Published March 13, 2005
DULUTH, GA. – The suspect in the courthouse shootings of a judge and two other people waved a white cloth and surrendered to authorities Saturday, but not before police say he killed an immigration agent and held a woman hostage for hours in her own apartment.
Brian Nichols (search), 33, set off a massive manhunt in the Atlanta area after he allegedly overpowered a court deputy Friday, took her gun and fatally shot three people, including the judge on his rape case.
During the night, Nichols approached a woman as she entered her suburban Atlanta (search) apartment and introduced himself as a wanted man, authorities said.
"It's my understanding that he had told her, 'If you do what I say, I won't kill you,"' Georgia Bureau of Investigation (search) Director Vernon Keenan said.
The woman either escaped or was allowed to leave and called 911. A SWAT team gathered outside and Nichols turned himself in after watching the manhunt on television, Gwinnett County Police Chief Charles Walters said.
"He literally waved a white flag or a T-shirt and came out to our folks," Walters said.
The arrest came hours after a construction worker found the body of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent David Wilhelm, who had been shot to death about 15 miles away inside a house that the agent was having built. His blue pickup truck, pistol and badge were missing.
FBI spokesman Steve Lazarus said Nichols was a suspect in that shooting, and police said the truck was found at a location other than the complex where Nichols was arrested, but did not elaborate.
As Nichols was taken into federal custody, a crowd of people cheered across the street from the apartment complex where he was arrested. They watched as a black sport utility vehicle drove away, escorted by multiple police cars with lights flashing and sirens wailing.
Prosecutors said Nichols could appear in federal court as early as Monday to face a charge of possession of a firearm by a person under indictment, the charge authorities are using to keep him in custody while they investigate the slayings.
The killings came less than two weeks after a Chicago federal judge's husband and mother were slain in their home, setting off a fresh round of worries about the safety of judges and others involved in the criminal justice system.
The day before the shootings, the judge and prosecutors in Nichols' case requested extra security after investigators found a shank — or homemade knife — fashioned from a doorknob in each of Nichols' shoes, prosecutor Gayle Abramson said.
Officials did not say what measures were taken to beef up security, but said deputy Cynthia Hall was alone when she escorted Nichols to his retrial on rape and other charges Friday. Law requires that defendants not be handcuffed as they enter the courtroom to make sure the sight of cuffs doesn't unfairly influence the jury.
"Anytime security has been asked for, we have provided it," Fulton County Sheriff Myron Freeman told reporters Saturday.
Nichols allegedly overpowered Hall, took her gun and shot her in the head. She remained in critical condition Saturday, but hospital officials said she was expected to survive.
Nichols then went to the courtroom where his case was being heard and allegedly killed the judge presiding over the case and a court reporter. As he escaped the courthouse, he fatally shot a deputy who confronted him, officials said.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Don O'Briant was getting out of his car in a nearby parking garage when Nichols allegedly pulled a gun, demanded his keys and told him to get in the trunk.
O'Briant refused and started to run.
"I figured it was better to be shot at while I was running than to just stand there and be executed," O'Briant wrote in Saturday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The man pistol whipped him as he tried to escape. O'Briant fell, but got up and ran again.
"I scrambled into the street, waiting for the shots to come, but they didn't come," he wrote. "I guess it just wasn't my day to die."
Throughout Friday, police said they were looking for the reporter's green Honda Accord, and highway message boards across the state issued descriptions of the vehicle. But the car was found later that night in the same parking garage where Nichols stole it.
Police said Nichols attempted more hijackings, and it was suspected that Nichols had stolen another vehicle from the same parking garage. Authorities would not comment on whether Wilhelm may have been carjacked at the garage.
Nichols eventually escaped the city's downtown by taking a train to north Atlanta. Police Chief Richard Pennington said Nichols assaulted a couple near the train station late Friday, brandishing a gun and asking if they had money or a vehicle before striking one of them in the face with the gun and fleeing.
Wilhelm was shot and killed sometime between that assault and the hostage taking at the apartment complex, which police would only say occurred "during the night."
Ned Cronan, 73, who lives across the street from where authorities found Wilhelm's body, said he's heard gunshots in the area before, but none Friday night or Saturday morning.
"I don't think they killed him there," he said.
Nichols faced a life sentence if convicted in his retrial. His earlier trial was declared a mistrial on Monday when jurors voted 8-4 for acquittal.
The retrial had started Tuesday, and Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said he was determined to resume that trial next week.
Nichols was accused of bursting into his ex-girlfriend's home with a loaded machine gun, binding her with duct tape and sexually assaulting her over three days. Howard said Nichols brought a cooler of food in case he was hungry. Nichols claimed the pair had consensual sex.
"My guts tell me he faced a greater chance of conviction in the second trial," his attorney, Barry Hazen, told a local television station.
At the state Capitol, just down the street from the courthouse, Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson announced Nichols' arrest Saturday on the House floor as flags flew at half-staff during a rare weekend session.
"It ended the best way this could end," said Walters, the police chief. "The public can be relieved that he is off the street."