Sharing Troubled Past May Have Saved Atlanta Hostage

Sept. 30, 2005 — -- 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.

"I was scared to death. I said, if it makes him as crazy as it makes me, I'm about to die right now."

Surprisingly, Smith says, the drug seemed to have no outward effect on Nichols. But what happened next was a defining moment in her personal fight against addiction.

"He said, 'You're not going to do it with me?' And I looked at him boldly and said, 'No. I'm a drug addict and that stuff has ruined my life,' " Smith recounted.

By now, Nichols had put his guns away and was carefully listening to the story of his hostage's troubled life.

"I was in the lowest pit of self-pity that anyone could ever be in, feeling sorry for myself and not wanting to, or not knowing how to, really, do anything about it," Smith said. She was taking 30 pain pills a day until she discovered meth.

Smith's aunt, Kim Rogers, finally stepped in, taking legal custody of 3-year-old Paige.

"It was the best place for her to be at the time," Rogers said.

At one point, Smith's mother and aunt admitted her to a mental hospital for three days. "I was choosing the drugs over my daughter," Smith told Roberts. "And I struggled with it, to hide that pain, to hide the pain of you are such a sorry person that you're going to choose drugs over her. And I kept doing it, to hide it more."

Two years later, drugs were still a constant temptation to Smith until the encounter with Nichols. Scrawny and disheveled, Smith was living alone -- finding happiness only in her twice monthly visits with her daughter.

"While I was in the house, I was a prisoner, but I was free when I said no to the drugs," Smith said. "It was kind of like, I can breathe."

A Miraculous End to the Ordeal

Smith also talked to Nichols about her daughter. "I remember saying, 'I've got to see my daughter tomorrow. Am I going to be able to?' And the first response out of his mouth at first was 'no,' " Smith said. "And I'm telling him, please don't hurt me. I have a little girl that doesn't have a daddy. She needs her mom."

Throughout the night, Ashley continued to insist on going to her 9:30 a.m. appointment with Paige. Before dawn, she read aloud from Rick Warren's inspirational book, "A Purpose-Driven Life." Gradually, she gained the confidence to confront her captor.

"I said, 'You need to turn yourself in. And you need to turn back to God,' " said Smith.

Smith says that throughout the evening, Nichols' demeanor changed and he became increasingly calm.

"He just looked like a different person. Kind of humbled, at peace maybe," she said. "But I can remember him looking at the TV going, 'I cannot believe that is me on TV.' "

Smith told Nichols he had to repent. "And I'm like, 'Yeah, you have to believe that is you. You have to ask for forgiveness and you have to pay for what you did and you have to get over it and you have to move on.' "

Around 6 a.m., four hours after he had taken her captive, Nichols ordered Smith to follow him in her car to ditch the stolen pickup truck. It was the perfect chance for Smith to escape.

She actually dialed 911 on her cell phone but never pressed the send button. She thought that if she called the police, there could be a shootout and she could be killed.

"I just knew that if I got back to the house then I was going to leave. And when I left, nobody else would get hurt," Smith said. "I knew they could surround him there, and it would be his decision on whether or not more people died there that way."

Dawn was breaking as they returned to her apartment where an exhausted Smith cooked pancakes and eggs for her captor.

"I just was making him feel normal, because I wanted to be treated normal," she said. "I was going to let him know all the bad things that I did and let him know, 'hey look, I gave my daughter up for drugs.' "

Sitting at the table, Nichols told Smith he wished they had met under different circumstances, because he thought they could have been friends.

Finally, at 9:30 a.m., Smith slowly headed for the door to pick up her daughter. Nichols offered no resistance.

"He said, 'Will you tell Paige hello for me?' I was like, 'sure,' " Smith said. "When I got in the car I was shaking profusely and immediately called 911."

SWAT teams soon surrounded Smith's apartment. Nichols could have escaped earlier; he could have kept on running and possibly never have been found. Instead, touched by the humanity of a recovering drug addict, he walked out without a fight.

"It was a miracle that I made it out of there alive. It was a miracle that no one else got hurt," Smith said.

Six months after her ordeal, Smith is living with her aunt, Kim Rogers, and daughter. The drugs are gone, replaced with newfound optimism. Authorities are not pursuing drug charges against Smith, but Nichols is awaiting trial on four murder charges and a rape charge and has pleaded not guilty. The prosecutor is asking for the death penalty.

For her efforts in the capture of Smith, Nichols received $72,500 worth of reward money from several Georgia law enforcement and government agencies. She says now she is taking life slowly -- savoring her days until she is healed. But this time, she says mother and daughter will face the world together.

"I'm blessed to still be here," Smith said. "I think about what if I had died, what that poor child would be going through. She goes up to people in the grocery store and says, 'My mommy's a hero.' And I'm like, 'Stop, don't do that. Don't tell anybody that. Mommy's not a hero, she's just mommy, OK.'

"And she smiles and that is -- I wouldn't trade it. I wouldn't trade it for anything."