From AJC archives: 26-hour reign of terror ends after 4 killings

Customs agent killed at home he was building in Buckhead; Hostage talks her way to freedom and calls 911; Nichols gives up peacefully in Gwinnett

This article originally appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 13, 2005.

Brian G. Nichols, on the run after a bloody shooting rampage that left a state judge and three others dead, gave up peacefully Saturday morning, waving a T-shirt to surrender to a squad of heavily armed police swarming a Duluth apartment complex.

He gave up after a woman he had held hostage for more than seven hours apparently persuaded him to let her go. She called 911, bringing an end to what an FBI official described as a 26-hour "reign of terror."

Within the first half-hour of what would become a two-day manhunt, Nichols shot and killed a judge and a court reporter and wounded a deputy at the Fulton County Courthouse, before killing another deputy in the street and carjacking at least four people downtown, officials said. Saturday morning, shortly before his arrest, police discovered the body of a federal agent they believe Nichols killed Friday night.

Even as authorities celebrated Nichols' capture, they faced questions about whether missteps prolonged his flight from justice.

Atlanta police on Friday morning launched a massive search for a green Honda Accord, which they said Nichols stole and then drove from a downtown parking lot. More than 12 hours later, the car was found --- parked in the same garage from which it had been stolen. Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington acknowledged Saturday that officers never searched the garage.

During this time, Nichols slipped through a police dragnet downtown by taking a northbound MARTA train. Police set up no security checkpoints at MARTA stations in their search for the fugitive.

After arriving in Buckhead, authorities say, Nichols attacked two people Friday night on Lenox Road and killed an off-duty immigration and customs agent in a house he was building. Saturday morning, Nichols drove to Duluth and held the woman hostage in her apartment near Gwinnett Place Mall, authorities said.

Police said the woman talked to Nichols about family and religion and persuaded him to release her.

Nichols faces a slew of charges from Fulton County, Gwinnett County and the federal government. Federal and state prosecutors can seek the death penalty in murder cases that involve the death of law enforcement agents.

"We are determined that we will bring the murderer of these people to justice, " said David Nahmias, who heads the U.S. attorney's office in Atlanta.

Nichols, 33, had been on trial in Fulton County for rape and other violent felonies before he allegedly grabbed a deputy's gun Friday morning.

The mayhem began about 9 a.m. on the eighth floor of the Fulton County Courthouse. Nichols, changing into civilian clothes for his retrial for rape, overpowered and shot Cynthia Hall, a 51-year-old deputy guarding him.

He ran down the hall to the chambers of Judge Rowland Barnes, where he held several people hostage and overpowered another deputy, taking his gun as well, according to police. Nichols then walked into Barnes' adjacent courtroom and, without saying a word, shot the 64-year-old jurist to death. He then shot and killed Julie Ann Brandau, 46, the court reporter.

He ran from the courthouse, police say, and killed Fulton County sheriff's Sgt. Hoyt Teasley, 43, who tried to stop him outside the building. After commandeering several cars, including two from employees of The Atlanta Journal-Constititution, Nichols disappeared.

Police launched the search for the Honda, which police said Nichols stole from a Journal-Constitution reporter after pistol-whipping him.

Police said that after Nichols escaped downtown, he took MARTA to Buckhead. About 10:40 p.m. Friday, he allegedly accosted a woman who was heading to her boyfriend's apartment on Lenox Road, held a gun to her back and forced his way into the apartment unit. There Nichols got into a scuffle with the boyfriend, pistol-whipping him before running off.

Sometime after that, Pennington said Saturday, Nichols entered a house under construction on Canter Road in Buckhead. He allegedly shot to death David Wilhelm, 40, assistant special agent in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Atlanta. Wilhelm, who was off duty, was in the house, which he was constructing with his wife. Friends said he was planning to spend the weekend putting in bathroom tile. Wilhelm recently relocated to Atlanta from Virginia after a promotion.

After killing Wilhelm, authorities say, Nichols took the agent's blue 1994 Chevrolet pickup truck, his gun and his badge, and fled. Authorities were unsure whether Nichols knew Wilhelm was a federal agent.

Two carpenters discovered Wilhelm's body about 6:30 a.m., and authorities began searching for Wilhelm's stolen truck.

Earlier, Nichols had driven the truck to Duluth. At about 2 a.m., a woman was parking her car outside the Bridgewater Apartment Homes when Nichols put a gun to her back. He forced his way into her apartment, said Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter.

The woman, whom police would not identify, was initially tied up. Nichols eventually let her go after she spoke to him about religion and her husband's death four years ago, Pennington said.

About 9:50 a.m., Gwinnett emergency dispatchers received a frantic call from the woman and Gwinnett police SWAT teams closed in. About 11:30 a.m., police approached the apartment. They found Nichols watching television broadcasts, which showed police, FBI and other law enforcement officers surrounding the apartment, said Gwinnett police Chief Charlie Waters. Nichols waved a T-shirt out the window to signify he wanted to surrender. Within minutes he was in handcuffs.

Soon afterward, he was placed in an unmarked SUV and driven south, first to FBI Atlanta headquarters for booking and then to Atlanta City Hall East, to be booked by Atlanta police. At the apartment complex, FBI headquarters and City Hall East, crowds gathered beyond police cordons to cheer Nichols' capture.

Billy Camp, 36, of Atlanta watched as Nichols was led into Atlanta homicide headquarters for booking.

"You can never bring back the lives that were lost, " Camp said. "For that, he's got to pay the price."

Ernie Cash of Duluth, standing at the Bridgewater apartments, spoke more bluntly.

"I wanted to kill him myself, " Cash said.

Nichols --- expressionless, handcuffed and wearing a T-shirt and tan pants --- was shuttled via caravans of unmarked government vehicles to various booking centers. Everywhere he was guarded by dozens of agents and police, many carrying automatic rifles. Pennington said Nichols had been read his rights and offered an attorney.

"He is cooperating, " Pennington said.

Chris Adams, head of the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender, tried unsuccessfully to visit Nichols at Atlanta police headquarters and advise him of his rights.

"We were denied access to see our client, " said Adams, whose office represents indigent defendants facing state death penalty charges. "We have a statutory mandate to represent people facing the death penalty in Georgia. Mr. Nichols is facing the death penalty in Georgia."

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said Adams was not entitled to see Nichols.

"At this point, he has not requested a lawyer, " he said. "Until that request is made, we'll continue as is our normal procedure."

Nahmias said a federal criminal complaint was filed against Nichols on Saturday charging him with possessing a firearm while being under indictment. Nahmias described the charge as a "holding charge" to secure Nichols' detention while federal and state authorities decide what charges to bring next.

Nichols is expected to make his first court appearance early in the week. Howard also said he planned to "resolve" Nichols' rape trial. He did not elaborate.

Howard added that he expected to file formal charges against Nichols within the next 30 days, after allowing Atlanta police and other law enforcement agencies to complete their investigations.

Nahmias said his office would prosecute Nichols for the killing of Wilhelm. Nahmias said, however, that Howard would take the lead in charging decisions. Fulton charges will include multiple murders, kidnapping, auto theft and aggravated assault.

Porter, the Gwinnett district attorney, said Nichols faces charges in his county that include kidnapping, false imprisonment and aggravated assault.

"We're examining all potential charges, " Nahmias said. "We're less than 36 hours into this event. We're going to do this in a very careful and cautious way."

Nichols ended Saturday in a white prison jumpsuit, being processed and held at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building downtown, only blocks from the Fulton County Courthouse, where a day earlier a one-man crime wave that terrorized a city and shocked a nation began.

--- Staff writers Saeed Ahmed, Paul Donsky, Steve Visser, Rhonda Cook, Duane Stanford, Lateef Mungin, Add Seymour, Mark Bixler and Brian Feagans contributed to this article.