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Saturday, March 12, 2005

CBS 46 Atlanta - Courthouse slayings suspect is caught

CBS 46 Atlanta - Courthouse slayings suspect is caught

Downtown Atlanta
Courthouse slayings suspect is caught
Mar 12, 2005, 1:23 PM
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Roland Barnes
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Roland Barnes

DULUTH, GA. (AP) -- A rape suspect accused of killing a judge and two other people at a courthouse was captured Saturday at a suburban Atlanta apartment complex hours after an immigration agent was discovered shot to death miles away.

"Brian Nichols is in custody. He turned himself in without incident. Everybody is safe," said Officer Darren Moloney of the Gwinnett Police Department.

Moloney said Nichols was armed and had a female hostage when he was caught. The woman was not identified by authorities, and it was unclear what relationship she had with Nichols.

Nichols, 33, is a suspect in connection with the fatal shooting of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent found dead early Saturday, FBI Spokesman Steve Lazarus said. That agent was later identified as Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge David Wilhelm.

Wilhelm was discovered shot to death at an upscale townhouse complex about 16 miles away from where Nichols was caught. The agent's blue pickup truck, pistol and badge were missing. Authorities could not immediately confirm reports that the truck was found with Nichols.

Nichols' arrest came the day after he allegedly killed a judge, court reporter and deputy at a downtown courthouse.

After the arrest, a crowd of people across the street from the apartment complex cheered as a black sports utility vehicle drove away, escorted by multiple police cars with lights flashing and sirens on.

The shootings Friday set off a massive manhunt and created widespread chaos across Atlanta, where schools, restaurants and office buildings locked down amid fears that the suspect might strike again.

Wilhelm's body was found Saturday in the area where Nichols used to live and where the suspect reportedly asked for directions before carjacking a newspaper reporter shortly after the courthouse shootings.

Authorities said the manhunt seemed to hit a dead end late Friday night when the stolen vehicle that Nichols was believed to have fled in was found 13 hours later on another level of the same parking garage where it was carjacked from the reporter. Highway message boards across the state had issued descriptions of that vehicle throughout the day.

Hours before Wilhelm's body was found, investigators were asking for the public's help in finding Nichols, and Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan said, "We do not know what type of vehicle he is in."

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.

Ned Cronan, 73, who lives across the street from where authorities found Wilhelm's body, said he got up three times during the night and looked out the window. The only sign of trouble he saw was a police car about 7 a.m.

Cronan 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.

At the state Capitol, just down the street from the site of the courthouse shootings, flags flew at half-staff as lawmakers prepared for a rare Saturday session. Legislative leaders had considered canceling their weekend "family day," after the shooting, but decided to go ahead with it. Speaker of House Glenn Richardson announced Nichols' arrest to lawmakers on the floor.

On Friday, carloads of law enforcement officers in riot gear swarmed the buildings and parking lots surrounding the north Atlanta condominiums where Nichols once lived, residents said.

Nichols, a former computer technician, was being escorted to his trial, in its fourth day, when the incident started Friday morning. Nichols was facing a retrial on charges of rape, sodomy, burglary, and false imprisonment, among others, after his earlier trial was declared a mistrial on Monday when jurors voted 8-4 for acquittal.

The judge and a court reporter who were killed had been working Nichols' trial.

In the rape case, Nichols was accused of bursting into his ex-girlfriend's home, binding her with duct tape and sexually assaulting her over three days. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said Nichols brought a loaded machine gun into the home and a cooler with food in case he was hungry.

Nichols had been dating the woman for eight years, and she tried to break up with him after he got another woman pregnant, Nichol's attorney, Barry Hazen, told a local television station. Though he is accused of imprisoning the woman and raping her, Hazen said his client claims she invited him over and they had consensual sex.

"My guts tell me he faced a greater chance of conviction in the second trial," Hazen said.

Nichols, who had been jailed since Aug. 23, faced a possible life sentence if convicted of rape, and prosecutor Gayle Abramson said she believes Nichols was certain he would be convicted and was willing to kill to avoid it.

The day before the incident, 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, Abramson said.

District Attorney Howard did not say what measures were taken to beef up security, but Assistant Police Chief Alan Dreher said no other officers assisted Hall with taking Nichols to court.

Hazen described his client as a "big, strong guy" with a laid-back personality. Authorities said he is 6 foot, 1 inch tall and weighs 200 pounds. Some of his former neighbors say they remembered Nichols being an avid weight lifter.

"Even the larger deputies I don't think would be any match for Brian Nichols," Hazen said.

More than 100 state troopers and officers from several agencies, including the FBI, assisted in the search. A reward of $60,000 was offered for information leading to Nichols' capture.

The apartment complex where Nichols was apprehended was near one of the Atlanta metropolitan area's largest malls, Gwinnett Place Mall.

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