ATLANTA—A man on trial for rape in a downtown courthouse today shot and killed the judge presiding over the case, a court reporter and a sheriff's deputy before fleeing, triggering a giant manhunt across the region.
As schools were locked down and authorities sealed off streets in the heart of the city, police -- assisted by state and federal law enforcement -- searched for Brian Nichols, 33, an Atlanta resident who was facing rape charges in the Fulton County Courthouse.
After apparently overpowering a deputy and taking her firearm in the courthouse, Nichols entered the eighth-floor courtroom of Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes about 9 a.m. and shot the 64-year-old judge and a court stenographer, both of whom died at the scene, according to Atlanta police.
Nichols fatally shot a deputy on the courthouse steps as he fled. The suspect then carjacked several vehicles to make his escape from the city center, according to authorities.
The deputy he overpowered was in critical condition but was expected to survive after suffering a gunshot wound to the head and fractures on her face, according to a doctor at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.
Authorities gave conflicting descriptions of the escape vehicle as they tried to find Nichols. A weapon was recovered outside the courthouse, according to police.
"Everybody that is in law enforcement in Fulton County is probably on the lookout for him," said Atlanta police spokeswoman Marion Lee.
"We are going to do everything we can to bring this person to justice," said Fulton County Sheriff Myron Freeman during a brief afternoon news conference. "We are not going to rest until we find him."
People in the courthouse this morning described a chaotic scene as gun-toting deputies raced through the building searching for Nichols, who made his escape by running down a stairwell.
Selina Brown, 36, was getting off an elevator on the eighth floor of the courthouse when the suspect bolted past her and ran down a stairway. Brown's attorney yanked her back into the elevator for her safety.
"I didn't know what was going on," said Brown, who was going to make a court appearance. "Everyone was flying around. It was very quick. There was a lot of commotion."
Defense attorney Renee Rockwell said deputies with guns drawn were running all over the eighth floor as she arrived to represent a client in a drug trafficking case. As she exited the building, Rockwell said she saw a wounded deputy lying face up on the courthouse steps.
Criminal lawyer Dennis Scheib, who had known Barnes for about 20 years, was in another eighth-floor courtroom when deputies came running through with guns drawn.
They "came back and said Judge Barnes had been shot. Several people gasped," Scheib said.
Authorities were still trying to piece together details of the shooting as they turned the Fulton Courthouse into a crime scene. It was not clear whether Nichols, who had changed into street clothes before his court appearance, was still handcuffed when he began shooting or whether he had more than one weapon, according to Atlanta Deputy Police Chief Alan Dreher.
Dreher, appearing at a news conference, said authorities had several locations under surveillance and had not ruled out the possibility that Nichols had crossed the state line.
The shooting and manhunt shocked Atlanta residents, and city leaders tried to reassure residents and visitors in town for several major events this weekend, including a college basketball tournament.
"It is our intent to continue this search and bring the resources to bear so that we can apprehend the perpetrator," Mayor Franklin said.
Atlanta attorneys praised Barnes as a fair-minded and compassionate jurist who studiously stayed on top of legal developments and their impact on cases before him. While he maintained a business-like demeanor in court, when outside, Barnes, a large, balding man with a beard, was described as a congenial and approachable individual who enjoyed sharing jokes with colleagues and giving advice to newcomers.
"He would be very serious in court, then you would go back in chambers, and he would be gracious and nice and laugh," said attorney David Wolfe, who had known Barnes for 15 years. "Even though you were talking about something serious, he still was human."
Barnes, who had served as a Superior Court judge since 1998, drew attention recently after he ordered a mother of seven children to undergo surgery to prevent her from having more children after she pleaded guilty to killing her 5-week-old daughter, according to Associated Press.
In addition, Barnes also presided over the trial of hockey star Dany Heatley, who lost control of his vehicle that crashed and killed his 25-year-old teammate Dan Snyder. Heatley was found guilty and sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to give 150 speeches about the dangers of speeding.
The Atlanta Constitution-Journal, which is located near the Fulton County Courthouse, reported that features writer Don O'Briant had just parked his car when he was approached by Nichols, who demanded O'Briant's car keys at gunpoint. O'Briant was then pistol-whipped after he refused to get into the trunk of the car.
"I turned to run, and that's when he hit me in the head with his gun," O'Briant said in a story on the paper's website. "I fell down, and I got up and ran into a garbage bin. I got up again and ran. I scrambled into the street, waiting for the shots to come, but they didn't come.
"He must have been out of bullets, because he didn't shoot me."
Jarvie reported from Atlanta, Sanchez handled rewrite from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Elizabeth Mehren and wire services contributed.