ATLANTA -- A huge manhunt swung into motion across the Southeast yesterday as officers searched for a rape suspect accused of overpowering a sheriff's deputy in an Atlanta courthouse and then using her gun to kill a judge, a court stenographer, and a second sheriff's deputy who had chased the alleged assailant into the street.
The paralyzing shock of the triple slaying, which shut down a chunk of Atlanta's downtown a block from the golden dome of the state Capitol, gave way to revelations of hints the suspect may have given about violent intentions. Two days before the shootings, deputies escorting the suspect, Brian Nichols, 33, from the courthouse to his jail cell noticed something in his shoes. They found two sharp shanks, common jailhouse weapons that the suspect probably fashioned from whittled doorknobs. The day before the killings, one of the men Nichols is accused of murdering -- Judge Rowland Barnes, 64 -- had asked for extra security during Nichols's scheduled testimony yesterday.
The killings, which occurred 11 days after a Chicago federal judge's husband and mother were slain in their home, set off a new round of worries about the safety of judges, prosecutors, and others involved in the criminal justice system. On average, 700 threats against judicial officials are logged each day, the US Marshals Service reported. A federal appeals court judge, Robert Vance, was killed by a pipe bomb at his Birmingham home in 1989, and the year before, another federal judge, Richard Daronco, was shot in his backyard in New York by the father of a plaintiff in a dismissed sexual discrimination case.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, whose office was prosecuting Nichols, said threats the suspect made before the shootings were part of the routine drumbeat of jailhouse chatter.
Nichols had told people in the courthouse that he was ''not going to go lying down" when he learned that he would be retried after an earlier mistrial on charges of breaking into his former girl-friend's home, holding her at gunpoint, binding her with duct tape, and raping her. Nichols's courtroom demeanor was perpetually ''cocky," Assistant District Attorney Gayle Abramson said. He taunted her during the retrial this week by saying, ''You're doing a better job this time," and asked for cigarettes and food during court. Abramson said Nichols was aware that his case was going poorly. He faced life in prison if convicted.
Yesterday morning, the 6-foot, 200-pound Nichols was being escorted from an eighth-floor holding cell to Barnes's courtroom when he attacked Cynthia Hall, the 16-year sheriff's deputy assigned to escort him, investigators said. He was not handcuffed and was wearing regular clothes rather than a prisoner's uniform so as not to influence jurors.
Nichols snatched Hall's gun and assaulted her. She is hospitalized in critical condition with a head injury but is expected to survive. Nichols then allegedly went to Barnes's courtroom, where the judge was hearing arguments in a civil case. He knew the judge well. Barnes had presided over his first trial and was also presiding over the retrial.
Barnes had been on the bench since 1998. He was a well-liked jurist, whose best-known case had been the 2003 car wreck involving hockey star Dany Heatley that killed his teammate Dan Snyder, 25. He recently made a folksy submission to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, praising one of his court reporters, Julie Brandau, who regularly made peach bread and other treats for jurors and whose ''bright and cheerful personality overflows into the ingredients."
''The staff and I are sometimes jealous of her attentions to the jury, and lament the usual lack of leftovers. We wish she would feed us half as well as she does the jury members," he wrote.
When Nichols made it into the courtroom, sheriff's deputies said, he held about a dozen people at gunpoint before shooting Barnes and Brandau, 43. Nichols then managed to descend eight floors and slip out of the courthouse. In front of the courthouse, he was chased by Hoyt Teasley, a 19-year sheriff's deputy. Nichols allegedly shot Teasley, who died from a single wound in his abdomen, and fled.
The courthouse was locked down. Lawyers were rushed into secure offices; jurors were told to take cover. Investigators say Nichols encountered Don O'Briant, a Journal-Constitution feature writer on his way to work, pistol-whipped him, and stole his Honda Accord.
Then he disappeared.
Outside the courthouse, clerks and stenographers cried and hugged, mourning old friends.
Police and sheriff's deputies, working with federal and state law enforcement officers, launched helicopters for the search, prowled the highways, and alerted authorities in neighboring states. Craig Schwall, a state court judge, said his courtroom deputies think Nichols may have two guns and two magazines of ammunition. Several houses were searched, but Nichols remained at large late last night.
John Matteson, a lawyer who was on a lower floor when the shootings occurred, said an attack was bound to happen because of a shortage of courtroom deputies.
After the shootings, Robert A. Mulligan, chief justice for administration and management for the state trial courts in Massachusetts, released a statement saying metal detectors, court officers, and other security measures at state courts make for a safe environment. And Paul Sugrue, a spokesman for the US Marshals Service in Boston, which provides security for the federal courthouse, said the marshals have many layers of security at the building and also advise judges on security measures they should take at their homes.
''To tell you about security makes it ineffective so we try not to give out too many secrets, but we are all over it," he said.
US District Judge Nancy Gertner said no new security steps have been taken to protect federal judges after the killings in Atlanta and Chicago. She said judges should not be under such tight security that they're cut off from the world.
''You don't want judges like that," she said. ''You want people who live in the community."
Globe staff writer Shelley Murphy contributed to this report.