He rambled to reporters after a downtown Atlanta shooting. Then, police say, he hijacked a bus

Jun 12, 2024, 8:24 AM

ATLANTA (AP) — As police responded to reports of multiple people shot at a downtown Atlanta food court, Joseph Grier was on the sidewalk outside, rambling to reporters about his mental health, criminal record and banking history.

“I’m bipolar, I’m gonna tell you all that, and I’m off my medication for like two weeks,” Grier said Tuesday afternoon, appearing agitated and adding that he felt like a “snitch” for describing what he had seen.

Just a short while later, police said, he hijacked a commuter bus, ordering the driver at gunpoint to hit the gas and panicking the passengers. By the time the bus rolled to a stop some 40 minutes later, authorities said, Grier had fatally shot one passenger and led officers on a dramatic chase through three counties.

The food court shooting and the bus hijacking — only two hours and a few blocks apart — created a sense of chaos in Atlanta. In the aftermath, city leaders decried the prevalence of guns on the streets but were quick to reassure residents and tout statistics that show Atlanta’s violent crime declining.

Authorities said Grier boarded a bus bound for a suburban Gwinnett County park-and-ride lot 26 miles (42 kilometers) away and got into a fight with passenger Ernest Byrd Jr. When the 58-year-old Byrd pulled a gun, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Grier took the gun and fatally shot Byrd. Grier then threatened to shoot the driver if he stopped.

Despite Grier’s warnings not to use phones, at least one passenger called 911 and left the line open, according to Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum. That allowed police to better understand the delicate situation onboard, Schierbaum said, as the bus careened down an interstate and through side streets, sometimes ramming vehicles in its path. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said police flattened tires on the bus, but it kept rolling until a state trooper fired his rifle into the engine, causing it to stop running.

“You have an individual saying, ‘If you stop this bus, I’m going to kill the driver,’ which then means that the whole bus could overturn, could run over a ditch or run over a bridge and everyone could die,” Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said. “But you also have a man that we know was shot. So he has a limited amount of time.”

The chief said police would examine what they could have done to stop the bus more quickly but added that no one can foresee every scenario.

“Sometimes there’s not a game plan, and you have to craft a way right then,” Schierbaum said. “And we saw that yesterday.”

Grier, 39, was led from the bus in handcuffs and booked into the Fulton County Jail on more than two dozen charges, including murder. He was being held without bail Wednesday, and online records didn’t list an attorney who could comment on the charges.

Schierbaum said investigators have found no connection between Grier and Jeremy Malone, 34, who is accused of shooting three people at the food court in the Peachtree Center complex.

In his interview with reporters outside the food court, Grier said he was in “extreme mode” when he saw the shooter. Grier talked about the importance of protecting himself, pulling a box cutter out of his pocket and repeatedly saying he couldn’t get a gun because of his felony criminal record.

Schierbaum and Dickens said they believe Grier’s actions were linked to mental illness — though studies show that the vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent.

“Was he having a mental episode for that brief moment triggered by police sirens, triggered by activity that he’s hearing, or was he already that day having a mental episode (and) he was just in that area?” Dickens said. “All of that will play into our investigation.”

In his interview with reporters seeking witnesses of the food court shooting — including one from The Associated Press — Grier rambled for more than three minutes, saying he had seen a man he believed to be the shooter confront a woman outside the food court. Grier said that after the shooting, he ran.

“I protect myself. I can’t get a gun, you know what I’m saying?” he said. “So my thing is protect yourself like you’re in chain gang. I did prison time.”

At a news conference Wednesday on the city’s “summer safety plan” — scheduled before Tuesday’s shooting and hijacking — Schierbaum told reporters that investigators believe Grier didn’t have a gun when he boarded the bus.

Schierbaum said 17 people were on the bus, including the driver. Byrd was taken to a hospital, where he died.

Byrd’s family said he was a building engineer who lived much of his life in New York City and Marlton, New Jersey, before moving to Georgia about a decade ago. A lover of travel, his Masonic lodge and family, Byrd was engaged to be remarried, they said.

“He was a man known for his unwavering dedication to resolving conflicts and protecting others,” relatives said in a statement.

Tonya Pendleton, a relative of Byrd’s ex-wife, said family members were still trying to understand what happened. She said Byrd left behind four children, as well as a child and relatives of his ex-wife that he helped raise. Pendleton said funeral arrangements were incomplete Wednesday.

Dickens said both of Tuesday’s shootings were the “result of too many people having guns in their hands.” He noted that both suspects have lengthy criminal records — Malone had 11 prior arrests, and Grier had 19 — and were ineligible to own guns because of prior felony convictions.

Dickens said city officials want to have “a conversation about what is the proper way to sentence someone that has committed that many crimes, some of them with guns, some of them that have hurt people or taken property.”

Schierbaum also called for action on repeat offenders: “They either need assistance through court-mandated programming around drug addiction and mental health, or they need to be out of society’s circulation. And judges have to be part of this conversation.”

Grier is charged with one count of murder, one count of hijacking a motor vehicle, 13 counts of aggravated assault, 14 counts of kidnapping, one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and one count of possession of a firearm or knife during the commission of a crime.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis on Wednesday asked state officials to appoint a special prosecutor in Grier’s case, saying an employee of her office was a victim or witness without explaining further. Willis is best known for her prosecutions of former President Donald Trump and rapper Young Thug.

Malone’s charges in the food court shooting include aggravated assault and reckless conduct. He was held without bail in the Fulton County Jail, and no lawyer who could comment on charges was listed in online court records. Schierbaum said Malone and the three food court victims are all expected to survive.

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He rambled to reporters after a downtown Atlanta shooting. Then, police say, he hijacked a bus