Sharing Troubled Past May Have Saved Atlanta Hostage

It was supposed to be a routine criminal trial, but soon the city of Atlanta was thrown into a state of panic.

The defendant, 33-year-old Brian Nichols, was standing trial for rape. According to court reports, while being escorted to a courtroom on March 10, he overpowered his female guard, beat her unconscious and took her gun. Nichols then went on a rampage, shooting and killing the judge in the case and the court reporter.

By the end of the day, Nichols had escaped and allegedly gunned down two other men. He was now wanted for four murders, in addition to the rape charges.

The manhunt became one of the largest in Georgia's history, but the fugitive seemed to have vanished.

An Unlikely Angel Shares Her Troubles

Meanwhile, at a sprawling apartment complex 15 miles away, Ashley Smith was unpacking after moving to a small apartment there. The 26-year-old waitress with two jobs was oblivious to the panic surrounding Nichols' escape.

Around 2 a.m. Saturday morning, she went out for cigarettes and noticed a man in a parked pickup truck. When she returned, the man was still there. As she unlocked her door, Nichols came up behind her and forced his way into her apartment.

The amazing story of what happened next is detailed in Smith's new book, "Unlikely Angel."

Inside the apartment, Nichols tied her up with masking tape, a curtain and extension cord.

"I was scared to death," Smith told Deborah Roberts on "20/20." "I just knew I was going to die."

Smith was recovering from a string of misfortunes and mistakes that had left her living alone and vulnerable. Terrified that Nichols would kill her at any moment, Smith nervously began talking -- telling her captor the story of her own difficult life.

She showed Nichols snapshots from her childhood. She was raised part of the time by religious grandparents. She was a high school athlete but also a drug user. At 20, Ashley married Mack Smith, and soon their daughter, Paige, was born. The young couple partied hard and ran in the fast lane. Then, four years ago during a brawl, Mack was stabbed to death.

"He died in my arms," Smith said.

She told Nichols how her life had plunged into a haze of pain and drugs -- something he could relate to. Nichols, too, was raised in a middle-class home and watched his own life spin out of control. He had a daughter he hadn't seen in 12 years.

"As long as I could hear myself talking ... I knew I was alive," Smith said.

Coming to Terms with Addiction

Wally Zeins, a former New York Police Department hostage negotiator, said that because both Smith and Nichols both had made mistakes in their lives, they shared common ground.

"He knew he had problems. She knew she had problems. She found a way to get to him that was going to be able to put both of them on a very neutral basis. He looked at her as an angel from God," Zeins said.

Smith's story had an effect on Nichols. He moved her to the bedroom and removed the tape from her legs. Then, he asked a startling question: Did she have any marijuana?

"I said, 'No, I don't have any. But I have something else,' " Smith said.

Smith offered her captor ice, the street name for the powerful illegal stimulant methamphetamine. She instantly regretted the decision.

"When those words came out of my mouth, I was like, 'What did I just say? Are you stupid? What's going on?' " Smith said. "But I'd already said it. I was like, I have just killed myself.

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