ATLANTA - A man being escorted into court for his rape trial Friday stole a deputy’s gun, killed the judge and two other people and carjacked a reporter’s vehicle to escape, setting off a massive manhunt and creating widespread chaos across Atlanta, police said.
Hundreds of officers in cruisers and helicopters swarmed the area in search of the suspect, identified as 33-year-old Brian Nichols. The suspect, a former computer technician, had raised alarm a day earlier when he was found in court with two handmade knives hidden in his shoes, prosecutors said.
The rampage led to chaos around the city, with schools, restaurants and office buildings locking down amid fears that the suspect might strike again. Nichols’ mug shot was plastered all over TV screens, and highway message boards issued descriptions of the stolen vehicle.
Late Friday, police reported that the car had been found in a downtown Atlanta parking lot, not far from where it was stolen.
‘‘Mr. Nichols is considered armed and extremely dangerous and should not be approached,’’ Fulton County Sheriff Myron Freeman said. ‘‘We are not going to rest until we find him.’’
Nichols got the semiautomatic pistol by overpowering the woman deputy while he was being led down a corridor in the Fulton County Courthouse, assistant police chief Alan Dreher said. After shooting the deputy in the face, the suspect then went to the courtroom, held about a dozen people at bay for a short time and shot and killed Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes, 64, and court reporter Julie Brandau, authorities said.
Another deputy, identified as Sgt. Hoyt Teasley, was later killed outside the Atlanta courthouse when he confronted the suspect, Dreher said. The deputy shot while leading Nichols to court, identified as Cynthia Hall, was in critical condition but expected to survive.
At one point after the shootings, police said Nichols pistol-whipped a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, stole his green 1997 Honda Accord and sped away from a parking garage. Witnesses reported the suspect carrying out a series of carjackings before that; a police spokesman would only say he attempted to commandeer at least one other vehicle.
‘‘When he had the gun in my face, you start to think, ‘How can I stay alive.’ I thought this was a routine carjack. I didn’t know two other people were killed,’’ said Don O’Briant, a features writer for the Journal-Constitution.
The shootings occurred after the judge and prosecutors had requested extra security for deputies after investigators found the sharp objects in each of Nichols’ shoes Thursday, prosecutor Gayle Abramson said. She said the objects were apparently fashioned by sharpening pieces of a doorknob assembly.
Freeman said the extra security that was requested by the prosecutor’s office was provided. He refused to elaborate.
Dreher said there were no officers other than the woman deputy assisting with taking Nichols to court. The law requires that defendants on trial not be handcuffed as they enter the courtroom, to make sure the sight of cuffs doesn’t unfairly influence the jury.
The shooting occurred shortly after Nichols had changed out of his prison uniform and into street clothes. After shooting the deputy, police said he went through a walkway that leads into the courthouse where the judge’s chambers are located, proceeding to gun down the judge and his court reporter.
The shootings occurred shortly after 9 a.m. Friday — the fourth day of Nichols’ trial. Nichols had been facing a retrial on charges of rape, sodomy, burglary, and false imprisonment, among others, after his earlier trial ended in a hung jury a week ago.
‘‘I think he probably realized . . . he might be convicted this time, he might not have a chance to walk out,’’ Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said. ‘‘We believe he came here with the intent to make sure that didn’t happen.’’
Nichols was accused of bursting into his exgirlfriend’s home, binding her with duct tape and sexually assaulting her over three days. Howard said Nichols brought a loaded machine gun into the home and a cooler with food.
Nichols, who had been jailed for the last six months, had faced a possible life prison sentence if convicted for rape.
Nichols’ last known job was working as a computer technician for a subsidiary of Atlanta-based shipping giant UPS. Company spokesman Norm Black says Nichols joined the unit in March 2004 and left in September 2004, which was when he was arrested.
More than 100 state troopers and officers from several agencies, including the FBI, were assisting in the search, but there were few leads, said G.D. Stiles, a Fulton County deputy chief.
Offers of help from officers on their days off were pouring in.
Nichols’ attorney, Barry Hazen, told CNN his client is a ‘‘very intelligent, articulate man’’ and never seemed violent. But he acknowledged the concern raised by the sharp objects found in his shoes.
‘‘Judge Barnes indicated to us that he was going to have security in the courtroom beefed up for the remainder of the trial,’’ said Hazen. ‘‘We were most concerned what reaction we would get if a jury were to convict him.’’
News of the judge being killed stunned Georgia’s legal community, who praised Barnes for his personable approach to justice and his sense of humor.
‘‘We’re shook to the core,’’ said Linda Dreyer, an employee in the court administrator’s office.
‘‘This is a profound shock. It’s so unthinkable, it’s like a 9/11 at the courthouse,’’ said fellow Judge Craig Schwall.
Barnes drew national attention last month when he approved a plea deal that required a mother of seven who pleaded guilty to killing her 5-week-old daughter to have a medical procedure that would prevent her from having more children.
James Bailey, a juror at Nichols’ trial, said the jury was not in the courtroom at the time of the shooting.
He said Nichols had made him and other jurors nervous. ‘‘Every time he looked up, he was staring at you,’’ Bailey said.