The 33-year-old suspect, a former UPS computer technician, waved a white shirt, calling it quits after a fevered manhunt that began 26 hours earlier.
Details for the shaken metropolitan area were scarce throughout the ordeal, and the following report was pieced together through subsequent police and witness accounts.
On Wednesday, Nichols was found with what authorities described as “shanks,” or makeshift metal weapons, in his shoes. The next day, Judge Rowland Barnes told the attorneys in the case that he was requesting beefed up security.
“He put his hand on my shoulder and he said to me, ‘Be careful,’ ” said Barry Hazen, the attorney for Nichols.
‘Reign of terror’What one FBI agent referred to as Nichols’ “reign of terror” began shortly after 9 a.m. on Friday at the Fulton County Courthouse in the heart of downtown Atlanta.
Moments earlier, Barnes, 64, was presiding in a civil case after arriving at the courthouse with his wife, Claudia, an administrative assistant for another judge.
Following that, Barnes expected to see Nichols enter his courtroom — but not from behind the bench and brandishing a weapon.
Nichols was being retried on charges including rape and false imprisonment in a case involving his ex-girlfriend. After a relationship of several years with Nichols, the woman was “held against her will. She was savagely raped and brutalized over a fairly long period of time,” Fulton County Deputy Chief Gary Stiles said.
Nichols’ first trial had resulted in a hung jury a week earlier. Hazen said the case might have gone to the jury on Friday — and that the prosecution had presented a stronger case than in the first trial.
Leading Nichols to the courtroom — alone — was a 51-year-old grandmother, sheriff’s deputy Cynthia Ann Hall. First, she took Nichols to a holding area so that he could change into civilian clothes to face the jury.
Nichols — 6-feet-1-inch tall, 210 pounds and a former college football player — attacked Hall when she removed his handcuffs in a struggle that lasted about three minutes and was caught on a security video that has not been released.
He slammed her against the cell wall, pushing her out of the camera’s view and taking the key to a lockbox where her gun was stored. She was later found and hospitalized in critical condition with a bruise on her brain and fractures to her face.
Nichols retrieved the gun, changed clothes and walked away before making a fateful decision. Instead of escaping, he crossed a skybridge into the next building and headed for the courtroom.
“I’m just stunned that he would risk his own escape to go back and seek vengeance,” said CNN host Nancy Grace, a former prosecutor in Atlanta and a friend of two of Friday’s victims.
Nichols went first to Barnes’ private chambers, tearing out the phone lines, taking three hostages and inquiring about the judge’s whereabouts. He left a number of times, finally returning with another deputy taken hostage.
Seizing the second deputy’s gun, authorities said Nichols entered the courtroom from behind the bench, firing a single shot into Barnes’ head, then shooting and killing court reporter Julie Brandau.
Hazen and the prosecutor on the case, Assistant District Attorney Gayle Abramson, later said they were only moments away from the courtroom.
Nichols started his escape, bypassing the elevators for the stairwell, leaving through an emergency exit, setting off an alarm and starting down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive — where witnesses said he fired multiple shots into the abdomen of another sheriff’s deputy, Hoyt Teasley.
Carjacking spreeAs the 43-year-old father of two lay dying, Nichols ran into one of a number of parking garages and began a carjacking spree that left police with a cold trail, authorities said.
A massive manhunt ensued.
He first stole a dark SUV, racing less than three blocks and crashing through the gate of another parking deck.
Tow truck driver Deronte Franklin said that after he directed police into the deck after Nichols, Nichols came back down and stole his truck at gunpoint.
Nichols then drove to another deck about six blocks away where Almeta Kilgo, an employee of the nearby Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said he stole her Mercury Sable. She escaped after refusing Nichols’ order to stay in the car, she said.
Speeding away, Nichols drove a couple more blocks to yet another deck, where he stole the car of AJC reporter Don O’Briant. He said Nichols ordered him into the trunk and pistol-whipped him when he refused. O’Briant managed to run away.
“He was totally in control, and the orders he gave me sounded like they were coming from a drill sergeant, not someone who was on the run,” O’Briant said.
O’Briant said Nichols approached him by asking for directions to Lenox Square, a mall in the affluent Buckhead neighborhood, about 8 miles north of downtown.
On security video footage released later in the day, O’Briant’s green Honda Accord is seen pulling away from a parking space.
Transit escapeAbout 9:30 am., as chaos reigned at the courthouse, Teasley was declared dead at a nearby hospital.
At almost the same time, Nichols was caught again on the same parking deck’s security cameras — not driving as police believed, but calmly walking away.
The video — not released until Saturday — shows Nichols descending a staircase alone and donning a blazer that apparently belongs to O’Briant, before emerging from the staircase with his hands in his pockets.
Police now say they believe Nichols moved unnoticed across the street through a crowd gathering for a college basketball tournament — making his escape on a MARTA subway train to the Lenox area. No alerts were issued to ticket-takers or conductors.
Meanwhile, police advised the public to be on the lookout for O’Briant’s green Honda Accord, posting notices on electronic signs on Atlanta-area interstate highways.
Officials said nothing about Nichols’ whereabouts for the next 13 hours before he resurfaced with what they said were more acts of violence.
By about 7 p.m., authorities announced they were offering a $60,000 reward for information leading to Nichols’ capture.
Agent slainAt 10:40 p.m., with the manhunt spreading hundreds of miles to neighboring states, police said Nichols attempted to rob a couple at an apartment on Lenox Road, getting into a scuffle before fleeing.
Sometime later, but less than five minutes away on foot, police said Nichols encountered U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agent David Wilhelm, who was working late on his new home, still under construction.
Authorities said Nichols shot and killed Wilhelm, taking not just his life, but also his gun, his badge and his blue Chevrolet pickup.
About 11 p.m., another AJC employee found O’Briant’s green Honda Accord on a different level of the same downtown parking garage, leaving police with no apparent lead on the suspect’s method of transportation.
Pancakes and religionMeanwhile, 26-year-old Ashley Smith was still settling into her new apartment in Duluth, about 20 miles northeast of Buckhead.
About 2:30 a.m., she left to buy cigarettes. Upon returning, Smith said she noticed a blue pickup truck had moved to a different parking space, and that she heard the door of the truck close as she got out of her car.
Nichols then forced his way into her apartment at gunpoint and bound her hands and feet with masking tape, a curtain and electrical cord, she told reporters on Sunday.
He placed her on a bathroom stool and draped a towel over her head while he showered and changed into men’s clothing she had in her apartment.
“He said, ‘I’m not going to hurt you if you just do what I say. I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt anybody else,'” Smith said.
Smith said Nichols eventually unbound her hands and feet and that he began to relax as they spoke for hours about religion and family — including Smith’s 5-year-old daughter and her late husband, who was stabbed four years earlier and died in her arms.
“I basically just talked to him and tried to gain his trust,” she said.
Smith said she showed Nichols family photographs and read him passages from Rick Warren’s best-selling book, “The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?”After 6 a.m., Smith said she followed Nichols so he could hide Wilhelm’s truck and then took him back to the apartment in her car. She said that Nichols did not bring any weapons on the trip, and that she had her cellular phone but did not call police.
Smith said Nichols was “overwhelmed” when she made him a pancake breakfast and that the two of them watched television coverage of the manhunt.
Smith said Nichols allowed her to leave for a 10 a.m. visit her daughter, who lives with Smith’s aunt. Nichols gave her money, saying he was going to stay at her apartment for a “few days.”She dialed 911 about 9:50 a.m. and within minutes a SWAT team converged on building. After several tense minutes, police saw Nichols waving a white T-shirt.
After surrendering without a struggle, Nichols was taken into custody about 11:24 a.m., drawing cheers from the crowd that had gathered at the Bridgewater Apartments.
Cite this Atlanta Rumble
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