Sharing Troubled Past May Have Saved Atlanta Hostage

ByABC News
September 29, 2005, 6:01 PM

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.

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.