CBN.com The scene inside Atlanta’s Fulton County Courthouse was chaotic and bloody.
A man allegedly overpowered a courthouse deputy who was escorting him to his rape trial. He took the deputy's gun, then shot and killed the judge and court reporter. The man then fled. Police identified him as Brian Nichols.
Police launched a massive manhunt. As news spread, residents locked their doors and waited.
In northern Atlanta, Ashley Smith had just moved into a new apartment, looking for a fresh start in a new place. Around 2 a.m. that night, she emptied the last box and went to the store for a pack of cigarettes.
When she returned she noticed a stranger sitting in his car. It made her uneasy so she jumped out of her car and hurried to her apartment. She put the keys in the lock, opened the door, but the stranger was right behind her.
“I started to scream at the top of my lungs,” Ashley recalls. “He came up to me [and told me], ‘Shut up, shut up.’ He pointed the gun at me. ‘If you don't scream, I won't hurt you.’ So, I stopped screaming. He pushed me in the house, shut the door, and locked it. I immediately said, ‘God, look… he can do anything he wants. He can rape me. Just let me walk out of here alive.’”
Ashley Smith did indeed survive the ordeal. After seven hours, Nichols released Ashley and peacefully surrendered to SWAT police. The headline from the Atlanta Journal Constitution read… “An Angel Sent from God.”
So, who is Ashley Smith? What went on during her seven hours of captivity? Was theirs a chance encounter or a divine appointment?
Ashley says, “So he asked me if I knew who he was and I said no. So he said, ‘Have you been watching TV at all? You know, the whole court thing.’ I was like, ‘No way! You have to be kidding me.’ He tore off his hat. ‘Now do you know who I am?’ With that kind of warning, I knew exactly who he was. I knew I was going to die. He had already killed three people to my knowledge. He wasn’t going to stop. The look in his eye then… he wasn’t going to stop.
“I immediately started silently praying to God, ‘Just please get me out of here alive. He can do whatever he wants. I have been through so many things in my life. I will get through whatever happens to me. Please don’t kill me.’”
Nichols herded Ashley into the bathroom and told her to sit in the tub. At once, Ashley thought of her five-year-old daughter.
“I just begged for my life. I kept bringing up Paige’s name. My husband was killed; she doesn’t have a daddy. I’m all she has left.”
Ashley feared she would suffer the same fate as her late husband, Mack.
“When I buried Mack, I buried a piece of me. That was my goal -- to be his wife and be a good mother. When he died all my dreams were taken away.
“Instead of turning to God. I dove so deep into drugs it was hard to find myself again.”
It was 2003 and to cope with her husband’s death Ashley relied on methamphetamines and prescription drugs to get through the day. But the drugs were taking her further away from her daughter.
“I stayed high 5 out of 7 days a week,” Ashley says. “I didn’t sleep at all. The whole time I was screaming out, Why am I doing this? I can’t stop."
Her mother Mary Jo and her Aunt Kim knew Paige couldn’t live in this environment. They took legal action to get custody of Paige.
“I hated myself for it -- that I couldn’t stop,” says Ashley. “I didn't want to stop. I wanted to do this right now. I didn’t want to feel the pain of Mack’s death and that was the excuse I used.”
So now Ashley found herself sitting in her bathtub, held captive by an accused rapist and alleged murderer. Nichols left the bathroom.
“When he came back with the tape, I thought this was it. He’s going to strangle me with it. He had an extension cord too. He’s going to strangle me with the extension cord. Or he’s going to tape me up first, rape me and strangle me with the extension cord. This is it.
“I knew if I wanted to make it out of there alive I better do what he said. For me, it was if I get out of here alive… everything -- everything in my life is going to change.”
Nichols took the tape, the extension cord and a large curtain, wrapped her so she couldn’t escape and placed her on the toilet. He covered her head with a towel, undressed and showered. Ashley started talking about her life…
“Every time, I would connect with him in some way. I told him about playing basketball and trying to get college scholarships. He told me about his scholarships in football. That would get him to talk a little more, and I could see when he talked he felt a little more comfortable.
“I think in a sense I was trying to help him understand that I was a good person, and I was trying for my life. I had made some terrible mistakes. I just wanted another chance to do better. It was important that he know I was a sinner just like him.”
At one point Nichols asked Ashley if she had any pot to smoke. “I said no, but I have some 'ice'.”
Ashley had a stash of methamphetamines -- known on the street as ice.
“Immediately when I offered him the drugs I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what have I done? I just killed myself. Why did I do that? How stupid can I be! The way this stuffs affects me… I’ll be dead in five minutes.”
Ironically, Ashley had been getting help to kick her addiction. She’d moved into her new apartment and was making progress. But she couldn’t quite make the break from the drugs.
When Ashley offered Nichols the meth, he asked if she would do it with him. “It was like God came in and said, ‘Here’s your choice. You can say no, and go on and live doing great things I have planned for you. Or you can live this miserable life you have been living.’ Immediately I said no.
“When I said, no I was like, ‘No more! Ever again!’"
Ashley had never felt such clarity. “I always had in the back of my mind the reservation that I can do it socially. One time won’t matter. When I think about it now, God had it planned out. All the times I went through rehab or wanted to stop… this was the time for Ashley to wake up and start living her life again instead of dying slowly.”
Nichols did in fact snort the ice. But somehow the circumstances that threw these two together seemed to have a purpose. Nichols untied Ashley. She kept talking about her life and her desire to see her daughter and be the mother she wanted to be. He started to relax. She smoked her cigarettes and read to Nichols from The Purpose-Driven Life, a book she had been reading by a pastor named Rick Warren. Nichols drank a beer and listened.
God deserves your best. He shaped you for a purpose and He expects you to make the most of what you have been given…
“When I stopped, he said read it again. Something connected there of maybe you really do have a purpose and maybe I do too.
“He asked me what I thought his purpose was. [I told him] to pay for what he had done and minister to people in prison."
Ashley was trying to make the point that Nichols could be forgiven for his sins, and that even though we all make mistakes, someday he would have to pay for it.
Nichols asked Ashley what he should do. “I wasn’t going to hold back. I told him, ‘I think you should turn yourself in.’
“He told me he had a demon in him. The whole spiritual warfare I could totally understand. I could definitely see he was being pulled two different ways.”
In the pre-dawn hours of their encounter, Nichols watched television reports of his escape. At one point he told Ashley he had killed a fourth person -- an off duty immigration officer. Nichols shot him in his truck. Ashley responded by finding her husband’s death certificate. She handed it to Nichols.
“’This is what this family is going to receive -- a death certificate. They are going to plan a funeral. This is their worst nightmare, and you caused it. Do you know? Do you know what you did?’ I just wanted him to feel what he had done.”
Finally, at about 9 am Nichols let Ashley walk out of her apartment. She drove off in her car and called 911.
Ashley last saw Nichols as police took him into custody outside her apartment. He turned himself in as he promised. He was going back to face justice for the murder of four innocent people.
However, Ashley realized that her seven hours as his hostage were really the first hours of her new freedom. Not only did she give up drugs that morning, she decided to commit her life fully to Jesus Christ.
“My future is so much brighter now because I have a personal relationship with Jesus and that makes my world so much brighter (laughs).”
She continues to recover spiritually, emotionally and physically from years of drug addiction. At her insistence she is drug tested every week. Rebuilding trust with her loved ones is a major goal.
“Instead of taking drugs I take vitamins and I run five miles a day. I’m on a regular healthy routine now. I just take care of myself. I am more at peace with myself.”
She says Jesus even helped her quit smoking.
The greatest change in Ashley’s life is that her relationship with her daughter is what she always dreamed it could be. Together again, they live with her aunt and uncle.
“I do everything. I take care of her financially, physically, I do everything. I’ve never had a relationship like this with my daughter. It’s challenging because being the mother of a six-year-old is challenging (laughs) but is has been awesome.
“I have a chance to live my life for Him now. [It’s] what I should have been doing all along. I’m a better Mom now. I’m a better daughter. I’m a better niece. I’m a better friend.
“He’s a huge God. He does wonderful, wonderful miracles.”
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