Brian G. Nichols set off the largest manhunt in Georgia history Friday after fleeing Fulton County's courthouse in broad daylight. A Fulton County deputy was overpowered and disarmed, and three people were slain, including a prominent judge. Nichols was at large for more than 24 hours - during which time several people were beaten, cars were hijacked and an immigration customs agent was killed.
Yet for all that, it was not the combined efforts of local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies that brought him down; it was a woman he took hostage in a Duluth apartment - Ashley Smith, a 26-year-old mother and widow who already had tasted plenty of pain in her life when her husband was murdered in Augusta four years ago.
Somehow, after hours of talk and pleading for her life, Smith apparently touched Nichols on a spiritual level, rekindling what few sparks of humanity he had left in his soul.
After nearly seven hours of captivity, Smith talked him into letting her go to check on her daughter. He had to have known she would turn him in - and she did. Soon, the manhunt was over and Nichols surrendered to police, as docile as a puppy.
Police rightly characterized Ashley Smith as a heroine who kept her cool while under extraordinary stress. As for Nichols, he might have even enjoyed the rich irony of watching TV coverage of the manhunt.
If Fulton County and Atlanta police had been half as smart as Ashley Smith, there would have been no courthouse murders, much less a broad daylight escape. Much of the manhunt resembled a Keystone Kops operation - starting with the foolishness of leaving one armed deputy alone with a 6-foot-plus, 210-pound man skilled in the martial arts.
We don't make too much of the fact that it was a 51-year-old female deputy whom Nichols overpowered and disarmed - because given the terrific physical shape the 33-year-old man is in, it could have happened to virtually any deputy - man or woman. The point is, it's inexcusable that there weren't several deputies guarding Nichols, particularly since the judge who died in the courthouse rampage had earlier requested the Fulton County Sheriff's Office for extra security after two homemade knives was found in Nichols' shoes.
Then there was the green Honda Accord that Nichols is believed to have escaped in after pistol-whipping an Atlanta newspaper reporter. Police spent most of Friday looking for the Honda before it was discovered in the same parking deck from which it was stolen.
All that time was wasted while Nichols escaped - and more assaults, and the slaying of the customs agent, followed. Had the police been on the ball, none of these tragedies would have happened.
Thank heaven for Ms. Smith. She kept her head while some police were losing theirs.
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