Thursday, March 12, 2015

Ten years later . . .

Ten years ago today, I went on an errand and wound up across the street from a killer.

The day before, I'd gotten a call from my best friend, asking if I was okay, and then telling me that there had been a shooting in downtown Atlanta.  This was in the days before I had an iPod Touch and an iPad, and thus I didn't have news apps that would alert me of breaking news.

While telling my friend to calm down and breathe, I turned on the TV and discovered that there had, indeed, been a shooting at the Fulton County Courthouse.  Brian Nichols, a man on trial for the rape of his former girlfriend, was accused of shooting and killing judge Rowland Barnes, court reporter Julie Ann Brandau, and Sergeant Hoyt Teasley, a Fulton County sheriff's deputy.

I watched the news, and saw over and over the video of someone giving Sergeant Teasley CPR as they rushed him to an ambulance.  I kept the news on all day, and at least once, the reporter said that they thought Nichols might be heading to Alabama.  So while I was upset by the events, I wasn't concerned that he would be coming around here.

Later, I learned that Nichols had overpowered and beaten a sheriff's deputy, Cynthia Hall, taken her gun, and used it to shoot Judge Barnes, Julie Brandau, and Hoyt Teasley.  He also carjacked at least four vehicles, including two belonging to employees of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

That was on a Friday.  By Saturday morning, they still had not found Nichols.

This was back during the days when we still had two cars, so Frank took one car and took Matthew with him, probably to the park.  I took the other car and loaded it up with stuff to be recycled.  The recycling place is about four and a half miles from where I live, across from an apartment complex.

When I got there, I saw a crowd of about twenty-five to fifty people gathered around, three police cars, and a man lying on his stomach in the driveway of the apartment complex.  I figured that the cops were just on edge because of the shootings, and that the guy in the driveway was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  

Someone in the crows asked, "Is it him?" Someone else said that they'd been ordered to leave the complex. And yet another person said, "They say he's killed three more people." I had heard on the way to the recycling center that a US Customs officer had been shot and killed, and that the officer's badge, ID, and pickup truck were missing. 

I still wasn't worried, but given the police activity around the complex across the street, I decided that
it would be best for me just to drop my stuff off and get out of there, fast. Which I did. 

That morning, around 11:45, I had the radio on and heard the announcer reporting a "hostage situation" at an apartment complex. When I heard the location, I realized that I had been there, just an
hour ago. Inside that apartment complex was exactly where Brian Nichols was holed up. 

The previous night, a 26-year-old woman, Ashley Smith (now Ashley Smith Robinson), had gone up to a gas station up the street to buy cigarettes. Nichols, hiding in the shadows, accosted her when she got back, forced her into her apartment, and tied her up.  

I admire Ashley Smith for what happened in the next seven hours.  Instead of panicking and screaming, and possibly getting herself shot, she kept her cool and got Nichols talking.  She talked to him about her young daughter.  She talked to him about God.  She read to him from the book The
Purpose-Driven Life. In the book she wrote after the ordeal was over, she admitted to giving Nichols crystal meth. She was a drug addict, struggling with her addiction at the time. 

Finally, after talking and cooking him pancakes, she convinced Nichols to let her go and pick up her daughter.  He offered to hang her curtains while she was gone. Once out of the apartment, she called 911, and the cops and the SWAT team came. I saw some of the cops when I went to the recycling center. 

Nichols, at around noon or shortly after, came out of the apartment, literally waving a white flag. He was immediately taken into custody and left in a police car, to the applause of the bystanders.  After arguments, trial motions, more arguments, more trial motions, he was finally tried in July, 2008.  He pled not guilty by reason of insanity.  He was found guilty and sentenced to multiple life terms in prison, to be run consecutively.  The jury failed to reach a unanimous conclusion on whether or not to give him the death penalty.  His ultimate "death penalty" will be to die in prison.  

Ten years later, courthouse security in Fulton County has been ramped up.  The families of the murder victims have had to adjust to life without their family members.  Those that Nichols attacked have had to live with the consequences of his actions.  At least one deals with post-traumatic stress disorder.  Cynthia Hall, the guard badly beaten by Nichols, went through rehab and today volunteers in the Atlanta area.  

By coincidence, this week I was also in a courtroom, having been summoned for jury duty.  I do admit that a few thoughts of the Atlanta shooting crossed my mind.  However, Gwinnett County has some good security.  We were well taken care of by the bailiffs assigned to us, and there were two uniformed officers with us in the courtroom while we were there.  Being an ex-court reporting student, I was more interested in the court reporter's work than I was in worrying about security.  

Ten years later, I find it interesting how close people can be to a moment that could change their lives forever.

Just my .04, adjusted for inflation.

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