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PAULA ZAHN NOW

What Went Wrong in Atlanta? Teacher Provides Insights on Ashley Smith

Aired March 14, 2005 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: And good evening, everyone, from Atlanta. Welcome. Thanks so much for being with us tonight.
Tonight, we are outside the Fulton County Courthouse, where it all began last Friday, a life-and-death drama with a desperate murder suspect on the run, only to be stopped by a lone woman who overcame unimaginable fear. Tonight, we go beyond the headlines to see for ourselves.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN (voice-over): Quiet strength in a city on edge. One woman brings a nightmare to a peaceful end.

ASHLEY SMITH, FORMER HOSTAGE: He said he thought that I was an angel sent from God, and that I was his sister, and he was my brother in Christ.

ZAHN: Relying on faith and courage.

SMITH: My husband died four years ago, and I told him that, if he hurt me, my little girl wouldn't have a mommy or a daddy.

ZAHN: And touching the heart of a desperate gunman.

SMITH: He said, you know, I'd rather you -- the guns are laying in there. I'd rather you shoot me than them. I said I don't want anyone else to die, not even you.

ZAHN: Tonight, the quiet strength of Ashley Smith.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And tonight, Atlanta owes more than just a thank you to Ashley Smith.

After 26 hours of terror that started right here on Friday after the murders of a judge, a court reporter, a deputy and a federal agent, finally, what it took to end the violence and the fear, courage, compassion and clear thinking from a 26-year-old single mom. Ashley Smith spent a frightening night trying to win the trust of a man wanted for four murders. Because of her, Brian Nichols gave up peacefully on Saturday.

Well, now he's back in the custody of Fulton County authorities facing murder charges.

Here's Tony Harris.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TONY HARRIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Ashley Smith came face-to-face with an accused killer.

SMITH: And then he took his hat off, and he said, Now do you know who I am? And I said, Yeah, I know who you are. Please don't hurt me. Just please don't hurt me. I have a 5-year-old little girl. Please don't hurt me.

HARRIS: The man on the run had run into a woman toughened by adversity. She told Brian Nichols some of her own story when she thought she was bargaining for her life.

SMITH: My husband died four years ago, and I told him that if he hurt me, my little girl wouldn't have a mommy or a daddy. And she was expecting to see me the next morning. And if he didn't let me go, she would be really upset.

HARRIS: Life had always been a challenge for Ashley. Her grandparents raised her after her father had run off when she was a baby.

SMITH'S GRANDMOTHER: There was just so much going on there in the house. And I pretty much thought, poor Ashley. And then I thought, well, she'll be able to take care of herself. And she has a level head.

HARRIS: Her grandfather had been headmaster at Augusta Christian School. That's where she went. She was on the drill team and played sports and developed an independent spirit.

But life after high school was no easier. Ashley was convicted for shoplifting. Then she got married early, had a baby with her husband, Mack Smith, after dropping out of college. Four years ago, at this apartment complex in a case that remains unsolved, Mack Smith was part of a brawl. He was stabbed. Ashley, who was across the parking lot, tried to get him to a hospital, but he died in her arms.

LARRY CROFT, STEPFATHER OF ASHLEY SMITH: I still have the pickup truck that they were in. He fell back and into her arms in the back of that truck. And he died right there in her arms, right there in her arms, and I got on the scene about -- oh, gosh, they hadn't even taken him away yet. And she was just -- she was just -- of course. I mean, it was just -- it was horrible.

HARRIS: Larry Croft, who had been her stepfather, says that Ashley was depressed after her husband's violent death.

CROFT: Well, she worked for me on and off for several years. And, yes, she was always -- you know, she could do anything. The child was brilliant -- a brilliant child. And she would do things like bookkeeping, answering the phone, helping me with my closing sales calls, things like that.

HARRIS: After working for Croft, Ashley decided to make a new start in suburban Atlanta, but had trouble holding a job. Her daughter stayed back in Augusta, and Ashley saw her once a week.

SMITH'S GRANDFATHER: Papa and mama, believe me, I'm going to do something that's going to make you proud of me.

HARRIS: Ashley had just moved into the Bridgewater apartment complex and took a break to go out and buy cigarettes when Brian Nichols showed up. She talked him out of violence, even followed him, so he could get rid of his stolen truck.

SMITH: So we went back to my house. And we got in the house, and he was hungry.

So I cooked him breakfast. He was overwhelmed with, Wow! He said, Real butter, pancakes?

HARRIS: Whether it was that touch of humanity that did it, Brian Nichols let Ashley Smith go.

SMITH: But I left my house at 9:30, and I got in the car, and I immediately called 911 and told them that he was there. And she asked me where I was. I said, I'm on my way to see my daughter.

I felt glad to just really be on my way to see my daughter.

HARRIS: Ashley's grandfather -- indeed, all of her relatives -- say they thought she was capable of doing something amazing, that her life and faith had made her ready. And that's what they say this young woman did this past Saturday.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: What an amazingly strong young woman. That was Tony Harris reporting from Augusta, Georgia.

Joining me now, Ashley's stepfather, Larry Croft, also in Augusta. You met him briefly in Tony's previous piece.

Good of you to join us, sir.

I know you've had the chance to talk with Ashley today. How is she holding up?

CROFT: Remarkably well, Paula.

ZAHN: What did the two of you talk about?

CROFT: Well, we have just talked about -- I've just reiterated how proud I am of her and how I've always told her that I knew that she was capable and that something good was going to happen to her, just kind of reiterating my love for her, I guess.

ZAHN: I know, Larry, this is going to be a little bit difficult because you're competing with a train right now, but I guess I was amazed when I watched her during the news conference by her common sense.

CROFT: Poise.

ZAHN: And by her very methodical approach and the psychology used to talk this guy out of hurting more people. Where did that come from?

CROFT: Well, Paula, I'll tell you. Like I told the previous reporter, she has always been a very resolved person, a very focused type person.

She's -- I'll give you a good example. When she was in high school, she thought that she was a little overweight. She'd get up at 5:00 in the morning, before she'd go to school, and she would do an hour and a half of calisthenics. And the child wasn't overweight, but she thought she was. And, so, by George, she was going to -- she was going to get -- she was going to exercise and get the weight off.

That's just a little, I guess, a little snippet of -- and you're right. The train is loud. That's just a little snippet of the perseverance that she has. She's always had it. She's always been...

ZAHN: And we've talked with a lot of people who know her like you do. And say the same thing. But to have the presence of mind to do what she did when her own life was being threatened is even more remarkable.

CROFT: Well, she comes from good stock.

Let me just say this to you. The personality traits that she has always possessed coalesced, obviously, the other night. And it was her faith in Jesus Christ and things like -- for instance, if you want a human side of this, if you want some traits, I'll tell you that the bravery probably came from her grandfather. He was a hero in two wars.

The love of people in general and her humane love for her fellow man, if you will, came from her grandmother, who, by all accounts, is a saint. Her quick thinking and her coolness under pressure came from her mother. Her mother is one of the smartest people I've ever met. And this nurturing, this nurturing thing that makes her such a wonderful mama to Paige -- and obviously, she kind of gained this fellow's confidence and -- I don't know -- I won't say mothered him, but whatever, but she got that, she got that mothering instinct from her aunt. She mothers everybody.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: And so Larry -- so Larry, in the end, do you think, because faith was so fundamentally important to her and she shared some of what she had been reading in some books that have inspired her, that that was how she ultimately won Brian Nichols' trust?

CROFT: Without a doubt. I mean, do you doubt it? Without a doubt. Of course it was.

And again, what I want to try to explain to you is that Ashley will tell you now, she's no hero. Jesus Christ is the hero, and she was just trying to share that with this fellow, who had lost all hope. Well, she had been knocked down too, sometimes by her own hand, but most of the time by others. And she never had lost faith, don't you see?

ZAHN: Well, I'll tell you one thing. We all stand in admiration of her tonight, particularly law enforcement. I was talking with an officer today who said hostage negotiators could learn an awful lot by what Ashley pulled off over the weekend.

Larry Croft, thank you so much for sharing some time with us tonight.

CROFT: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Thank you for having me.

ZAHN: We know you're exhausted. And we could hear you over the train after all. Good luck to your family.

(CROSSTALK)

CROFT: That's a good thing. Thank you, ma'am.

ZAHN: Well yes, I hope so.

The way Ashley Smith tells it, there was a major turning point in those tense and dangerous hours when she was being held by Brian Nichols. It came as she read him a passage from a best-selling spiritual book.

And our Kyra Phillips now has more on the words that may have moved the alleged killer.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The deputies were just running around and saying, get out of the courthouse, get out of the courthouse.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everybody off the sidewalk.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): How does one find purpose within this, a senseless shooting spree? What was Brian Nichols' purpose when he allegedly murdered four people? That's for the court to decide. What the world is listening to now is Ashley Smith's purpose, a purpose, she says, she found in this book.

SMITH: I turned it to the chapter that I was on that day, which was Chapter 33. And I started to read the first paragraph of it. After I read it, he said, Stop. Will you read it again?

PHILLIPS: She did, a passage about serving God by serving others. Day 33 in Reverend Rick Warren's number one "New York Times" best-seller, "The Purpose Driven Life." She was reading it to the man who was holding her hostage, Brian Nichols, wanted for murder.

HOWARD CREECY, FULTON COUNTY COURTHOUSE CHAPLAIN: It gave her the power to become who she always was.

PHILLIPS: Reverend Howard Creecy is the Fulton County Courthouse chaplain.

CREECY: It gave her an understanding that she had a date with destiny and instead of being overwhelmed, she would be an overcomer.

PHILLIPS: Reverend Creecy has been praying with his employees since the deadly rampage, seeking strength for the victims' families. He has also been telling everyone about Ashley Smith's purpose.

CREECY: It was her day, her hour. And what if all of us found our purpose? What a better world this would be.

PHILLIPS: For a few hours this weekend, Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols shared a common purpose.

SMITH: He said he thought that I was an angel sent from God and that I was his sister and he was my brother in Christ.

CREECY: Angel in the Bible simply means messenger. You are my messenger. You are bringing me back from where I've been.

PHILLIPS: The next morning, Ashley told Brian he had a purpose in life.

CREECY: I said, You know, your miracle could be that you need to be -- you need to be caught for this. You need to go to prison and you need to share the word of God with all the prisoners there.

PHILLIPS: And so it happened. Brian Nichols surrendered to police, perhaps a miracle for both of them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: Kyra Phillips reporting from Atlanta.

We're told that Ashley Smith will make a statement to reporters this evening about her experiences of the last few days. Please stick with us. We will cut to it as soon as she starts.

A reminder, we are not in New York City tonight. We are broadcasting live from outside the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta, the scene of Friday's tragic shootings. In those frantic hours after the shootings, downtown Atlanta was swarming with police. So the question tonight is, how did he get away?

Coming up next, details of what you haven't heard, and then an exclusive interview and some hard questions. How did the police miss some obvious clues?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And welcome back. We join you once again from outside the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta, Georgia.

Still ahead tonight, were the police in the right place? What they got right, what they didn't. We're going to take you inside the manhunt.

First, it's just about a quarter past the hour. That means it's time to check in with Erica Hill at Headline News for the hour's other top stories.

Hi, Erica.

ERICA HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Paula.

Former President Clinton is resting at home tonight and says he looks forward to returning to work within the next month. He was released from a New York hospital late this afternoon, four days after a follow-up procedure to open heart surgery last fall.

Meantime, the battle over same-sex marriage taking a new turn in California. A San Francisco judge says it is unconstitutional for the state to limit marriage to a union between a man and a woman. The ruling is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Under defense questioning today, Michael Jackson's teenage accuser admitted he told his school's dean that Jackson -- quote -- "didn't do anything to him." The 15-year-old also testified he was disruptive at school and spent time in detention.

Former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume has made it official. He is running for the U.S. Senate next year in Maryland. And if elected, he would become the first black U.S. senator in that state's history. Mfume served five terms in Congress before taking the NAACP job nine years ago.

And that's going to do it from the Headline News Desk. Paula, back to you.

ZAHN: So, what do you think she's going to say tonight?

Erica, thanks so much. We're going to check back in with you in just about a half-hour from now.

You certainly haven't heard the full story of what happened here in downtown Atlanta last Friday. Coming up next, some new details, the desperate search and the missed opportunities. Also ahead, in the wake of Atlanta's tragic violence, lessons in security for every courthouse in the country.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And welcome back to Atlanta.

Since the hunt for Brian Nichols ended on Saturday morning, we have learned much more about what happened here outside the Fulton County courthouse last Friday and inside.

David Mattingly takes us beyond the headlines, step by step through that terrifying day.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the end, he gave up without a struggle, a peaceful, but curious conclusion to a spree of violence that left four dead and a city on the edge.

Brian Nichols waved a white shirt, calling it quits after a fevered manhunt that erupted 26 hours earlier. According to authorities, it started here in Atlanta's Fulton County Justice Tower around 9:00 a.m. Friday, after Nichols, on his way to court to stand trial for the alleged rape and kidnapping of his former girlfriend, had changed into civilian clothes and had his handcuffs removed in a holding area by Sheriff's Deputy Cynthia Hall.

In what some are now calling a glaring lack of security, authorities say Nichols was able to attack and critically injure the lone female deputy. Instead of escaping, authorities say Nichols then took Hall's keys, retrieved her gun, crossed a sky bridge into the next building and headed for the courtroom, where, on the way, he briefly took several people hostage, including another deputy.

Taking the second deputy's gun, authorities say Nichols then entered the eighth floor courtroom, where he shot dead Judge Rowland Barnes and court reporter Julie Brandau.

RENEE ROCKWELL, EYEWITNESS: And I just saw -- when I came around the corner, I saw a hat on the ground and deputies were all running with guns drawn, which you don't ever see that. And they were going, get out of the way. Get down. Get in the courtroom.

MATTINGLY: Nichols dashed down a stairwell and into the street, where witnesses say he shot and fatally wounded Deputy Hoyt Teasley. In a matter of minutes, four people were dead or seriously hurt, an entire building in a state of panic.

Disappearing into a neighboring parking garage, authorities say Nichols then launched into an elaborate series of carjackings, first, stealing a dark SUV. He raced less than three blocks to another parking deck, where he eluded police by running outside and stealing a tow truck from driver Deronta Franklin.

Nichols then drove to another deck about six blocks away, where Almeta Kilgo says he stole her car. She says she escaped when she refused Nichols' orders to stay in the car. Speeding away, Nichols then drove a couple more blocks to yet another deck, where he stole the car of Atlanta newspaper reporter Don O'Briant. O'Briant says Nichols ordered him in to the trunk, but pistol-whipped him when he refused. O'Briant managed to run away.

Caught on a surveillance camera, Nichols is then seen driving away in a green Honda, or so everyone thought. RICHARD PENNINGTON, ATLANTA POLICE CHIEF: We're going to do everything we can to locate and apprehend that person. So, it's important to first find the car.

MATTINGLY: About 9:30 a.m., about a half-hour after the violent spree began, chaos reigned at the courthouse and Deputy Teasley was declared dead at a nearby hospital.

At almost the same time, Nichols is caught again on the same parking deck security cameras, this time in a change of clothing and not driving, as police believed, but calmly walking away. Police now believe Nichols then moved unnoticed across the street through a crowd gathered for a college basketball tournament and made his escape using public transportation.

While authorities flashed alerts to be on the lookout for a green Honda and patrol cars massed along Atlanta expressways, Nichols was completing the perfect getaway, riding commuter trains on a less-than- 30-minute trip to the Lennox Station, about eight miles from the courthouse, where his first victim lost their lives.

(on camera): Nichols' choice of stops was perfect for someone who didn't want to be noticed. There are two large malls nearby with thousands of people coming and going. And, for a while, Nichols seemed to disappear.

(voice-over): Some time later -- no one is sure when -- but police say Nichols encountered U.S. Immigrations and Customs Agent David Wilhelm, who was working on his new house not far from the transit station. Authorities say Nichols shot and killed Wilhelm, taking not just his life, but also his gun, his badge and his blue pickup.

MICHAEL GARCIA, IMMIGRATION AND CUSTOMS ENFORCEMENT: Special agent Wilhelm dedicated his life to his country, serving in federal law enforcement for nearly 18 years. His death is a tragic loss to the entire law enforcement community, especially for our office in Atlanta.

MATTINGLY: Then, late that night, around 11:00 p.m., the green Honda, the key piece of evidence so many had worked so hard to find, was discovered in the very same parking garage from which it had been stolen, only one floor down.

PENNINGTON: I know that it was chaos that day. A lot of things were going on, but -- and information that we received that Brian Nichols actually drove out of that garage.

MATTINGLY: While police collected the car, Nichols may have already been on the move again, this time driving 17 miles across Atlanta's northern suburbs to Gwinnett County, where, at approximately 2:30 a.m., Nichols surprised a woman and forced his way inside her apartment and temporarily bound her. But then a new picture of Nichols emerged.

SMITH: I don't want to hurt you. I don't want to hurt anybody else. So please don't do anything that's going to make me hurt you.

He said, You know, somebody could have heard your scream already. And if they did, the police are on the way, and I'm going to have to hold you hostage, and I'm going to have to kill and probably myself and lots of other people. And I don't want that. And I said, OK, I'll do what you say.

MATTINGLY: Unlike the long list of previous victims, Nichols for some reason carried on a long conversation with Ashley Smith. And between 9:30 and 10:00 Saturday morning, Nichols let her go.

A quick 911 call, 90 minutes and 30 tactical officers later, Nichols surrendered. The 26-hour manhunt involving hundreds of uniformed officers ended by the actions of a single cool-headed victim.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And David Mattingly joins us now.

You have followed this rampage, basically, from the first shot fired to Brian Nichols' capture. What do law enforcement officials tell you? Was this carefully planned?

MATTINGLY: Police very early on said this was a very smart man and had showed a great deal of indications that he was thinking this through as he was going through it, thinking it through very carefully, the way he was so efficiently able to move from parking deck to parking deck to parking deck.

You've been here a short time. You know it's not the easiest place to find your way around in this town.

ZAHN: No.

MATTINGLY: He seemed to know exactly where he was going to, parking deck A, B, C until he found that car he thought he could get away in. Apparently he didn't do that. That's when he decided to take the public transit. The one thing he probably didn't think far enough ahead for was where he was going to go. And that's why ended up in Gwinnett County, knocking on a strangers door.

ZAHN: And I guess the one person he didn't expect to ever meet was Ashley Smith, who's widely credited with convincing him to turn himself in.

MATTINGLY: That's right, a truly remarkable story.

ZAHN: David Mattingly, thank you for dropping by tonight.

Authorities are still considering tonight what charges to file against Brian Nichols. He will make a brief court appearance tomorrow morning at 10:00. With me now, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard. Thank you so much for joining us. Our hearts go out to you and your community.

Now, no additional formal charges will be filed tomorrow. Why wait?

PAUL HOWARD, FULTON COUNTY DISTRICT ATTY.: What we're doing is, since he was arrested on Saturday, we are giving him the opportunity to appear before a magistrate so that he can get a lawyer, take care of all the preliminary matters. We are hoping -- we estimated that we were going to file the charges within 30 days. But today after meeting with law enforcement officials, it looks like we might be able to do it even sooner than that. So, in a very short period of time, we hope to file the formal charges against him.

ZAHN: Sources are telling CNN tonight that Mr. Nichols made an incriminating statement to law enforcement over the weekend. Has he confessed to these crimes?

HOWARD: Well, you know, because of my prosecutorial oath, I'm not allowed to talk about whether it was a confession or not. I can't say. He gave a statement, and he was cooperative.

ZAHN: Can you further characterize that without losing your job?

HOWARD: I wish not to because I wish not -- because I don't want to jeopardize the case.

ZAHN: Can you tell us tonight if Brian Nichols is cooperating with law enforcement officials?

HOWARD: Well, he cooperated in the statement that he made on Saturday.

ZAHN: Can you give us any sense of whether he has expressed any remorse for what has happened?

HOWARD: Well, I can tell you. I saw him myself when he came in, and the appearance that he gave was someone who was proud of what he had done. That he did not show remorse, but rather to say that if given a chance, I would do something else even further than what I've done already.

ZAHN: Did he say that in words or was it just a posture that he adopted?

HOWARD: That's the posture that he took. And from the responses that I was able to see personally, that's the impression that I received.

ZAHN: Which is a strikingly different man than Ashley Smith describes close to the time when it appeared to her that he might just turn himself in.

HOWARD: I think that he was at a point where he thought that he might get hurt, and he did not know whether or not he would end up alive. But once he was in police custody, I think he felt that he was safe in a sense because of all the cameras and all the people there that he wouldn't get hurt. And so I think again it started this show of bravado. ZAHN: There is so much confusion about what happened in the early hours. And I understand you have been studying surveillance tapes inside the holding area that Mr. Nichols was transferred to. Early reports suggest that he wrestled the gun out of the sheriff deputy's hands. You say that is not true.

How did he get his hands on the gun?

HOWARD: It's not true. Just, Mattingly, said in one of the things, that it's apparent -- he claimed this in detail. And one of the things that he was able to discover is that the gun, the officer's gun was actually locked in a box a short distance away. So, after he overpowered the officer, the deputy, he removed her key. He went to that adjacent area and removed the gun at that time. So, he did not wrestle the gun away from her.

ZAHN: The other question I have is, that there was great concern about the threat he might represent. Even the Judge Barnes before he lost his life, asked for additional security in the courtroom. They found him with some sharpened metal objects in his shoes. To your knowledge, was there any change in the security from the point the prosecution and judge addressed that issue?

HOWARD: Well, what I am learning now, is that immediately after this was reported to the judge and the judge called a conference between the deputies and the lawyers, they added -- the sheriff's department -- at least one additional employee. However, I'm not sure at this time whether or not that continued throughout the next day. I'm also not sure what other collateral or additional security actually took place. And that's what we're waiting for to find out from the sheriff's department.

ZAHN: Quick yes or no: Is there anything that could have stopped this man?

HOWARD: I think that he was so determined the only thing that probably could have prevented this was a well-designed, and well thought of security system. And I don't know whether or not at the time that that's what we had in place.

ZAHN: Well, we know you've been through a lot, as has your community. Thank you for joining us out here tonight.

HOWARD: All right.

ZAHN: Appreciate it, sir.

Well, authorities spent most of Friday assuming Brian Nichols was driving a green car, but he wasn't.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, he certainly didn't do what his pattern showed that he was going to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ZAHN: Stay with us for an exclusive insider's view of the manhunt, the mistakes and what went right. We're live just outside of the Fulton County Court House in Atlanta, Georgia. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And we join you from Atlanta once again. Please stay with us. We are hearing that at the top of the hour there will be a statement from Ashley Smith, the remarkable and brave young woman who brought an end to the Atlanta manhunt after 26 hours. We're going to bring it to you live as soon as it starts.

But for more than 25 -- four hours, that is, hundreds of law enforcement officers across Georgia searched desperately for Brian Nichols. And even though there were missteps along the way, it ended peacefully.

Our Rick Sanchez takes us inside the manhunt.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As chaos reigned outside Fulton Courthouse Friday morning, many stopped to stare. Others were in shock, even tears. Major Ed Clap's (ph) jobs was to react.

MAJOR ED CLAP, POLICE OFFICER: Once we determined that he had left the building, then the manhunt was on.

SANCHEZ: Clap was in charge of the joint operation's manhunt that eventually caught up with Brian Nichols. In an exclusive interview with CNN, he outlines how his operation worked and also how it may have stumbled along the way.

CLAP: Things were moving extremely fast. Obviously, there was a lot of emotion. There were a lot of things going on at one time. And you're trying to process this information.

SANCHEZ: Perhaps nothing has loomed larger than the failure to find the green Honda Accord, the car the city and nation were on a lookout for. In truth, the car had moved just a matter of yards. But in 14 hours police had failed to search the entire garage.

CLAP: Logically, we would make that assumption that he was going to stick to that mode of transportation.

SANCHEZ (on camera): He kind of threw a wrench into the thing.

CLAP: Well, he certainly didn't do what his pattern showed that he was going to do.

SANCHEZ: There were other missteps, but perhaps none as glaring as the clue literally delivered to police by Nichols himself when he suggested to carjack victim and newspaperman Don O'Briant where he would be going next. He comes up to Mr. O'Briant. CHARLES STONE, FORMER GEORGIA BUREAU OF INVESTIGATIONS SUPERVISOR: Right.

SANCHEZ (on camera): And he says something to him about Lennox Mall, asking for directions.

STONE: Exactly. That -- that should have triggered a response, a police response in that most carjackers don't ask directions.

SANCHEZ (voice-over): Charles Stone headed dozens of manhunts while with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations. He says key clues were allowed to slip away.

(on camera) He essentially was giving police a clue as to where he may be going next, wasn't he?

STONE: Yes, Lennox Mall.

SANCHEZ: Exactly.

Part of the problem is that one agency was investigating the manhunt, while yet another agency, the police department was investigating each particular crime scene. As a result, crucial information, like the fact the suspect had asked for directions to Lennox Mall, never got to Major Clap (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm aware of that now based on watching some interviews with him. We were not aware of that at the time. We were aware that several people had been mugged and carjacked, weren't quite sure of the sequence, but, no, we did not hear the Lennox Square part.

SANCHEZ (voice-over): Hours later, Nichols surfaced at the very place he had suggested he would, Lennox Mall.

And only blocks away, the story turned bloodier when customs agent David Wilhelm was allegedly killed by Nichols. Clap (ph) confirms there will be a review of the entire manhunt, but he insists in the end, he and his men got the job done.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's a lot of -- what do you call it, Monday morning quarterbacking going on, but I feel like I can only speak for myself. I know I did everything that I could do.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: It's pretty obvious, Rick, in hindsight, a lot of the stuff is much clearer than it was on Friday.

SANCHEZ: Of course.

ZAHN: But what is the best explanation you heard as to why the cops stayed with the lead of the green Honda accord? Plastered over the highways? We showed it repeatedly Friday night on signs.

SANCHEZ: Every single law enforcement official that you talk to will tell you that what they probably did wrong was that the search in that area, where the garage was, which just simply too narrow.

They cordoned off a small area where the crime scene had occurred, but they didn't cordon off the entire garage. If they had done that, they would have discovered that just one floor below from the very place where they were, the car they were looking for would have been found, possibly hours before this happened.

ZAHN: And you also touched on the very important clue of the Lennox Mall that somehow got lost in the confusion. What happened there?

SANCHEZ: It's fascinating because we in the media, on CNN, for example, were reporting that this guy had said, the first thing out of his mouth was he wanted directions to Lennox Mall. Why, if we knew that, didn't police react to that?

Now, in fairness, these are dedicated professionals who worked really hard, and they wanted nothing more than to be able to crack this thing and solve this manhunt. They do have a system in place, and they showed it to me, Paula. They explained to me how the system works.

The problem may have been with execution. Some of the agencies, although they talk to each other, may not have said the right things at the right times to each other.

ZAHN: Well, we shouldn't ignore the fact that, because of the actions of these men and women, a lot of people are alive today that might not have been.

SANCHEZ: Well, even the police will admit to you that there are some things they wish they had been able to do, in hindsight, just a little bit differently. And who knows how things would have turned out?

ZAHN: Rick Sanchez, thanks.

SANCHEZ: Thanks, Paula.

ZAHN: Please stay with us. We are hearing that at the top of the hour there will be a statement from Ashley Smith, the brave young woman who brought an end to the Atlanta manhunt. We will bring it to you live as soon as she starts talking.

Still ahead, a behind-the-scenes look at what went wrong at the Fulton County Courthouse. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Welcome back to Atlanta. Once again we're standing by for a possible statement from Ashley Smith, that remarkably brave young woman who was held hostage and helped end the hunt for Brian Nichols. We'll bring it to you live when it starts.

But first, just about a quarter before the hour. That means it's time to check in once again with Erica Hill at Headline News where there's no wind and there might be some heat.

Hi, Erica.

ERICA HILL, HEADLINE NEWS: It's a little warmer in here, Paula. We'll get you caught up on the headlines now.

An anthrax scare at the Pentagon today. Officials say sensors at two mail delivery buildings detected signs of it. But later tests came back negative. The buildings will remain closed until at least tomorrow.

The U.S. is reportedly still vulnerable to terrorist attacks targeting noncommercial flights and helicopters. That's the conclusion from a report from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. That report says commercial airlines remain susceptible to attack, despite billions of dollars invested in aviation security, but they say the information is not new, more of a recap.

American-born terror suspect Ahmed Abu Ali pleaded not guilty today to charges of terror, conspiracy and providing material support to al Qaeda. Among other things, the Virginia native is accused of plotting to assassinate President Bush.

And a massive demonstration today in Beirut as hundreds of thousands gathered in the biggest protest yet against the Syrian- backed government. Demonstrators called for the immediate and complete withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. The protests began after the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, one month ago today.

And with that, Paula, I'll send it back to you. Stay warm.

ZAHN: Thank you, Erica.

A lot of things went horribly wrong here in Atlanta on Friday. When we come back, the mistakes and missteps at the courthouse.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And welcome back to Atlanta. We're outside the Fulton County Courthouse. Just a reminder: a statement from Ashley Smith, the woman who Brian Nichols allegedly held hostage, is expected at the top of the hour. We will take it live.

Meanwhile, in the wake of Friday's awful shootings, everyone wants to know, how could it have happened? Our Elizabeth Cohen did some digging and has this look at some of the answers.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He was a 6'1", 33-year-old former football player. His guard, a petite 51-year-old grandmother. That was one of the first problems.

STONE: Political correctness aside, you have to look at the physical strength of the inmate or the defendant. The person guarding him has to be of somewhat equal strength to him.

COHEN: Charles Stone, a retired supervisor with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation says Brian Nichols should have been escorted by at least two guards his own size since he was a known security risk.

According to his own lawyer, Nichols had previously been found with two pieces of metal fashioned into weapons inside the courtroom.

BRIAN HAZEN, ATTORNEY FOR BRIAN NICHOLS: We know he at least had it on Wednesday. That would have been two days before the shooting. It was discovered on Wednesday...

NANCY GRACE, GUEST HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": Where was it? In his shoe?

HAZEN: One in his shoe. And Judge Barnes brought it to our attention on Thursday morning, the day before the shooting.

COHEN: And a few other simple security procedures might have saved lives.

As Deputy Hall escorted Nichols, she took his handcuffs off so he could change out of his jail uniform into civilian clothes for his courtroom appearance. That's when he struck her in the head and knocked her down.

Other courthouses have special doors where the defendant puts his wrists through an opening and the cuffs are removed from the other side.

STONE: He's basically locked in a room by himself.

COHEN: Another procedure that would have helped: after knocking her out, Nichols took Deputy Hall's keys and used them to open the lock box where deputies keep their firearms.

An alternative used in many courthouses: no lock boxes. Hand guns are checked in and out with a guard whose assignment is to protect the weapons.

STONE: It works well. The guns are always under the control of the marshal service or whatever entity is doing it. Inmates don't have access to this particular area.

COHEN: The ultimate irony: Judge Rowland Barnes, who was killed by Nichols, knew Nichols might be trouble and talked about it with lawyers the day before.

HAZEN: He indicated that he was going to put what he said was more beef in the courtroom. But for -- and other things, he was going to take the pitchers off of the counsel tables.

COHEN: Judge Barnes was concerned Nichols might use a water pitcher, which you can find in any courtroom, as a weapon during the trial. But as we now know, Brian Nichols' choice of weapons was far more lethal.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And those clues far clearer now through hindsight. Elizabeth Cohen reporting.

And we're glad to tell you that the Fulton County deputy, Cynthia Hall, sat up in her hospital bed and talked with family members for the first time today. We wish her a quick recovery.

While officials are thinking hard about security, an amazing young woman has given us lessons in poise, bravery and faith. Coming up, as we await a possible new statement from her at the top of the hour, I'll be talking with one of Ashley Smith's teachers.

Our special coverage continues in front of the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And we're back now from Atlanta. More now on the young woman who brought a peaceful end to the hunt for Brian Nichols. Earlier, we heard Ashley Smith describe how faith played a part in her encounter with him and how she managed to earn his trust through the long night he held her captive.

Well, Bonnie Colberg was Ashley's Bible study and history teacher. She joins me now from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Those of us who have watched Ashley have been absolutely amazed by her bravery. You knew she had that in her, didn't you?

BONNIE COLBERG, ASHLEY SMITH'S FORMER TEACHER: I did. Ashley was a passionate young lady. She was a free thinker. She had strong will. When I heard it was Ashley, I knew. I was so proud of her.

ZAHN: It seems so obvious when you listen to her that faith was the window she had in getting to Brian Nichols. How important is her faith to her?

COLBERG: Well, obviously, it's everything. It led her to share it with him, which means that's from the core of her being. You don't just do that on a whim. It's got to be, you know, a part of you, deep inside. And she got that from her family. She got that in the school which she went to and her church. I think it was just a part of her core.

ZAHN: And yet we've heard from family members that she has not had an easy life. She watched her own husband murdered. And her taste -- her faith, that is, her family has admitted has been tested sorely. But she never lost that conviction, did she, in her core?

COLBERG: No, she didn't. I think the thing that stood out to me is probably because of the hard life that she had, she understood this man. She understood his hurts, his feel of disorientation, his confusion. And one thing about Ashley, she always wanted to be understood and I think that desire of her own, she shared it with him. And she took the time to understand him.

ZAHN: I think, to me, the most extraordinary thing was to listen to her recounting, telling Brian Nichols, you know, you hurt so many people and you've got to stop, essentially, this madness. I'm paraphrasing what she said. She was very direct with him.

COLBERG: Ashley's a straight shooter. She always was. Ashley always had this sense of, wanted fairness. But at the same time, she could see things straight through. She would just cut through something with the truth, and then she would always ask the right questions, too. Why do people act like this? Why are they behaving this way?

ZAHN: Well, we certainly -- well, we certainly stand in admiration of her this evening.

COLBERG: Yes, we do.

ZAHN: Thank you for sharing that part of her life with us tonight.

COLBERG: Thank you.

ZAHN: Good luck to you.

And that is our broadcast for tonight. Thank you so much for joining us. "LARRY KING LIVE" is next. We'll be back same time, maybe not the same place, but we will be back tomorrow night. Good night.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com


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