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Courthouse shooting suspect gives himself up

 (The Spokesman-Review)
Nichols (The Spokesman-Review)

DULUTH, Ga. – The rape suspect sought for the shooting rampage in a downtown Atlanta courthouse that killed a judge and two other people gave up without a fight 26 hours later Saturday when a heavily armed SWAT team surrounded the suburban apartment complex where he had invaded a woman’s home.

It was a 911 call from her that brought what was described as the biggest manhunt in Georgia history to its end. To communicate his willingness to surrender, Brian Gene Nichols brandished a white T-shirt or towel from the woman’s ground-floor apartment, where he was holed up.

“I think he waved a white flag because he was cornered and had no place to go,” said Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Nichols, 33, was handed over to custody of the FBI because in the meantime, he had become the suspect in a fourth slaying: the shooting death of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent David G. Wilhelm, whose body was discovered in the home the agent was building in the upscale north Atlanta neighborhood of Buckhead.

The agent’s Glock pistol, badge and Chevrolet truck were missing, authorities said, and the pickup was later found a few miles from the apartment in the suburb of Duluth, 20 miles north of Atlanta, where Nichols was encircled and captured.

Authorities had lost track of the suspected gunman but were tipped off to his whereabouts when the tenant of the apartment, reportedly with the fugitive’s consent, left and called emergency services. Police said Nichols apparently had forced his way into the apartment when the unidentified woman came home.

“It’s my understanding that he had told her, ‘If you do what I say, I won’t kill you,’ ” said Keenan.

CNN, which is based in Atlanta, quoted police as saying that about 2 a.m. Saturday, Nichols pushed the unidentified woman into her apartment at gunpoint, and tied her up while he pondered his next move. He reportedly compelled his hostage to follow him when he dumped the federal agent’s truck several miles away, and they returned to the apartment in her car.

For the next few hours, they reportedly talked, until the woman apparently persuaded her captor to let her go.

“She was not panicked. She handled it very responsibly,” said Charles Walters, police chief of Gwinnett County. “She was a champ.”

When in response to her 911 call more than two dozen SWAT team members deployed around the Bridgewater Apartments, Nichols concluded his wisest course of action was to give up, Walters said. He had been keeping tabs on the massive manhunt of which he was the object by watching television, the chief said.

“The arrest was very peaceful. There was no resistance,” Walters said.

Handcuffed and put under extraordinarily heavy security, Nichols was transported back to Atlanta in a black Chevrolet Suburban, escorted by a number of police cars. He was first taken to an FBI office, then to a municipal and a federal building in the city’s downtown.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard told an afternoon news conference Nichols was being questioned, but said, “for security reasons, we don’t want to talk about where he is being held.”

U.S. Attorney David Nahmias said a federal criminal complaint was filed Saturday afternoon against Nichols for possessing a firearm while under indictment. The complaint, said Nahmias, ensured that Nichols would be kept behind bars while the more serious federal and state charges that could be brought against him were sorted out.

“These have been two tragic days for our community, particularly for our criminal justice and law enforcement community,” said Nahmias. “The murders yesterday morning were horrible, and it became worse last night, when a great federal agent and good man, David Wilhelm, was also murdered.”

“We are determined that we will bring the murderer of these people to justice,” Nahmias said.

However, the peaceable capture of Nichols was a welcome and unexpected anticlimax to the bloodbath that erupted the previous day inside the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta’s heart.

There, authorities said, Nichols, the defendant in the retrial of a rape case, grabbed a sheriff’s deputy’s gun and fatally shot Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes, who was presiding over the trial, as well as a court reporter. When a second sheriff’s deputy tried to stop him in front of the courthouse, Nichols allegedly shot him to death as well.

Nichols then escaped, carjacked at least three vehicles in succession, and was last seen on a closed-circuit TV camera, seeming to saunter nonchalantly, hands in his pants pockets, as he left a downtown parking garage.

Police, who mistakenly thought Nichols had fled at the wheel of a commandeered green Honda, said Saturday he had instead left on foot and taken public transit. The car was later found inside the garage.

“We can always say we could have done a lot of things differently. … We could have possibly found the car quicker, or found him quicker,” said Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington. “But this most important part of this is we have him now, he’s in our custody.”

According to the Atlanta police chief, after leaving the garage, Nichols took a rapid-transit train to the Buckhead district of the city, where around 10:40 p.m. Friday, he accosted two out-of-state visitors in town for a college basketball tournament. Nichols flashed a gun, said he wanted money, and struck one of the people in the face, but the couple managed to flee, the chief said.

It was not immediately clear when Wilhelm was confronted. Sometime late Friday or early Saturday he was shot dead and his gun, badge and truck were taken. His body was discovered by a construction worker Saturday morning.