ATLANTA – Police searching for a man suspected in a courthouse triple slaying said a U.S. customs agent was discovered shot to death in north Atlanta on Saturday, and his blue pickup truck, pistol and badge were missing.
Officials were trying to determine if the slaying was related to the courthouse rampage Friday. The body was found in the area where suspect Brian Nichols used to live.
“We don’t know if this is the same suspect,” Fulton County Police deputy Chief G.D. Stiles said. “Whoever is driving this pickup truck is a cop killer.”
Nichols, 33, was suspected of killing a judge and two other people at a downtown courthouse Friday, then stealing a reporter’s car. He apparently never took the reporter’s green Honda Accord from the parking garage where he stole it and attempted more hijackings afterward, police said.
Atlanta police spokesman John Quigley said early Saturday that authorities were reviewing surveillance tapes “to see what leads we can develop from that.” One of those tapes came from CNN security cameras in the parking garage where the carjacking took place.
The photos show a black man resembling Nichols donning a jacket that CNN said belonged to Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Don O’Briant.
Nichols beat O’Briant and demanded his car after fleeing the courthouse, where he fatally shot a judge, a court reporter and deputy sheriff with a gun he stole from another deputy sheriff, Cynthia Hall. She remained in critical condition Saturday.
O’Briant wrote in Saturday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he had just parked his car when a young man pulled beside him and asked for directions to a nearby mall. Before O’Briant could oblige, the man pulled a gun and said, “Give me your keys or I’ll kill you,” then 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.
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 car, and highway message boards across the state issued descriptions of the vehicle. The report about the car being found came more than 13 hours after the slayings.
Authorities continued to ask for the public’s help in finding Nichols early Saturday, and Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan said, “We do not know what type of vehicle he is in.”
At the state Capitol, just down the street from the site of the shooting, 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.
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.
“I’ve just kept my doors locked,” said James Spice, 18, whose home is around the corner. “I always lock up, but I’m just making sure. My mom called and told me to.”
Nichols, a former computer technician, was being escorted to his trial, in its fourth day, when the incident began 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.
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 — 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.
“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 (news – web sites), were assisting in the search. A reward of $60,000 was being offered for information leading to Nichols’ capture.