He emerged from the judge’s chambers, nattily attired, striding with purpose.
“Nothing was wrinkled,” remembered lawyer Nicole Waller, who was in the middle of a motions argument in a business contract case. “He didn’t look out of place at all.”
Without pause, the man later identified as Brian Nichols extended his right arm and, using a gun he had taken from a sheriff’s deputy watching over him, fired the shots that killed Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes and his court stenographer, Julie Ann Brandau.
A stunned Waller ducked behind a lectern,
“By the time I realized what was happening, he was gone,” said Waller, in her first interview since the March 11, 2005 shooting that still haunts her. Nichols, on trial for raping a former girlfriend, killed Deputy Sgt. Hoyt Teasley outside the courthouse and, later that day, off-duty federal agent David Wilhelm at his home. Caught after a manhunt that lasted for 26 hours, Nichols was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
“I didn’t suffer any personal injury, or lose a loved one, but it changed my life in significant ways,” Waller said.
Fireworks or other loud noises are deeply unsettling to her, and she avoids movies or TV shows featuring gun violence.
“It’s gotten better. But, for the first couple of years, it was very difficult to have people come up behind me suddenly,” Waller said. “I definitely have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).”
She no longer felt comfortable in a courtroom, to the point where she decided she could no longer practice as a trial attorney.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen to me,” said Waller, now serving as in-house counsel for Cumulus Media. “I wasn’t a (district attorney). I wasn’t a criminal attorney.”
Now 41, she’s moved on as best as she can, marrying and giving birth to three children. But every time there’s another mass shooting, she’s taken back to that day.
“I’ll never forget stepping over the judge, seeing his skull fractured,” said Waller, recalling her frantic escape into Barnes’ chambers. “It happened so fast.”
“People don’t appreciate the severity of gun violence,” she said. “But when you see it up close, it impacts you in ways you can’t imagine. And it’s so frequent now. It just makes me angry.”
THOSE LEFT BEHIND
Of those affected by the courthouse shooting, few carry a greater burden than the family members who lost loved ones 10 years ago today. They have often relied on each other over the years since the courthouse shooting, particularly when anniversaries such as Wednesday’s approach.
“I have a unique bond with the kidnap victim, Ashley Smith-Robinson, and the families of the other victims of March 11th, as well as a few select members of the jury that convicted Brian Nichols for his evilness,” said Candee Wilhelm, widow of slain federal agent David Wilhelm.
The letter from Germany was among hundreds Claudia Barnes received in the weeks and months following her husband’s death, testament to a life that mattered.
It was from an alcoholic who said he had met Rowland Barnes when the former Superior Court judge lived overseas. The man wrote that he had moved out of Barnes’ German residence following a relapse, embarrassed that he had let his friend down.
“He had been trying to get in touch with Rowland for years,” said Claudia Barnes, 67. “He wanted him to know he had finally turned his life around.”
She wishes her husband had known about his German friend’s turnaround — “Rowland was someone who believed in second chances.”
Barnes said she still feels her husband’s presence, 10 years after his death.
“I talk to him a lot,” said Barnes, who became a vocal advocate for the rights of crime victims. “He was my sunshine, my knight in shining armor.”
Christina Greenway and her family will mark the 10th anniversary of her mother’s death with a culinary tribute, just as they do every year.
“She loved Mexican food, so every year we go to a Mexican restaurant,” said Greenway, the daughter of court stenographer Julie Ann Brandau.
A freshman at Auburn University when her mother was killed, Greenway is now married with triplets.
“So much has happened to me that I know she was looking forward to being part of,” Greenway said. “I graduated. I got married, had kids. Those are things she should’ve experienced with me.”
The dread that accompanies March 11 hasn’t faded with time.
“I can’t decide if it feels like it was just yesterday or 100 years ago,” she said.
The fatal shooting last week of Fulton County Detective Terence Green brought back all the horrible memories of her husband’s death, said Deborah Teasley, the widow of Brian Nichols’ third victim.
Sgt. Hoyt Teasley, 43, had just arrived at the Fulton courthouse when he confronted Nichols, who shot him several times in the abdomen.
“I’ve been dreading this day,” said Deborah Teasley, referring to Wednesday’s anniversary. She’ll mark it privately with her two daughters, now 17 and 23, and other family members.
“All of the sudden, I was a single mother,” said Teasley, 54. “But I had a great support group of family and friends. I don’t know if I could’ve made it without them.”
They had spent the day selecting paint for their Buckhead dream house when they heard the news of the shootings at the Fulton County courthouse.
“Very hard to explain, but I seemed to have this eerie feeling that this guy might somehow cross our path,” said Candee Wilhelm, who left her husband David alone at the work site as she returned to their rental home to prepare dinner. The couple had just moved to Atlanta four months earlier following David Wilhelm’s promotion to special agent in charge of the Atlanta Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.
“I remember looking back at the house at the one light coming from that upstairs bath and looking around still thinking this crazy guy could be anywhere,” Candee Wilhelm said. “I was actually relieved to get in my car and lock the doors.”
She would return to their unfinished home that night where she received confirmation that her husband had been the fourth victim of Brian Nichols.
”Even with so much chaos running through my mind, I could somehow hear David’s voice in my head saying, ‘I know this seems real bad, but hang in there. There is a big picture and plan.’ It brought me comfort to hear that I was going to make it through all this and have some kind of understanding.”
Cynthia Hall remembers the morning roll call on March 11, 2005 — and then remembers waking up in the Shepherd Center five days later.
Hall was a sheriff’s deputy when she went to get Nichols from a holding cell in the courthouse and he attacked and disarmed her. The beating left Hall with a fractured skull and traumatic brain injury. She underwent several months of medical rehabilitation at Shepherd before returning home.
Little by little, Hall, now 61, has made big strides in her recover. But she still struggles to communicate and live independently as she grapples with the lifelong scars of a brain injury.
“To move forward, I had to forgive the person who hurt me,” said Hall, who lives in Clayton County. “I know there is a God out there. If I go back to work, fine. But if not, fine, as long as I am out there helping people.”