Excerpt: 'Unlikely Angel' by Ashley Smith

On March 12, 2005, Ashley Smith, a single mother, persuaded Brian Nichols, the alleged Atlanta courtroom gunman, to surrender to police. Smith was returning from a late-night cigarette run when Nichols forced his way into her apartment. He held her hostage for seven hours, as she fought for her life.

Nichols, who had been accused of binding and then repeatedly raping his girlfriend over the course of three days, allegedly went on a violent rampage at the courthouse. He allegedly stole a deputy's gun while in a holding cell and then shot the judge and court reporter. As he fled the scene, Nichols is accused of accosting a reporter, then shooting and killing a customs agent when trying to carjack him.

Smith succeeded in convincing Nichols to turn himself in. She explained to him she was a widow with a young daughter. She also provided him with crystal methamphetamine, but refused to do any herself because she didn't want to die having done drugs that day.

Below is an excerpt from Smith's new book, "Unlikely Angel: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Hostage Hero."

Chapter One: Hostage

Friday, March 11, 2005

At 9:45 p.m. my cell phone rang. I looked down at my caller ID--it was my step-dad calling from Augusta again. What could he want this time?

"What are you doing?" he asked.

I was exhausted, almost too tired to answer. I held the phone against my ear with my shoulder so I could carry a load of trash out of my second-floor apartment down to my car. I had been moving for two days. My new place was a smaller, bottom-level apartment on the other side of the complex. I didn't have much left to do here--just some vacuuming and painting to return the place to its original condition. But I wasn't doing any of that tonight. I needed sleep. I was driving to Dacula in the morning to see Paige.

"I'm moving the rest of my stuff," I said, trying to get down the stairs. Just please let me get off this phone.

"You're out? There's a man on the loose and you're out? Haven't you been watching the news like I told you?"

This was the second time my step-dad had called me about the guy on the news. The first time was late this morning when he woke me up calling. He kept talking about a man and shootings at the courthouse, and he told me to stay inside. I'd been up all night unpacking boxes, and I just didn't understand his concern. I mean, I lived in Duluth, maybe half an hour northeast of downtown Atlanta.

"Thanks, but I'm not too worried about it," I had told him.

I learned a little more about the story when I went to work later in the day. I'd just started a second job at Barnacle's, a restaurant maybe five minutes from my apartment complex. The news was playing on the TV screens when I got there, and I caught the basics: A man had killed some people at the Fulton County Courthouse and now he was on the run. My coworkers were talking about it a lot, but I didn't pay too much attention. Being from Augusta, I was used to hearing about violent crime in Atlanta. And I had a lot on my mind with the move anyway.

"Look," I said to my step-dad now as I shut my car door and headed back up to the apartment, "this guy's not going to come after me. I mean, he could be anywhere."

I thought back to the five police officers who had come into Barnacle's for dinner. I was training to work the door, and as the men were walking out, I heard someone ask them, "Hey, have y'all caught that guy yet?"

"Oh, don't you worry about him," one officer said. "He's probably in Alabama by now."

I tried to reassure my step-dad: "You know, an officer who came into the restaurant said the guy's probably in Alabama, so I'll be fine. I've just gotten off work, and I have a few more things to get out of here. Then I'm done. I'll be on my way to the other apartment in a few minutes. I promise."

"Well, okay," my step-dad said. "Just get home and get inside and don't leave."

"Okay. Fine."

I loaded the rest of the trash into my car and drove the half mile or so to the other side of the apartment complex. I was thinking about what the next day would look like. I would see Paige in the morning. My Aunt Kim, who had custody of her right now, had brought her the two and a half hours from Augusta, and they were staying with my Uncle David's family in Dacula, about thirty miles northeast of Atlanta toward Athens. We were all meeting up at Uncle David's church at ten o'clock for a kids' ministry Olympics day.

Then I would work a day shift at Express in Gwinnett Place Mall and a night shift at Barnacle's. It would be a full day, and I felt completely shot right now. I knew I just had to get to bed. I couldn't let myself do any more unpacking tonight. Maybe one or two boxes, but that was it. Really, Ashley, you can't get sucked into this.

I pulled up to my new apartment and parked right in front of the door. I didn't have far to carry my things, only ten or twelve steps up the walk. When I got inside, I pulled off my gray knit work shirt and black leather belt, which left me in a white tank top and a pair of baggy jeans. Then I turned on the TV in the living room.

"Okay," I said, looking at the five or six boxes lined up in the middle of the floor. "Just one or two."

While the news played in the background, I began unpacking the boxes and putting things where they belonged. The eight-by-ten photograph of Paige holding that red flower could go on top of my stereo speaker near the door. The two gold angel candleholders could sit on my picture table for now--I was going to hang them on either side of that mirror propped up on the back of the sofa.

Now and then as I worked I heard what the news anchors were saying: The man from the courthouse was still at large. He'd killed three people. There was something about a green Honda. I didn't hear much. Mainly, I was focused on getting my house the way I liked it. I knew exactly where I wanted things--photographs, candles, lamps, books, knickknacks--and I just kept going.

At about eleven I stopped and smoked a couple of cigarettes. I only had one left in the pack now, but I purposely had not gone by the store after work to buy any more because I knew I was going to make it an early night. Looking around the apartment, I changed my plan just a little. I saw I was knocking out the boxes pretty quickly, and I thought, "I could be done with this really soon and be able to see Paige tomorrow, go to work, come home, and not have to worry with this anymore. I can finish. I really can."

I kept working until all of the boxes were empty, setting out the last couple of chunky candles on my picture table in front of the two living room windows. Then I stacked up the empty boxes right behind the front door. I had done it. I was ahead of the game. It was after midnight, but I was finished. I smoked my last cigarette and began to get ready for bed.

And yet I couldn't quite seem to make it to bed. I tried to wash clothes, only to find the washing machine in my laundry room wasn't hooked up right--when I threw in a few shirts and some detergent and turned it on, the machine just spewed water everywhere. After that, I kept straightening and rearranging picture frames and knickknacks. My perfectionist streak was suddenly in high gear, and getting things in place like I wanted them ended up being a huge job. Before I knew it, it was going on 2:00 a.m. I was still awake. And now I was out of cigarettes.

Too wound up to go to sleep at this point, and really needing to smoke--I always smoked right before bed--I decided to make a run to the QuikTrip, a mile or two from the apartment complex. It was chilly out, so I put on a long, hooded beige sweater and a tan knit cap. Pulling the hood up over my head, I grabbed my pocketbook and keys, opened the door, and went out into the night.

As soon as I stepped outside, I heard a rumbling noise. Glancing in the direction of the sound, I saw a large, dark blue pickup truck backing into a parking space at the end of the row to my right, maybe fifty yards away. I didn't think much of it. It was Friday night, and I'd been known to come in later than this. Plus, I'd just moved into this place; I figured the driver was probably a neighbor. I got into my car, backed out, and drove past the truck, rounding the corner to the stop sign. Looking over, I could just barely make out the driver's outline in the front seat.

About five or six minutes later I pulled into the QuikTrip parking lot on Satellite Boulevard. Right then I realized I needed to reset the clock on my dash. My battery had died the night before while I was moving. This car was basically on its last leg--it was an '89 Pontiac Bonneville with more than 200,000 miles. An Augusta friend had bought it for me the previous summer because it had air-conditioning, which meant I could drive my daughter, Paige, around in it when I visited her in Augusta at Aunt Kim's.

But I had only driven Paige in the car once. That particular day, Aunt Kim told me to drive Paige straight to her soccer game and back. This was the first time she had let me take my daughter anywhere in a long time--and I broke the rules. I stopped somewhere else with Paige, and I lost my privileges.

Now my car had begun to cut off in traffic--the engine would just sputter and go out and I'd have to crank it up, praying for it to start again. The battery had flat-out died for the first time the day before, when I was moving into my new apartment. I had loaded the car down with a bunch of my stuff and even hoisted my mattress and box springs onto the roof. Things were sticking out of the windows and trunk; the car was almost touching the ground. When it wouldn't start, I called someone I knew to come jump it and help me move a few heavy items over to the new place. I only had two friends in Atlanta, and they were not very close friends.

Bending down now to look at my clock in the QuikTrip parking lot, I thought, "That time's not right." I wasn't wearing my watch, so I took out my cell phone. It was right at two o'clock. I punched in the correct time on the dash and ran into the store for a box of Marlboro Light Menthols. Then I got back on Satellite Boulevard and headed for home.

As I pulled up the short hill to my new apartment and took the sharp corner to the left, I noticed the blue truck had moved. Okay, what? What's up with this? Now the truck was backed into a parking space directly behind where I had originally parked; and it was one space over from a free-standing garage, which meant I could only see the hood. Driving slowly toward my parking space, I got a better view of the windshield and tried to look inside. Oh, God--help me. Someone's still in there.

I had no idea what to do right then. The driver was just sitting there looking straight ahead. Is he looking at my car? Looking at me? I could feel myself starting to sweat. I knew this wasn't right. Maybe I could just make a U-turn and drive off. But where would I go? My mom lived nearby, but she and I had been fighting--I didn't want to go to her place, especially not at two in the morning. And I didn't have close friends in the area. Checking out the short distance between my parking space and the front door, I thought maybe I could make a run for it.

Okay, if he tries to follow me, I can just try to beat him to the front door, get inside, and lock it. I was starting to shake, sitting there in the car. Was this a stupid idea? Ashley, think! Are you sure you want to try this? I didn't really know what else to do at this point. Just why'd you have to go out in the first place? Stupid cigarettes. Trembling, I pulled the car into my space and shut off the ignition. I guess I'm going for it. I got my keys ready and reached for the door handle.

As soon as I stepped out of the car and shut my door, I heard a clicking sound--it was the truck's door closing behind me. That's the driver.

I was walking quickly toward the apartment now. Just a few steps up this walk right here. I turned my head slightly to check behind me, and I could see out of the corner of my eye a black man coming right for me. I could hear his footsteps, hear him getting closer. Maybe he'll pass me and go to the stairwell. I kept moving. Finally to the door, I got my keys in the lock, turned the knob, and pushed the door open. Then he was on me.

"Aah! Aah! Aah!" I was standing on the sidewalk, screaming at the top of my lungs.

He had me by the arm. There was a gun in my face. My pocketbook slid off my shoulder and crashed to the ground.

"Shut up!" he said in a harsh whisper. "Stop screaming! If you stop screaming, I won't hurt you. Just shut up! Shut up!"

"Don't hurt me! Please don't hurt me!" I could almost hear the gun firing. I braced myself. This is it. Paige.

Wrenching my arm, he got behind me, wrapped his arms around my upper body, and shoved me inside the apartment, pressing the gun into my side. The door bounced against the empty boxes I had stacked behind it, and I slouched in his arms, hoping that if he tried to shoot, I could somehow dodge the bullet by slumping to the ground. Once he got me inside the small foyer, he closed the door behind us and locked it. I stumbled and stood up. My beige sweater had gotten pulled off and was now at my feet. Just get me out of here alive, God. If he rapes me, so be it. Just let me make it out of here. Let me see Paige again. Please!

The man was waving the gun in my face. "Why'd you scream?" I was backed up against the closet door directly opposite the front door and standing about two feet away from him. He had a baseball hat pulled low over his face. I looked down and saw one of his pant legs was rolled up, exposing what looked like another gun tucked into his black sneaker.

"Please don't kill me, please don't do this. Don't hurt me. My little girl doesn't have a daddy and if you kill me she won't have a mommy, either. Please don't hurt me." I stuck my hands out in front of me, pleading. "My little girl..."

"Just calm down, quit moving. Don't do that. Just, I'm not going to hurt you if you just listen to me and don't scream again. Do not scream again, because if your neighbors heard you scream, then the police are on the way, and I'm going to have to hold you hostage and kill you and probably kill them and myself."

"Okay, okay, okay." The gun was about a foot from my face. "Why'd you scream?" he asked again. The pitch of his voice rose. He was glaring at me from under that hat.

"What? Why did I scream? I... I don't know you. It's two in the morning. You have a gun pointed at me. I'm scared!" My voice was breaking now. Oh, God, just get me out of this.

"Is anybody here with you?"

"No, I'm by myself. I just moved in here. Please don't hurt me."

Excerpted by permission from "Unlikely Angel: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Hostage Hero," by Ashley Smith with Stacy Mattingly. Published by Morrow/Avon. Copyright © 2005 by Ashley Smith.