ATLANTA — Two pictures have emerged of the man police say went on a bloody rampage through Atlanta — allegedly killing a judge and as many as three others before his arrest Saturday at a suburban apartment complex.
Family members describe Brian Nichols as a “good person” who came from a stable home and avoided the temptations of the street. Former classmates and coaches, on the other hand, recall him as a physically intimidating martial arts expert with a knack for trouble.
Police say Nichols, a former computer technician who was on trial for rape, overpowered a female sheriff’s deputy Friday and shot and killed Judge Rowland Barnes, who was presiding over his case. He also is accused of killing the judge’s court reporter and a deputy who tried to stop him as he fled the downtown courthouse.
Nichols is also a suspect in the shooting death of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent David Wilhelm, whose body was found Saturday in north Atlanta.
Family grapples with questions
“We’re trying to understand this whole thing,” Nichols’ sister-in-law Felisza Nichols said from her home in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., suburb of Plantation. “Why did this happen? His character is completely opposite to what is going on.”
Nichols’ mother, Clathera, is a retired IRS worker, and his father, Gene, was an entrepreneur, their daughter-in-law said. They raised their sons in Maryland, sending them to private schools and to college.
Nichols’ parents were living in Africa, where his mother worked for a local revenue department, Felisza Nichols said. They had planned to return home next week.
Nichols was briefly a student at Kutztown University in eastern Pennsylvania. He enrolled in the fall of 1989, made it through his freshman year, then left the university in the fall semester of his sophomore year.
'He was a bad dude'
Nick Pergine, who played football with Nichols at Kutztown, said Nichols’ massive physical presence and martial arts skills earned him a reputation as someone to be careful around.
“He was a bad dude,” Pergine said. “You didn’t mess with him.”
Jake Williams, who coached Nichols at Kutztown, compared Nichols’ physique with that of NFL star John Mobley, who also played at the university.
“He was a physical specimen like you wouldn’t believe,” Williams said.
Nichols was arrested at least three times during his short stay at the university.
In 1990, he was charged with terroristic threats, simple assault, disorderly conduct and harassment, stemming from an incident in a university dining hall, according to court documents. He pleaded guilty to the two lesser charges and the others were dropped.
The next year, Nichols was arrested twice in a month for criminal trespassing, misdemeanor criminal mischief and disorderly conduct. The charges were later dropped.
Described as a 'nuisance'
After dropping out of school, Nichols moved to Georgia in 1995. He lived in an apartment complex in Atlanta, where a neighbor described him as a “nuisance” because he would occasionally let his pit bull roam around the complex.
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 in the rape case.
Felisza Nichols says the portrait of her 33-year-old brother-in-law as a bloodthirsty killer doesn’t make sense.
“He’s a good person,” she said. “He didn’t come from a broken home. He’s not a person who hung out in the streets and was always in jail. He came up living a good life.”
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