Video: Shooting analysis

By MSNBC analyst
updated 3/22/2005 9:33:29 AM ET 2005-03-22T14:33:29
COMMENTARY

In less than 26 hours there were four dead, including a judge, a court reporter, a deputy sheriff and a federal agent. A second deputy was shot and a third was captured and disarmed. A newspaper reporter and another local resident were pistol-whipped, multiple car-jackings took place and their owners were threatened with death. Tourists were mugged, an armed home invasion evolves into a hostage situation that is ultimately resolved by the suspected killer being arrested by a heavily armed SWAT team.

No, it's not the plot for some television techno-terrorism drama, but the unbelievably horrific actions of a one-man crime spree that devastated innocent families, terrorized a major urban community, and resulted in the largest manhunt in Georgia State history— all the while capturing the attention of the nation for a day.

It's a collective sigh of relief as residents of Atlanta can breathe as of Saturday afternoon. A day-long assault and murder spree by 33-year old Brian Nichols ended when the alleged quadruple murderer meekly waved a white flag (in reality a small towel) of surrender from the front door of an apartment when confronted by overwhelming firepower in the form of dozens of SWAT officers and agents. 

Until Friday morning, Nichols, a 6'1" 210 pound former college football line backer and computer consultant, was in jail and standing trial for his alleged kidnapping and vicious assault on his former girlfriend.  When returning Nichols to his jail cell from court on Thursday, jailers searched his shoes and found that he had smuggled two "shanks" or knife-like weapons from his jail cell into the courtroom.  When advised of this, presiding Judge Rowland Barnes ordered additional security for Nichols' court appearance on Friday, however, he was nonetheless allowed to be alone that day with 5'1", 51-year old sheriff's deputy Cynthia Hall. 

Video: Courthouse carjack victim Nichols overpowered Deputy Hall, grabbed her Beretta .40 cal. semi-automatic pistol, ammo magazines and police radio, and beat and shot the deputy. But instead of quickly fleeing the courthouse in furtherance of his escape, Nichols intentionally walked two or more minutes in the opposite direction and was somehow able to enter Judge Barnes' chambers.  He captured another deputy and seized a second gun, and then entered the courtroom where he shot and killed Judge Barnes and court reporter Julie Brandau, noting that the principal witness against Nichols (his former girlfriend), and prosecutor Gayle Abramson had yet to enter the room.  He then ran from the courthouse, stopping long enough to shoot and kill Deputy Sheriff Hoyt Teasley who had pursued him from the building. He carjacked a number of vehicles while demanding that at least one carjack victim stay in the car with him, but she instead ran screaming from her car. He next pistol whipped another vehicle owner who refused to accompany him, and then calmly walked down the street to the nearby rail station and rode the train to the northern part of town.  Later that evening this "human tsunami," one that cut a path of murder and mayhem across Atlanta, attempted to rob and then pistol whipped another victim, confronted and murdered off duty federal agent David Wilhelm, and finally took a local woman hostage in her own home.  She was eventually able to talk her way out of her apartment and called the police who quickly surrounded Nichols and took him into custody.         

Survival instinct
Another side of this emotional roller coaster, though, is how three of Nichols' victims faced death and survived. This includes the female driver who gave up her car but ran screaming when Nichols demanded she stay in the vehicle with him, and the male newspaper reporter next confronted by a fleeing Nichols who, although pistol whipped and threatened with death, refused to get into the trunk of his car and instead ran from the scene— again probably saving his life. 

Lesson one: When faced with an armed assailant who demands you accompany him, don't do it!  If you get into the trunk or climb into the vehicle of such an offender, to include staying in your own car in a car-jacking situation, you are his; and as the only witness against him, you are probably dead if you do as directed.  Instead do as two of Nichols' victims did, run away as fast as you can while yelling and screaming for help. Street criminals and other assailants are usually not proficient with firearms, and even in a worse case scenario, your chances are better to run and risk getting shot during your escape than to accompany the offender to a remote location— a place where he can shoot you anyway, but now you have no hope of outside intervention and assistance.

We now know that shortly after 2 a.m. Friday morning, Nichols followed a lone woman into her apartment, taking her hostage in a manner similar to that for which he was standing trial. 

Lesson two: When held hostage by an unknown offender, take the opportunity to talk to your captor, by this humanizing yourself and personally identifying with the offender in some manner, to include making sure he knows and calls you by name.  The victim of the home invasion was initially bound (again like Nichols did to his girlfriend when he kidnapped her) and thrown into her bathroom. The victim did not allow herself to be paralyzed by fear, but instead took the opportunity to talk to Nichols about her life, to include her deceased husband, her daughter and God, making Nichols see her as another challenged human being, someone with all the troubles that life can throw at you, someone like him and not simply another faceless victim.  Nichols eventually untied her and she was later able to escape and call 911, leading to Nichols' capture.  Not only did she do what she had to do to survive and escape, but she went the extra mile; thereby not only saving herself, but potentially others from the murderous actions of Nichols.

Case solved and now the living must heal and go on as best they can.  We join with those who morn the loss of the murder victims and pray for the swift recovery of those injured in this mindless crime spree... but it's over, isn't it? 

Later the same day that Nichols was captured, a lone gunman entered a church meeting in a local hotel just outside of Milwaukee.  The 44-year old shooter, a member of the church who was allegedly upset with a sermon some two weeks prior— someone described by neighbors as usually calm and mellow— walked into the meeting and began firing a semiautomatic pistol at the congregation, firing 22 shots and stopping only long enough to slam another loaded magazine into his gun. He eventually killed seven, his victims ranging in age from 10 to 72, and seriously wounded five more before committing suicide. Another press conference, another community devastated, and yet more dead to mourn. 

The faces of evil are all different, and yet somehow they all look just the same; they all look like any one of us.  As we consider the horrible events of these past few days and weeks, we need also to remember to love our families and appreciate our friends and neighbors.  Our time with them is special, and you just never know...

Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Van Zandt Associates Inc. Dr. Van Zandt and his associates also developed LiveSecure.org, a website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Mr. Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and in his current position, was the leader of the analytical team recognized with identifying the "Unabomber."

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