Bus hijacking suspect in Atlanta was witness to Peachtree Center shooting

39-year-old man talked to AJC reporter at downtown scene prior to bus chase

On Tuesday afternoon, situated amid dozens of police officers, caution tape and a myriad of local and national news organizations, a man appeared tense and nervous while discussing a spate of gunfire he said he had witnessed moments earlier.

Wearing a tattered shirt, 39-year-old Joseph Grier stood at an intersection across from Peachtree Center, where he spoke to reporters about the shooting that injured four people in downtown Atlanta — about 30 minutes before he is accused of leading officers on a high-speed chase in a hijacked Gwinnett County transit bus and killing someone onboard.

“I was scared, because I didn’t have a gun,” Grier told an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter at the scene, just before 4 p.m.

Grier casually walked through the crowd and spoke to a few people either observing the aftermath of the shooting or waiting for the lockdowns to be lifted in the area.

Agents from multiple agencies investigated the shooting at the Peachtree Center food court Tuesday.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

During his rambling five-minute interview, Grier mentioned that he hid at a nearby Wells Fargo and heard several gunshots. He also discussed his extensive criminal record — he had 19 previous arrests, officials said — and ways he said he could have taken care of the situation.

“I didn’t have a gun so I can’t just say I’m gonna kill you real quick. If you are close enough, I can grab your neck and rip your throat. ... At that point, we just made sure he didn’t go around the corner ... I’m bigger than this dude, he got a little pistol that ain’t gonna do (expletive), I’ll take that from him.”

About 30 minutes later, dispatchers got their first call about a gunman who was holding 17 people hostage on board the bus, and that a firearm had potentially been discharged.

Shortly after boarding, GBI officials said Grier got into a fight with a man who pulled out a gun. Grier allegedly took the gun away and started threatening passengers with it. He then shot the man, the GBI said, and ordered the bus driver to flee the scene while continuing to threaten the passengers.

Police said the chaos began at 45 Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard in downtown Atlanta. It would have taken Grier less than 10 minutes to walk there from Peachtree Center.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens confirmed that the driver was held at gunpoint during the entire chase, which spanned Fulton, Gwinnett and DeKalb counties. Video showed the bus weaving through traffic on the interstate, sometimes hitting other drivers, as a slew of police vehicles were in pursuit.

At about 5:15 p.m., Grier was taken into custody after the bus was stopped on Hugh Howell Road near Tucker. When officers cleared the bus, they found a man with a gunshot wound, police said. Ernest Byrd Jr., 58, was taken to the hospital but later died from his wounds, police confirmed. Authorities said there were no other injuries.

Ernest Byrd Jr. was allegedly shot and killed by a man who hijacked a Gwinnett County transit bus Tuesday.

Credit: Family Photo

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Credit: Family Photo

“We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of our beloved husband, father, friend, uncle and grandfather. He was a man known for his unwavering dedication to resolving conflicts and protecting others,” the Byrd family wrote in a statement. “We acknowledge the complexities of mental illness and the importance of compassion. 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.”

Grier’s mug shot showed he was wearing the same clothing as he was at The Hub at Peachtree Center, where Jeremy Malone is accused of shooting three people Tuesday before being shot by an off-duty Atlanta police officer.

Joseph Grier, who is accused of hijacking a bus Tuesday in metro Atlanta, said he was a witness to the shooting at Peachtree Center about an hour earlier.

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Credit: Channel 2 Action News

Seemingly jittery at the shooting scene, Grier talked aimlessly with reporters and had trouble staying on point. He mentioned owning different kinds of weapons, stating he couldn’t have a gun, and talked about protecting himself. At times, he was difficult to understand.

He described the suspect as “talking crazy” and said the man started to run once an officer approached him. Grier, who said he was in “extreme mode,” added that additional gunfire broke out and then the “cops swarmed him.”

Later, when asked about the spelling of his name, Grier oddly mentioned two actors with the same surname, even suggesting they might be related to him. “They might be my family, but my mom’s white, my dad’s Black.”

On Wednesday morning, more than a dozen people were having breakfast inside the same food court, a striking contrast from the previous afternoon when dozens of people fled the area in a panic.

Police said Malone entered around 2:15 p.m. Tuesday and shot a 47-year-old man from Grayson after a brief altercation. He then shot two sisters, a 69-year-old from East Point and a 70-year-old from Atlanta, officials said Wednesday. Two victims were taken to Grady Memorial Hospital in critical condition, while the other two were taken to Emory Midtown Hospital. They are expected to survive.

Malone was among those taken to the hospital but had been released into APD custody as of Wednesday morning, according to the GBI, which has been asked to investigate. He is a felon who has served prison time for an armed robbery and has been arrested 11 times, officials said.

Joseph Grier can be seen pointing at the scene of a shooting at the Peachtree Center in downtown.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Grier is also a felon, having been behind bars as recently as last year, authorities said.

He was convicted of public indecency and child molestation between 2005 and 2006. He went on to serve time in state prison from October 2011 until November 2014 following a conviction for aggravated assault, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections. Then, in 2017, he pleaded guilty to public indecency after officials said he exposed himself to a woman on a MARTA train in DeKalb.

He was also arrested by Atlanta police in June 2019 on aggravated assault and aggravated battery charges, Fulton court records show. He stayed in jail until September 2020. In February 2023, Grier was again arrested and charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in DeKalb, jail records show. He was released three months later.

Fulton jail records show he is being held on 30 charges in connection with Tuesday’s chaos. In addition to murder, he has been charged with numerous counts of aggravated assault and kidnapping, in addition to hijacking a motor vehicle.

The case against Grier was initially going to be tried in Fulton County, but will now be moved to Gwinnett. District Attorney Fani Willis asked to be recused because an employee in her office was one of the passengers on the bus, a letter to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Council of Georgia reveals.