From AJC archives: Killer eludes cops: Judge, 2 others slain

Evidence markers outside the Fulton County courthouse on Friday morning, March 11, 2005 in downtown Atlanta. Brian Nichols killed Judge Rowland Barnes, a deputy and a court reporter, and wounded others. (BEN GRAY/AJC staff)

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Evidence markers outside the Fulton County courthouse on Friday morning, March 11, 2005 in downtown Atlanta. Brian Nichols killed Judge Rowland Barnes, a deputy and a court reporter, and wounded others. (BEN GRAY/AJC staff)

Caught with two weapons in his socks, suspect returns two days later for trial, overpowers a deputy and takes her gun; manhunt shifts after hijacked car found in same downtown lot.

This article originally appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 12, 2005.

Facing life in prison, Brian G. Nichols transformed himself Friday morning from accused rapist to hunted fugitive after he grabbed a handgun from a deputy sheriff and burst into a Fulton County courtroom and opened fire, killing a judge and a court reporter. 

As he made his escape from the courthouse in downtown Atlanta, he shot to death a deputy who briefly impeded his getaway, police said.

Nichols remained at large late Friday night, even as police were acknowledging that the car they earlier believed he had used for his escape was found in the downtown Atlanta parking lot where it had been reported stolen in the morning. Police gave little indication late Friday night that they knew where to find him, and they offered $60,000 for his capture.

Speaking early today as he left the garage where the car was found, GBI Director Vernon Keenan expressed concern about the effort to find Nichols.

"Right now, I'm not confident at all, " Keenan said. "We don't know where he's at."

Within the span of 15 minutes Friday, Nichols shut down the state's busiest courthouse, caused chaos in downtown Atlanta and put law enforcement throughout the Southeast on high alert.

He left a despairing legal community in Atlanta wondering about the worst security breach yet in Fulton County's flawed justice system. And his violence sparked a nation to wrestle once again with the difficult issue of security in its halls of justice.

It was unclear what moved Nichols to shoot and kill Rowland Barnes, 64, the widely respected Fulton County Superior Court judge assigned to Nichols' trial. Yet it seemed that Nichols had worked with a purpose: After the 210-pound former college football player overpowered Deputy Cynthia Hall --- who was guarding him as he changed from his jail jumpsuit into street clothes for his trial --- he set out for Barnes' courtroom instead of taking a quick route to freedom.

Courthouse officials said Nichols entered Barnes' private chambers demanding to see the judge shortly after 9 a.m. A staff member pushed a "panic" button, triggering a light in the courtroom. Nichols overpowered and handcuffed a deputy who responded to the alarm.

He took the deputy's gun, and armed with two weapons, Nichols stormed into the courtroom and opened fire. After shooting Barnes, he shot and killed Julie Ann Brandau, 46, the court reporter seated near the judge.

Richard L. Robbins, a lawyer, was arguing an unrelated civil case before Barnes when the shootings occurred. "It was just horrific, " said Robbins, who was too shaken to say much more Friday afternoon.

Renee Rockwell, a lawyer working on an unrelated case, walked into Barnes' courtroom just after the shooting. "I saw hats on the ground, and all the deputies were running with guns drawn, " Rockwell said. "You don't ever see that." She said she was pushed into an elevator by deputies. One was crying.

The two prosecutors trying the case, Gayle Abramson and Ash Joshi, were still in their offices in the courthouse complex. Jurors on the Nichols case were in the building but had not yet been called to the courtroom.

"He wanted the people who were involved in his trial, " said Deputy District Attorney Al Dixon.

Nichols' opportunity presented itself when he found himself alone with Hall, a 51-year-old mother who is about 5 feet tall, police said.

Hall was with Nichols in a windowless holding room on the eighth floor of the newer of Fulton County's two court buildings. Barnes' courtroom is in the older building nearby. Nichols pounced on Hall, who was injured so badly that emergency officials later couldn't determine whether she was severely beaten or shot in the face. Her skull was cracked, her brain was bruised and the bones around her right eye were fractured, said Dr. Jeffrey Salomone, a trauma surgeon at Grady Memorial Hospital.

Equipped with Hall's gun and police radio, Nichols walked from the newer building to the older one, using a sky bridge that joins them.

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Front page of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution featured the search for the as-yet-uncaptured Brian Nichols and reflected the terror felt by much of the city

Front page of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution featured the search for the as-yet-uncaptured Brian Nichols and reflected the terror felt by much of the city

Combined ShapeCaption
Front page of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution featured the search for the as-yet-uncaptured Brian Nichols and reflected the terror felt by much of the city

After the shooting, he bolted from the bloodied courtroom and made for a stairwell, running down eight flights out an emergency door, setting off an alarm. Deputies ran down the stairs after him.

Crossing Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, he entered the Underground Atlanta parking garage. He ran into Deputy Hoyt Teasley, 43.

Nichols shot Teasley multiple times in the stomach and then carjacked an SUV, police said. Teasley, who wasn't wearing a bulletproof vest, had pulled his gun but didn't have a chance to fire it, said Fulton County Sgt. Mike Thompson. His gun was found near his body, Thompson said.

Thompson struggled to save Teasley's life. "I did all I could, " said Thompson, who wiped the blood off his hand and began roping off the area with yellow crime scene tape.

As police swarmed, Nichols stole a dark SUV and sped away.

Steve Robinson, 16, of Atlanta was walking to the courthouse when he heard shots from the parking garage. He turned to see a man being tossed from the SUV. "People were running out of the parking lot, scrambling everywhere, " Robinson said. "Everyone was scared to death."

A few blocks to the west, Deronta Franklin, a tow-truck driver, was waiting on a dispatch at Peachtree and Wall streets when he saw a dark SUV round the corner and hit the curb. Police cars followed. Suddenly, the driver of the SUV was at Franklin's window, pointing a gun at his face. "He told me to get out of the truck, and I told him he could have the truck, " Franklin said.

The man got in Franklin's truck and sped north on Peachtree Street, then took a left on Walton Street, going the wrong way down a one-way street.

Minutes later, Almeta Kilgo, 37, a computer programmer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was parking in the Cone Street parking garage when a man believed to be Nichols approached. "He came over, put a gun to my head, and told me to 'move over, ' " she said. He started to drive the car, but could not figure how to exit the garage. "He kept saying, 'Get in the trunk, ' " Kilgo said.

Kilgo ran away screaming, and Nichols drove off.

A few moments later, Don O'Briant, a veteran reporter at the Journal-Constitution, was parking at a garage on the same street when a man approached him asking for directions. When the man pulled a gun and demanded his keys O'Briant complied. The man then told O'Briant to get into the trunk of O'Briant's 1997 green Honda Accord. O'Briant refused.

O'Briant said he began to run when the man hit him over his left eye with either the butt of his gun or his fist, gashing O'Briant's head.

Law enforcement put out a nationwide alert searching for O'Briant's car, listing the license plate. Late Friday night, however, a Journal-Constitution employee found O'Briant's car parked in the same garage where the carjacking had occurred more than 12 hours earlier.

Police refused to discuss why the car had not been discovered in earlier sweeps of the deck.

And Nichols was gone.

Barry Hazen, Nichols' attorney, described his client, a former UPS worker and dropout from Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, as "very laid-back, very easygoing, very polite."

Hazen, however, thought Nichols was going to prison on felony charges that he raped and held hostage a former girlfriend. It was Nichols' second time around on the charges: a trial ended last week with a hung jury.

"I didn't think the jury was going to do anything but convict, " Hazen said. "I was very surprised. This time around, I thought he had no chance."

Juror Robert Singleton, 40, said he was in the first-floor cafeteria when a couple of deputies got up from their table and said there was trouble on the eighth floor. "He probably thought today was Judgment Day, " Singleton said of Nichols.

Singleton said he had not decided before the shootings whether Nichols was guilty in the rape case.

"The only thing I had decided was that someone had gone crazy, either him or the [woman who accused him of rape], " Singleton said. "And now we know who."

The shootings brought a special prayer in the General Assembly. Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor started the Senate session Friday saying, "If there ever was a day we need a devotional and prayer, it is today."

Gov. Sonny Perdue, speaking outside Grady hospital, said, "It is a sad day for our country."

Barnes' neighbors wept in the street when they learned of his death.

Enriqueta R. Lineres, who lives next door to the Barnes family, said, "Oh, Jesus. Oh, Lord. Why? My heart is broke."