tired and dazed as it all sank in. He was also shocked to still be alive. He glanced out the window and saw crowds growing along the road. Some honked. Some clapped. Others cheered. He turned to Atlanta police Detective Vincent Velazquez.

“Is that all for me?” he asked.

Velazquez nodded. “Vel-az-quez,” the handcuffed man said, repeating it three times. “I bet people mispronounce your name all the time.”

“Yeah, they do,” Velazquez said. He sensed a budding rapport at the same time he realized: “He’s trying to size me up.”

From the AJC Archives: Suspect caputured after 24-hour reign of terror, four deaths

That Velazquez was there was pure chance. The previous day, Friday, March 11, 2005, he and a handful of others were called in to process the courtroom of Judge Rowland Barnes, the first of three murder scenes. The investigators locked the courtroom doors for several hours as they worked.

"It was surreal to stand over a Superior Court judge still sitting in his chair with a bullet hole in his head, a shell casing on his robe," he recalled. Court reporter Julie Ann Brandau's body lay a few feet away.

As long as Nichols was being held at FBI headquarters in DeKalb, Velazquez worried that the feds would big-foot APD on the investigation. Hours after his escape, Nichols had surprised and killed David Wilhelm, an off-duty U.S. Customs agent.

The Atlanta detective figured Nichols was ready to talk, and he wanted to be the guy to do the interview. So he persuaded the FBI to transport Nichols to the APD headquarters in the old Sears building on Ponce de Leon, where he could be videotaped. And Velazquez insisted that he ride with the suspect in the SUV.

On the way, Velazquez used one of his bonding strategies. He called his lieutenant and ordered a number 3 from the McDonald’s menu, a Quarter Pounder with a sweet tea. He figured Nichols hadn’t eaten and let him overhear his phone conversation. Then, acting like he was impolite in not including Nichols, Velazquez asked, “Oh. Would you like something?”

Sure, Nichols said. He’d have the same.

The scene outside the interview room at APD was chaotic, with brass from many agencies crowding in to see what the prisoner would say. FBI agent Cynthia Myers went in the room with Velazquez, and Nichols started talking.

I called the APD detective last week to ask about the debriefing.

“The most memorable thing is, the first thing he said to me was, ‘I want to give my condolences to the families of those killed in combat.’”

The transcript bears Velazquez out, almost word for word.

Nichols was being retried on charges that he raped his former girlfriend, and the trial was going badly for him. The defendant knew he’d likely go away for a long time. He had nothing to lose.

Nichols started the interview saying the Fulton County jail, where he had been for six months, reminded him of slavery. “And as you know, slaves have a tendency to rebel. I felt that it was my right to declare war.”

But, he added, “there was no civilian, um, no collateral damage, which sometimes happens in a war.”

In the transcript of the interview, Velazquez’s favorite words are, “Mm-hmm.” He knows to stay out of the way when a suspect gets rolling.

“I saw judge as, um, the master,” Nichols said.

What kind of master? Velazquez asked.

“Slave master,” Nichols responded. “That’s why he was targeted.”

“My intention in there was,” he continued, “was to kill him.”

Velazquez was struck by Nichols’ matter-of-fact manner.

But he did sense shame when he pressed Nichols to explain shooting Julie Brandau. “I got caught up in the moment,” he finally said.

Nichols’ escape, or at least the courtroom rampage, was well-planned. He had been coming to the courthouse for two weeks, and he figured, rightly, that no one was watching the security cameras. In a holding cell, he overpowered Deputy Cynthia Hall and grabbed her pistol. The attack left her brain-damaged.

He crossed over the sky bridge to the old courthouse, where he subdued Barnes’ staff before sneaking into the courtroom and killing the judge and court reporter in front of a handful of horrified spectators.

After the shootings, he encountered a deputy rushing across the bridge. What's going on? the deputy asked. Nichols said it was some sort of emergency. The escapee then made his way down a stairwell and opened a door onto the street, where he was confronted by Sgt. Hoyt Teasley. Nichols killed him.

“I was able to neutralize the target,” he said. As he left the scene of the crime it was just after 9 a.m.

He ran across the street “to acquire transportation.” He carjacked an SUV and took off. Over the course of 15 minutes he carjacked four vehicles, leading cops on a wild, chaotic chase where they were always one vehicle behind.

Finally, he encountered AJC reporter Don O'Briant in the garage across from the CNN Center and ordered him into the trunk. O'Briant made a split-second decision that probably saved his life. He refused and got pistol whipped. Nichols drove off in his green Honda Accord.

Nichols told Velazquez he figured that if he parked the car in the bottom of the garage he’d throw off police. He was right. Authorities searched all day for the Honda, not finding it until 13 hours later, still in the lot.

“I don’t think he thought that far ahead,” said Velazquez, looking back on the events. “It was, ‘Whoa, I’m out. Let’s keep rolling.’”

Velazquez notes that Nichols was an athletic guy who liked playing basketball. In b-ball, you move quickly but keep options option — look left, pass right.

“He had the dexterity and quickness of a basketball player, the strategy of a chess player. He was playing chess, then basketball; chess, then basketball.

“He wanted Don in his trunk because it’s leverage, he has a hostage. That’s the chess. If it all goes to hell, he has an option.”

Nichols put on a blue blazer belonging to the much smaller O’Briant and walked away from the garage. He went down an alley and then up the hill next to the old AJC building. An editor walking in to work remembers seeing a well-built black man walking past him wearing a blazer and no shirt. “So,” he thought, “that’s what the kids are wearing these days.”

Nichols walked two blocks east to the MARTA Five Points station, blending in with crowds attending a basketball tournament. He asked a woman for $2 for the train and then he was on his way north to the Lenox station. It was about 9:30 a.m.

It is this point that has always intrigued me, and why I first called Velazquez. Nichols’ whereabouts for the next 12 hours have remained largely unaccounted for all these years later.

He said he got off MARTA and went to a hotel about 100 yards away. He went into an open room and pretended to be a customer, telling a maid he was getting ready to leave. He then stayed in a room watching the manhunt on TV for much of the day.

Several hours later, he walked down Lenox Road near the mall and saw a police squad passing. He put his hand to his face, pretending to be on a cellphone as the cops went by. He then found a storage area in a parking garage and hid until dark. About 10:30 p.m., he tried to kidnap a woman in a nearby apartment but ended fighting with her boyfriend.

A block south, he came across Agent Wilhelm working on his new home. Nichols told Velazquez he shot and killed the agent because he drew his gun. The detective doesn’t believe that. He thinks Wilhelm knew the score with the dangerous fugitive and lunged at him, trying to stop Nichols. “That was the kind of guy (Wilhelm) was,” he said.

The wanted man left Wilhelm to die, stole his truck and drove it to Gwinnett County to an apartment complex he had been to before. There he sneaked up on woman named Ashley Smith and forced her into her apartment. It was there, after hours of conversation about God and the meaning of life, that Smith convinced the desperate man to give up.

As he gave his three-hour confession, Nichols presented himself as a soldier, speaking in military terms. Countering him, Velazquez continually circled back to get Nichols to admit that he knew right from wrong. The detective wanted to head off a future insanity defense.

Not long after they finished their burgers — Nichols thanked him twice — Velazquez started going in on the motive. Nichols sensed where he was going.

“Are you asking me if it was premeditated?” the prisoner asked.

“Yes,” the detective said. “You went in there with the intent of killing Judge Barnes?”

“Yeah,” said Nichols.

Velazquez thinks Nichols knew he would be be sentenced to life in the rape case, and instead of committing suicide in an effort to make the woman feel sorry for reporting him, he decided to leave a path of carnage to make her feel regret.

“If he was 100 percent honest, it was a classic case of: ‘I’ll show you what you put me through,’” Velazquez said.

And the 33-year-old killer made a prediction when Velazquez mistook his age as 39.

“I’ll probably be on the table (for lethal injection) by the time I’m 39,” he said.

In 2008, a jury hung on the death penalty. Nichols now lives in isolation in the bowels of a Georgia prison.