OPINION: Random, yet routine, shootings again put a city on edge

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The morning after a deranged man opened fire in an Atlanta medical office, killing one woman and wounding four others including employees and patients who were there for appointments, I sat in an Atlanta medical office, waiting for an appointment.

Other people in the waiting room stared at their iPhones as they waited for their names to be called. I couldn’t help but glance up at the door a time or two whenever someone entered.

This is our sad, frightening reality following Wednesday’s deadly shooting, simply the latest backdrop in the ongoing American slaughter: Movie theaters, nightclubs, banks, restaurants, concerts, churches and, of course, schools.

After I left the office I called Vince Velazquez, a retired Atlanta homicide detective.

“I hate to say this but there’s more of an expectation of kids getting killed at school than people in a waiting room, which is scary,” he said.

Wednesday’s horror stoked a communal terror in Atlanta as a report of an “active shooter” in Midtown became a very public, and publicized, manhunt for a dangerous suspect. Deion Patterson was captured about eight hours later after ditching a stolen pickup truck in Cobb County near The Battery and the Braves’ stadium.

Thankfully, the baseball schedule worked out and the Braves were not playing a home game Wednesday.

Credit: Adrianne Murchison

Credit: Adrianne Murchison

Velazquez was the detective who took the confession of Brian Nichols in 2005 after Nichols went on a deadly rampage at the Fulton County courthouse and then escaped.

Nichols’ run from the law was terrifyingly remarkable: He overpowered a guard, took her pistol and entered the courtroom where he was being tried on rape charges. He killed a judge and a court reporter and later a deputy while escaping the courthouse. He then hijacked four vehicles, causing cops to chase a bewildering array of reports of hijacked vehicles.

The last carjacking victim was Don O’Briant, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who was pistol-whipped after he refused Nichols’ demands to get into his trunk. Nichols parked O’Briant’s Honda Accord in the garage, walked away and took MARTA to the Lenox Square area. Police spent 12 hours searching in vain for the Honda; an AJC employee eventually spotted it in the garage and alerted authorities.

Nichols hid in an empty hotel room much of the day and later killed off-duty federal agent David Wilhelm that night as Wilhelm was renovating his home. Nichols stole his truck, kidnapped a woman in Gwinnett County and then surrendered after spending the night talking with her.

The next day, Velazquez was sitting in a car driving back to Atlanta with the now-infamous and weary murder suspect. To warm him up, the detective pulled an old trick and called ahead to his lieutenant to order him and Nichols a No. 3 from the McDonald’s menu — a Quarter Pounder with a sweet tea.



Velazquez certainly noticed the similarities between the Midtown shooting and the Nichols case.

“(Patterson) hijacked a truck, was on the run, hid, no one knew where he was and then he went to another jurisdiction,” said the retired detective, who now directs security for the Atlanta Hawks and has been involved in a long-running true-crime show, “ATL Homicide” on TVOne. “I was thinking there would be another victim.”

Fortunately, no one else was harmed.

Nichols’ run was 18 years ago, a lifetime when it comes to technology. License plate readers this time determined within 30 minutes of the shootings that the truck allegedly stolen by Patterson in Midtown was then driven to near the Braves’ park in Cobb County.

Even though there was a delay of about two hours in determining that Patterson was in Cobb, law enforcement ultimately swarmed the area and arrested him hours later.

“If this technology was around when Nichols happened, we’d probably have caught him sooner and maybe Wilhelm might not have been killed,” Velazquez said.

License plate readers wouldn’t have been able to spot the Honda that Nichols cleverly hid at the site of his last carjacking. But perhaps the now ubiquitous street cameras or one at the MARTA station or one near Lenox might have spotted Nichols. It’s all conjecture, but not improbable.

At a press conference Wednesday night announcing Patterson’s capture, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens spoke of the “national epidemic of gun violence” and the need for sensible gun laws.

“You’ll be hearing more from me on this,” he said.

The mayor noted that Atlanta’s violent crime so far this year is down by 26% and added that homicides are down by 47%.

But none of those stats matter when a random event like women getting shot in a doctor’s waiting room occurs.

“The fear in this case is that this happened in a situation we are in every day,” Velazquez said. “We sit in a waiting room unconcerned that something will happen. Average citizens are now put in this scenario. That is what scares the (crap) out of us.”

The former cop said it brings a guttural feeling of, “This is me.”

“That’s the fear. That’s the terror,” he said. “It blows your mind as a citizen. It shocks the conscience.”