Bus passengers frantically texted loved ones as gunman hijacked an Atlanta commuter bus during rush hour

Atlanta police had barely finished briefing the community about a shooting inside a downtown food court Tuesday afternoon when calls began to come in about a bus hijacking.

A gunman had hijacked a commuter bus with 17 people inside and shot one of them with the passenger’s own gun, authorities said, prompting others to frantically text loved ones and call 911 for help.

But as police arrived on the scene and tried to confront the gunman, identified as 39-year-old felon Joseph Grier, the suspect held the bus driver at gunpoint and forced him to speed away, according to Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum.

The ensuing rush-hour police chase zig-zagged across highway lanes and suburban streets as the bus led authorities across at least two counties, at times careening into other cars and crossing into opposing traffic.

Inside, a passenger surreptitiously stayed on the line with 911, allowing authorities to hear the commotion, Schierbaum said. Mayor Andre Dickens said the chaos sounded like a movie scene as the suspect had “a gun to the head of a bus driver saying, ‘Don’t stop this bus or else worse will happen.’”

When the bus finally ground to a halt on a tree-lined street in the suburb of Stone Mountain, passengers streamed out and Grier was arrested without incident, police said.

A passenger found shot aboard the bus was taken to a hospital, where they later died, officials said. He was identified Wednesday as 58-year-old Ernest Byrd Jr., according to the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office, which ruled his death a homicide.

The suspect – who, in a twist, was at the scene of Tuesday afternoon’s shooting downtown and spoke to local news outlets moments before the hijacking – now faces a slew of charges in connection to Tuesday’s incident, according to jail records.

They include one count of murder, 14 counts of kidnapping, 13 counts of aggravated assault, one count of first-degree hijacking of a motor vehicle, 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 or attempt to commit certain felonies.

Grier waved his initial court appearance, according to a spokesperson for the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office.

He has 19 prior felony convictions, police said, though no further details were provided. CNN has been unable to determine whether the suspect has an attorney.

How the harrowing incident unfolded

Emergency vehicles surround the hijacked bus after a harrowing chase through two Atlanta-area counties. - Ben Gray/AP
Emergency vehicles surround the hijacked bus after a harrowing chase through two Atlanta-area counties. - Ben Gray/AP

The hijacked Gwinnett County Transit bus is part of a web of commuter routes that bring people to and from Atlanta’s sprawling suburbs, including passenger Paulette Gilbert, who called her husband from inside the bus as the chase began to unfold.

Paulette Gilbert seemed stunned and frightened as she described a man who had boarded the bus and began acting strangely, said her husband, Johnny Gilbert. She said the man got into a confrontation with another passenger and shot them, possibly in the leg.

“She said the guy got on the bus and seemed kinda crazy,” Gilbert said, recounting his wife’s story. “He was being disruptive or getting on people’s nerves,” he added.

The husband urged his wife to get off the phone in case the shooter thought she was calling 911, fearful he may shoot her next. “I said put the phone down, put it away. Just sit still.”

Grier was “engaging with passengers” when he got into a fight with one of them, a male, who pulled a gun, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

“Grier took the gun from the passenger and began threatening passengers with it,” the GBI said in a news release, citing preliminary information from its investigation. “Grier then shot the passenger and ordered the bus driver to flee the scene while threatening passengers with the gun.”

At around 4:30 p.m., police received the first 911 call from a passenger reporting that a gunman was holding the bus hostage on Ivan Allen Boulevard and that there may have been shots fired, Schierbaum said. Then the line went silent.

Soon after, another call came in from the family of a passenger who had texted them that the bus had been hijacked.

An officer arrived at the scene within about a minute of the first 911 call and tried to confront the suspect, who then “forced the bus driver to drive off,” Schierbaum said.

A third 911 call – this time from another passenger – stayed on the line throughout the entire chase, allowing dispatchers to feed information to several law enforcement agencies involved in the pursuit, the chief said.

The bus led a fleet of law enforcement vehicles along Atlanta’s Interstate 85 as rush hour commuters sped by. It crossed through several suburban areas before coming to a halt in the city of Stone Mountain.

The large bus struck several vehicles during the pursuit, police said, though it is unclear whether any drivers were hurt.

Officers were able to disable the vehicle using several tactics, including positioning an armored vehicle at one of its sides, preventing it from maneuvering in that direction, police said. The GBI said law enforcement flattened tires on the bus during the chase, but it continued to move.

Ultimately, a Georgia state trooper fired his rifle into the engine compartment of the bus, the GBI said, causing the bus to halt on Hugh Howell Road in Stone Mountain.

As the bus came to a halt, passengers began to unload themselves and Grier was arrested without incident, police said. A joint investigation into the hijacking will be conducted by the Atlanta Police Department and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which will also investigate the police use of force.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis said Wednesday an employee of her office was on the hijacked bus, a witness to the incident, so she can’t prosecute the suspect.

Willis has asked Georgia’s prosecuting attorneys council to assign a different jurisdiction to prosecute the suspect, writing in the letter her office is “conflicted because it has been determined that a victim/witness in this case is a current employee of the Office of the District Attorney for the Atlanta Judicial Circuit.”

A hijacked commuter bus sits in the road where it was stopped after a lengthy police chase Tuesday. - Ben Gray/AP
A hijacked commuter bus sits in the road where it was stopped after a lengthy police chase Tuesday. - Ben Gray/AP

A violent day for Atlantans

The hijacking was one of two violent incidents in downtown Atlanta Tuesday, just four blocks apart. Though police say the incidents do not appear to be connected, their alarming proximity – and the suspects’ extensive criminal records – have drawn condemnation and concern from local officials.

About two hours before the hijacking, a man shot and wounded three people in a busy Atlanta food court. Police said the 34-year-old suspect in that shooting, who was quickly arrested, is a convicted felon who has been arrested 11 times.

Interviews with local news stations showed Grier at the scene, claiming in disjointed statements that he witnessed the shooting at Peachtree Center.

“I got knives. I got all this sh*t on me. I protect myself. I can’t get a gun,” Grier said in an interview with CNN affiliate WXIA, adding he had previous felony convictions and was on probation.

A CNN crew at the scene of the aftermath of the shooting saw Grier being belligerent and interfering with police officers during their investigation. Police are looking into Grier’s presence at the earlier shooting.

“Today has been a very active day, but let me be clear, we’re talking about gun violence that is as a result of too many people having guns in their hands,” Mayor Dickens said in a Tuesday evening news conference. “You’re talking about people that should not have been on the streets with guns.”

Dickens said the spate of gun violence shows “something more needs to be done” but noted violent crime in the city has been decreasing.

“So, this day is not indicative of all the days in the city of Atlanta, but this is a day we’ll never forget,” the mayor said.

CNN’s Steve Almasy, Jade Gordon Dakin Andone, Jamiel Lynch and Cara Lynn Clarkson contributed to this report.

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