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Shooting rampage hits home for reporter

By Kyra Phillips
CNN

story.nichols.garage.jpg
Brian Nichols on security video minutes after allegedly shooting a judge, court reporter, and sheriff's deputy at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta.

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- I will never forget anchoring my newscast on March 11, 2005, and the 26 hours that followed. I wasn't going to be getting much sleep for two reasons: CNN's ongoing coverage and worrying that a suspected killer was on the loose in my city.

Brian Nichols was in court that Friday morning for his rape trial. He allegedly overpowered the deputy bringing him into the courtroom, got her gun and then police say killed the judge, court reporter, a sheriff's deputy, and later a U.S. Customs agent.

For 26 hours he was on the run while a nation watched. He came face to face with Ashley Smith, who described herself as a recovering drug addict trying to put her life back together.

The drama had an impact professionally, as any story of this magnitude would. What I didn't anticipate was the way it would affect me personally.

When the news first broke that Nichols had escaped custody and allegedly gone on a shooting rampage I called a number of my friends who are Fulton County police officers.

Immediately, I discovered I had a personal connection.

The detective who originally arrested Nichols on rape allegations was a friend, Detective Wade Yates. I tried calling him immediately from the set, trying to see if he had been in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes when the shooting spree began.

He didn't answer his cell phone. I finally was able to reach a mutual friend, another Fulton County officer. He told me Yates had been running a little late to court and just missed the shooting. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't wait to talk to him and see how he was feeling and what he thought about the morning's events.

As the hunt for Nichols continued, on the air I reported that Nichols had hijacked a tow truck. Within 10 minutes I received an e-mail from my tennis partner. She wrote that she knew the truck driver. He was an employee of the tow truck company she owned with her family.

The driver, Deronta Franklin, was at the wrong place at the wrong time, my friend said, but he was physically fine, just a bit shaken. My friend put Franklin on the phone for an interview, and later he came to the CNN studio.

Franklin told me how he came face to face with Nichols.

"He came out of the parking deck and pointed a gun at me and told me to get out of the truck. I backed up and walked away." Franklin spoke in such a quiet and calm voice. I could tell he was still in shock.

When I got off the air I finally got through to Yates. His story was chilling. He told me that if he would have been running on time, he would have been in Barnes' courtroom looking at the suspect, the man he arrested, who authorities said was now on the loose with a deputy's gun. Yates could have been another victim that day. Fate, luck, reasons unknown....Yates is alive and well, working cases and making arrests.

When the manhunt ended we learned Nichols was apparently talked into giving himself up by Smith, who said she read to him from the book "The Purpose Driven Life."

Did Smith really feel empowered by a certain purpose? Did she find her destiny that night when she came face to face with Nichols? It has now been a year since Smith read parts of the book to Nichols, and I had the chance to relive the moment with her. We went back to the apartment where she was living when confronted by Nichols. She retraced the steps, the moments, the conversation, the threats and the reading. Smith said this was the key passage:

"What you do with yourself is your gift to God. God deserves your best. He shaped you for a purpose and he expects you to make the most of what you have been given."

Smith said Nichols wanted her to read it again. He started to open up to her.

"He felt like there was a demon inside of him and that there was a spiritual warfare going on inside of him."

It has been a year since this story rocked Atlanta. I still think about the personal connections, the moving interviews, the twists of fate....I will never forget any of it.

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