A youth drifted from deep family ties to deep trouble

The first time Brian Nichols heard the door of a holding cell lock behind him, he was about 11 years old.

His uncle, James Dow, stood guard outside. Then a Baltimore corrections officer, Dow said, he shut Brian and two other young nephews in a city cell with an inmate who had agreed to tell them about prison.

"I looked at it as part of their formal education," said Dow, now 63 and retired. "So they wouldn't want anything to do with prison."

The inmate had just been beaten by another prisoner, and his face was covered with fresh wounds. Nichols and the other children were terrified.

"I wonder if they remember any of that," Dow said.

More than two decades later, Nichols, 33, is in an Atlanta jail, a suspect in a bloody rampage last Friday that began in the Fulton County Courthouse and ultimately left a judge, a court reporter, a sheriff's deputy and a federal agent dead. He took a woman hostage before surrendering outside her apartment building Saturday.

Nichols, a former Northeast Baltimore resident, now faces life in prison, or the death penalty, if convicted.

Back in his hometown, relatives such as Dow find it hard to link that frightened child in the Baltimore jail cell with the shackled man in Atlanta. Growing up in Baltimore, Nichols enjoyed a quiet middle-class childhood amid a horde of cousins and neighborhood friends who say he had never been in any trouble here.

But as his relatives reminisce, a picture emerges of how Nichols began to stray from his stable beginnings in Baltimore. His parents, described as bright, ambitious career people, wanted better for their children and themselves. They moved out of the old neighborhood and later out of the city, bouncing from state to state with his mother's job transfers until she and Nichols' father left the country. His beloved older brother, whom Nichols tagged after, also settled away from the family base, and he slowly lost contact with his closest friend from high school.

Nichols, who was never considered a leader, clung to friends and teammates as long as he could before, it seems, he was finally set adrift. The farther he strayed from the familiar, the more his life unraveled.

Many of his old friends and relatives in Baltimore hadn't seen him for years until he showed up on news channels over the weekend. By then, the stony-eyed suspect was unrecognizable as the boy who used to bicycle up and down Windemere Avenue.

"This other Brian is someone else," said Regina Dow, his aunt.

Cherry Hill clan

Nichols' parents, Claritha and Gene, grew up a few doors from each other in Cherry Hill, where they remained after marrying to become part of a sprawling clan that - in Nichols' generation - included by some estimates more than 50 cousins and second cousins.

Growing up there "was like going from one mother's house to another's," said Reginald Small Jr., 42, a cousin who used to baby-sit for Nichols. "Eat what you want, sleep where you want. It was like one big gigantic family."

While Nichols was still a small child, his family moved to Ednor Gardens, a more prosperous neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore.

"But they didn't forget their family," Small said.

He remembers being whisked away to what he called "the big house," an attractive two-story home with a brick chimney and a magnolia tree in the front yard.

Although she worked long hours at her job with the Internal Revenue Service, Claritha Nichols was a devoted homemaker and a good cook. The little boys loved her breakfasts in particular: eggs, bacon and golden piles of pancakes.

Upward mobility

The Nicholses were a family on the move - Brian Nichols and his brother, Mark, who was four years older, were on a different track from their cousins. Gene Nichols, said to be an entrepreneur who owned a variety of food service businesses, and his wife made sure their children had material advantages.

"They always had the latest BMX trick bikes," said Raynard Johnson, who was part of a large group of little boys who grew up together on Windemere Avenue and is now a 33-year-old city police officer. "Soon as they came out, they had them."

Nichols loved sports, and his particular passion was martial arts, which he started learning at age 11. Friends from the neighborhood remember him showboating on the street with nunchucks.

Nichols' mother taught him to play the piano by ear on the gigantic white baby grand that seemed to dominate their home, neighbors said.

Although the family was Baptist, both boys were sent to the Catholic Cardinal Gibbons School for a private senior high education.

Still, despite these advantages, Nichols did not stand out. He stuck close to his older brother and shadowed the neighborhood boys. He was one of the youngest in the vast network of cousins, "his mother's baby," said one friend.

'Kids, no divorces'

It was, in many ways, an idyllic childhood. Although Windemere Avenue wasn't within walking distance of his Cherry Hill relatives, the new neighborhood also felt like family, according to Jay Henry, another friend from the neighborhood.

"People had their parents," said Henry, now 36 and the owner of an Atlanta event-planning firm. "You had like 30 kids in this neighborhood and no divorces."

With the exception of the Nicholses, most of the boys' parents remain in the neighborhood. Many of the boys stayed in Baltimore to become pastors and police officers.

It seemed, for a time, that Nichols might follow suit and stay with the extended family and friends who loved him. He even dated the girl next door.

Size and strength

At 16, Brian Nichols started lifting weights and was on his way to becoming "6-foot-1, 210 pounds, built like Mr. Atlas," as his uncle James Dow described him.

Although he was a good-natured guy, Officer Johnson said, Nichols occasionally used his size to intimidate his friends.

In 1987, he started at a new school, and the environment of Cardinal Gibbons must have seemed intimidating to a relatively shy teen-ager. Yet it was at Gibbons that he met Zachery Dingle. The two became friends at the school's summer football camp and grew inseparable. Nichols' mother called Dingle her "green-eyed son" because of his light-colored eyes.

Although they were as close as brothers, they couldn't have been less alike. Dingle was the superior athlete, and the leader.

"I guess opposites attract," said Dingle, now a 34-year-old social worker in Baltimore.

They played football together their sophomore and junior years at Gibbons. But when Dingle decided to leave Gibbons in 1988 to play football at Northern High School instead, Nichols followed him. They dreamed about winning scholarships to the same college and playing in the NFL together.

Dingle did get a scholarship, to Kutztown University in eastern Pennsylvania. Nichols didn't.

He enrolled there anyway and was able to walk onto the team, following his friend again.

But just a few days into the freshman semester, Dingle decided he didn't like Kutztown.

He contacted another coach at a college in Virginia who had recruited him. He left the college, and Nichols.

Nichols was on his own for what might have been the first time in his life.

It was at Kutztown that Nichols began to get into trouble with the law. In 1990, Nichols appeared in court four times in Berks County, Pa., where the university is. His offenses ranged from typical collegiate hijinks - he paid $188 in fines for having a loud party; he plead guilty to buying alcohol with a fake ID - to more troubling behavior.

Threats and assault

In May, he was charged with making "terroristic threats" and assault, and - although those charges were dropped - he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and harassment.

In September, he spent two nights in jail after being charged with criminal mischief and disorderly conduct. Those charges would also be dropped.

Other incidents did not get official attention. After arguing with a man outside a pizza parlor one night, Nichols used a martial arts kick to knock the man to the ground.

The same year that Nichols left for college, his family left Baltimore for good. At their new home in South Carolina, Dow said, his parents learned of Nichols' mounting offenses.

"They were supportive," he said. "They never felt it was related to overall criminal behavior. It wasn't one instance after another, nothing to indicate he was on the path to destruction."

The good-guy path

To his relatives back in Baltimore, Nichols still seemed to be on "the goody-goody track," his cousin Small said.

In May 1990, he and Dingle decided to help pay for college by joining the Army Reserves. They enlisted as "Army buddies" so they would get the same assignment and were immediately sent to Fort Jackson in South Carolina and later to Fort Sam Houston in Texas for basic training.

But after that first session, they would never train together again.

Still, Nichols completed his eight-year commitment, which spanned the Persian Gulf war. He wasn't called up for active duty, but he feared going to war, Dingle said.

He also told his friend about the trouble he continued to land in.

"I was worried for him," Dingle said. "I was candid with Brian about staying focused on our mission of becoming successful."

But Nichols wasn't focused. He transferred from Kutztown to Newberry College in South Carolina, where his parents lived. He played defensive end in 1993 and 1994 but was kicked off the football team after he broke into a dorm room late one night and was arrested for first-degree burglary.

He never graduated from Newberry. Then he seemed to tail his parents, as his mother continued to be transferred around the Southeast. They moved from South Carolina to Florida, where his older brother settled; he lives in Fort Lauderdale now. Finally, in 1996, his parents landed in Atlanta, and Nichols lived with them for a time.

But last year, his mother took a tax consulting job in Africa. Nichols, for once, couldn't or didn't follow.

That summer he was charged with rape.

Diverging lives

Dingle kept in contact with his friend, but their lifestyles diverged further.

Dingle became a family man; Nichols drifted through a string of sometimes overlapping girlfriends.

In the early 1990s, Nichols had fathered a child with his college girlfriend, Stephanie L. Jay. But he avoided the baby and neglected his child support. In 2000, Jay sued him in Clayton County, Ga., claiming he owed her $13,000 to support his daughter, who is now 13.

Dingle chastised him; he couldn't understand why a man with such a wonderful family wouldn't want to raise his own child.

The last time Dingle saw Nichols was in Atlanta in December 2003, shortly after Nichols left a job with Hewlett Packard, where he was a technical assistant. The two lost touch.

Throughout his time in Georgia, Nichols was in trouble with the law. From 1996 to 1999, he was on probation for a felony drug possession charge in Cobb County.

By last summer, Nichols' longtime girlfriend left him. Police say he showed up at her condo early on the morning of Aug. 19 with a silver semiautomatic weapon and bound her in duct tape. He later returned with a machine gun, raped the woman and forced her to perform oral sex, police said.

In the fall, Dow said that one of Nichols' friends visited him in prison, then contacted his parents - who were still in Africa - to say he was acting strangely and might be suicidal. Dow, who is in daily e-mail contact with Nichols' parents, said they are planning to return from Africa soon.

Nichols' parents and brother Mark, now 37, could not be reached for comment.

Lately, reports have circulated that Nichols was distraught in prison because another woman was pregnant with his child. With his parents far away, his best friend back in Baltimore and his brother living in Fort Lauderdale, Nichols perhaps decided he wanted another chance at family life.

He told the woman he wanted to be there for the baby, she said. He was in jail, though, and about to be tried for rape.

The child was born March 8.

Break for freedom

Three days later, just after 9 a.m. in Atlanta's Fulton County Courthouse, police say Nichols was putting on his street clothes for the courtroom when he made a break for freedom.

According to authorities, he overpowered a sheriff's deputy in a detention area and stole her gun. He entered the courtroom and shot Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes as he sat on the bench, also killing a court reporter and a sheriff's deputy. He fled the building.

After a daylong manhunt - a period during which Nichols allegedly killed an off-duty customs agent and took a woman hostage - he surrendered, waving a white flag at the SWAT team outside the woman's apartment.

The woman, Ashley Smith, later said she soothed her captor by reading aloud to him from The Purpose-Driven Life, a religious book, and by talking about her own family - her late husband and little girl.

He was also touched, Smith said, that she cooked him a breakfast of pancakes with real butter - perhaps the kind his mother used to make.

Sun researcher Shelia Jackson contributed to this article.