ATLANTA – Some residents are questioning how local law enforcement let an armed inmate elude their grasp for 26 hours in what is being called the largest manhunt in state history.
Brian Nichols (search), a 6-foot-1, 200-pound former college linebacker, is accused of grabbing 51-year-old sheriff's deputy Cynthia Hall's gun in a courthouse and then fatally shooting a judge, a court reporter and a deputy.
Security cameras rolled as Nichols — who had been found in court earlier in the week with two homemade knives in his shoes — overpowered the 5-foot-tall Hall as she escorted him to his rape trial. No one was monitoring the cameras.
Authorities said Nichols escaped the courthouse in a Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority train. They said he took the train north to a pricey neighborhood where he allegedly gunned down a federal agent.
"I don't understand why they didn't have the MARTA (search) staked out," said Maryanne Fry, a neighbor of slain immigration agent David Wilhelm. "I really wish they had."
As Nichols vanished from the courthouse, investigators focused on finding the car they believed he was in. Thirteen hours later, the car was found in the same parking garage where it was carjacked minutes after the shootings.
Once authorities realized Nichols was not in the hijacked car, they admitted they had few other leads as to where Nichols was hiding. The trail had abruptly gone cold.
Nichols was scheduled to appear before a magistrate Tuesday but authorities did not plan to announce any charges from Friday's shootings. Prosecutors will likely decide within 30 days what charges to file, said Fulton County district attorney's spokesman Erik Friedly.
Nichols, 33, had been in custody since his latest arrest on a federal firearms charge. That charge was dropped so he could be handed over to Fulton County (search) authorities, who will likely be the first to prosecute him.
Nichols was being retried for rape and other charges when he escaped. That case was declared a mistrial Monday at the request of Nichols' attorney, Friedly said. Nichols' first trial was a mistrial as well.
Nichols was only apprehended after he released a woman who he had held hostage for seven hours in her apartment. She immediately called 911 and Nichols surrendered peacefully Saturday to a SWAT team.
Investigators' failure to properly search the parking garage where the supposed getaway car sat unnoticed for so long, and the decision not to search the commuter trains leaving the city's downtown, left some people scratching their heads.
Commuter Carla Hill said if MARTA police had been alerted someone might have spotted him. "Someone that dangerous, I would think all precautions would be taken," she said.
Hill questioned whether MARTA's numerous video surveillance cameras were working properly. "There should be some image of him because the cameras are everywhere," she said.
MARTA spokeswoman Jocelyn Baker said investigators are still reviewing surveillance videos for evidence that Nichols was on a commuter train.
Police Chief Richard Pennington said officers had no reason to order the trains to stop running because they had no reason to believe he was not in the stolen car.
The first indication that Nichols had indeed taken the train came 13 hours after the shootings.
Officers received a report of a couple assaulted near the train station at Lenox Square in north Atlanta by a man matching Nichols' description. The man had brandished a gun and demanded money or a vehicle before striking one of them in the head with the gun and fleeing.
A police report shows that Shelton Warren told investigators he was attacked in his apartment, about a half block from the home of Wilhelm, the federal agent, when he opened the door to let his girlfriend inside and discovered a man holding a gun on her. Both Warren and Iman Adan told investigators they believed it was Nichols.
Wilhelm, 40, was working on tile in his new five-bedroom house in the Lenox Square area late Friday when Nichols allegedly shot him. His body was found early Saturday. His blue pickup truck, pistol and badge had been taken.