ATLANTA – A judge, his court reporter and a sheriff's deputy were killed on Friday after the most horrific display of courtroom violence in years. A search was launched after the suspect in the shootings stole a vehicle and disappeared into downtown Atlanta's traffic. The vehicle was later discovered Friday night near where it was taken.
Gov. Sonny Perdue announced a total of $65,000 in reward money for information leading to the capture of Brian Nichols (search), also a rape suspect. County, state and federal law enforcement officials were in the midst of a manhunt for Nichols, described by officials as armed, dangerous and having little to lose.
Nichols was at the Fulton County Courthouse (search) in downtown Atlanta Friday morning to face charges of raping and holding his girlfriend prisoner. But before entering the courtroom, he grabbed a sheriff's deputy's gun, which he used to kill three people, including Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes (search).
The deputy was in critical condition with a gunshot wound to her head, a doctor at Grady Memorial Hospital said. She was expected to survive.
Nichols carjacked a series of vehicles following the 9 a.m. EST shooting on Friday. The Fulton County Sheriff's Office (search) sent out an alert for a green 1997 green Honda Accord. Late Friday evening the car was located on a different deck in the same parking garage where it was stolen. Police sealed off the garage and swept it for evidence. The vehicle was later towed to be more thoroughly examined.
There were no signs he had taken anyone hostage, and officials said they were determined to nab him before the opportunity arose.
Don O'Briant, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter and owner of the stolen Accord, said Nichols initially ordered him into the trunk. O'Briant refused, and was injured in the carjacking.
A former FBI agent worried future victims would not be so lucky.
"He already showed that he doesn't care about taking lives," said Harold Copus, a former FBI special agent in Atlanta. "We have to be very concerned about a hostage situation. If that gets in the way of him and ... another car, he will take a hostage," he said.
"We have to find him."
An emergency command post was set up in the city. The Fulton County Sheriff's Department was leading the investigation. Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and George Bureau of Investigation were contributing their efforts, along with about 100 state troopers and officers from surrounding counties.
"We recognize this is a very scary situation," said Mayor Shirley Franklin (search), assuring citizens that city, state and federal authorities were concentrating their resources on capturing the fugitive, Brian Nichols.
Nichols, 33, is described as a black male, 6'1" who weigh 200 pounds, and has a medium complexion. Authorities asked people to call 404-730-5129 or 404-730-7582 if they had information about Nichols' whereabouts.
Judge Barnes, who died from a gunshot wound to the head, was overseeing Nichols' case. An initial trial ended in a hung jury last week and a retrial was under way.
Atlanta, famous for its traffic, was in a virtual lockdown following the shootings. Police were out in force, setting up roadblocks at major intersections in downtown and midtown. State police cast a net outside the city, and patrol cars were being positioned on median strips along I-75 and I-285.
Public schools in the area were secured, and people inside the courthouse were not allowed to leave until around 11:30 a.m. Friday after authorities locked everyone inside and performed a thorough check of the building.
The courthouse, located in the heart of the city near major tourist destinations, remained closed. Investigators were still poring over the crime scene, and it was not clear if the bodies of the judge and a court stenographer who was also killed had been removed from the building.
Questions About Security
Nichols was charged with raping and holding his girlfriend prisoner last August. Other charges he faced were sodomy, possession of a machine gun, a handgun and a large quantity of marijuana. His second trial began on Monday.
Deputies found two hand-made knives, or shanks, hidden in Nichols' shoe on Wednesday, an indication he may have been plotting his bid for freedom.
That discovery, along with what they described as unusual behavior, worried prosecutors.
"We let [the court] know we were concerned about him maybe escalating to some greater conduct," said Paul Howard, the county's district attorney.
Assistant D.A. Gayle Abramson said two more sheriff's deputies were added to the courtroom.
"I think he knew he was going to be convicted this time," Abramson said. "I think he was taking revenge on the criminal justice system in general."
Abramson said she had been on her way to the courtroom when a colleague advised her of the shootings. She and Howard said they did not know if Nichols meant to shoot them, and that they had been placed under protection.
Law enforcement authorities were stunned at Nichols' brazen escape.
Sometime before 9 a.m. on Friday, Nichols "overpowered" the sheriff's deputy escorting him to the courtroom, Atlanta Police Department's Alan Dreher said. The two are believed to have been alone somewhere between the detention facility and the courtroom.
The deputy, who is being treated at Grady Memorial Hospital and has not yet been questioned, was injured, though Dreher would not say how. Earlier, a doctor at Grady said she was shot through the mouth and in critical condition.
Apparently armed with the deputy's gun, Nichols entered the courtroom and held law enforcement officers there at bay. He then shot Barnes and the clerk, both of whom died in the courtroom, Dreher said.
The suspect ordered bailiffs to handcuff everyone else before running out of the courtroom, located on the eighth floor, and out through a stairwell.
Nichols somehow managed to flee the courthouse, where he ran into another sheriff's deputy, whom he shot and killed, according to multiple descriptions of the events from authorities and witnesses.
Nichols scrambled for an escape vehicle, eventually happening upon O'Briant. The AJC reporter said Nichols pistol-whipped him, breaking his wrist and requiring him to get 15 stitches above his eye.
Speaking to reporters after being treated for his injuries, O'Briant said he hoped that the reason he hadn't been shot was because Nichols was out of bullets.
It was not known if Nichols is only carrying the first firearm he stole or if he managed to collect more, Dreher said. Officers at the scene were working to account for all the deputies' weapons.
"This guy has nothing else to lose — he's facing life in prison," said Renee Rockwell, a prosecutor familiar with the case and a witness to the shooting aftermath inside the courthouse.
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (search) would not say if he planned to order a special investigation following the deadly escape. The governor said he would make all the resources of the state available to investigators, including funds for a reward if necessary.
A criminal investigation will likely focus on how the suspect was able to free the deputy's gun from her holster and why the two were alone. It is standard procedure for defendants suspected of violent crimes to appear in court without handcuffs and in street clothing.
"Defense attorneys argue it will prejudice the jury," said FOX News legal analyst Jim Hammer. "And what you have then is very dangerous men sitting in an open courtroom 10 feet from jurors, four or five feet from the prosecutor trying to put him in prison forever, and 15 feet away from the judge."
When asked about the deputy's holster, APD's Dreher said, "Our holsters are certainly very secure. I can't speak to the holsters the sheriffs wear."
Steven Greenberg, a defense attorney from Chicago, said a defendant's escape attempt 40 years ago prompted an Illinois courthouse to stop arming its officers.
"The deputies here no longer handle guns anymore when handling prisoners. These are dangerous people ... And this is what can happen. This is an unfortunate result," Greenberg said.
Hammer said that personnel in courtrooms are usually not on high alert.
"The most dangerous time for a cop is when he gets in a non-lethal situation, a fistfight. At any moment someone can try to take the officer's gun away when his focus is on the person he's fighting with," he said. Hammer was a reserve police officer before becoming a prosecutor.
A Respected Judge
Lawyers who knew Barnes said they were shocked by the news. (Read more about the judge by clicking here.)
“You probably will not find a judge anywhere in the country that dreamed about being a judge more than Rowland Barnes. He loved being a judge,” said Drew Findling, an Atlanta lawyer.
"He is an old-school judge at a time where there aren't a lot of old-school judges," Findling said.
B.J. Bernstein, another Atlanta lawyer, said Barnes was “extremely” well respected. “This is a man who always looked at both sides … made sure both sides had been heard and yet would rule justly. His demeanor on the bench was fair but firm,” she said.
Attorney Mike Mears, a friend of Barnes, echoed those sentiments.
"He was very fair and respectful to everyone who appeared before him. Now he's going to be missed tremendously by the legal community and by the community at large."
Flags on the state capitol were to be lowered to half-mast until the victims' funerals, Gov. Perdue said.
Barnes, 64, is perhaps most famous for two cases: one involving an abusive mother and the second involving an NHL player.
Barnes honored the wishes of an Atlanta Thrashers player's father and did not sentence the teammate responsible for his son's death to jail. Voicing his reservations, Barnes nonetheless sentenced Dany Heatley to three years' probation last month.
The judge also created something of a firestorm last month when he gave a mother of seven who had pleaded guilty to killing her newborn the option of medical sterilization to avoid prison. It is believed to be the first such plea agreement in the state's history.
FOX News' Jane Roh contributed to this report.