Taken hostage in her home, Duluth woman shared her life, faith

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ajc.com:

Taken hostage in her home, Duluth woman shared her life, faith

By BILL RANKIN, DON PLUMMER
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 03/14/05

Just two days after moving into her Duluth apartment, Ashley Smith is up late unpacking.

About 2 a.m. Saturday, the 26-year-old runs out of cigarettes and heads to a convenience store to buy a pack of Marlboro Light Menthols.

During her hours with Brian Nichols, Ashley Smith talked about her 5-year-old daughter and her late husband. She told Nichols if he killed her, he would leave her daughter an orphan.

When she returns, she sees a man in a truck waiting outside her door. She had seen the man earlier, but didn't think much of it. Seeing him again puts her on high alert.

She gets out of her car and shuts the door.

She hears the truck door close about the same time. Fear rises in her.

Holding her key in her hand, she makes her way to her front door and senses his presence. As she slides her key into the lock, she turns to face the man from the truck. She screams. He pokes a gun into her ribs.

'Stop screaming,' he demands. 'I won't hurt you if you stop screaming.'

She fears the worst — that she will be raped and killed.

'Do you know who I am?' he asks.

He is wearing a dark blazer beneath a red ski parka but no shirt. He has a new UGA cap on his head.

She doesn't know him.

He removes the cap, showing his shaved head.

'Now do you know who I am?' he asks again.

She recognizes him now: Brian G. Nichols. She begins to tremble.

'I won't hurt you,' he tells her.

He takes her into the bathroom, places her in the tub and sits on a small chair, holding a gun.

He leaves her to check for other people in the apartment. When he returns, he tries again to reassure her. "I don't want to hurt anyone else," he says.

He worries that her screams could bring too much attention. "If you scream, the police will come. There will be a hostage situation," he says. "I'll have to kill you and kill myself."

He binds her with masking tape and carries her into the bedroom, where he restrains her with more tape, an electrical cord and some curtains. He makes no sexual advance.

"I just need to relax," he tells her.

He needs a shower and leads her as she hops back to the bathroom. He sits her on the chair and drapes a towel over her head for modesty. He places his guns on the counter and showers.

After he finds some fresh clothes — a T-shirt from a bar where she once worked and the trousers of a former boyfriend. He seems to be calmer.

He unbinds her and they sit in her living room.

"I've had a really long day," he says.

He offers her some faint explanation — maybe his first to account to anyone of how he had spent this long day.

"I feel like I'm a warrior. The people of my color have gone through a lot."

But he says he's had enough. "I don't want to hurt anybody anymore," he tells her. "I don't want to kill anybody.

"I want to rest."

The atmosphere becomes more normal, as normal as it could be.

Smith asks if he would mind if she reads.

Nichols says OK. She gets the book she'd been reading, "The Purpose Driven Life." It is a book that offers daily guidance. She picks up where she had left off — the first paragraph of the 33rd chapter.

"We serve God by serving others. The world defines greatness in terms of power, possessions, prestige and position. If you can demand service from others you've arrived. In our self serving culture with its me first mentality, acting like a servant is not a popular concept."

He stops her and asks her to read that again.

They talk and lose track of time. They look at her family photos. "Who's this?" he asks, pointing to a picture. "Who's this?"

She tells him about her family. Her husband died in her arms four years ago after he had been stabbed in a knife fight in Augusta, her hometown. She has a 5-year-old daughter.

She implores him not to kill her because that would leave her daughter without a mother or a father.

She tells him she is supposed to visit her daughter Saturday morning about 10 a.m. at Hebron Baptist Church in Dacula. She hadn't seen her in two weeks. "She's expecting to see me," she tells him. "She's already been through a lot in her life."

Smith shows Nichols her husband's autopsy report. "That's what a lot of people will have to go through now, because of what you've done," she tells him. "You need to turn yourself in. No one else needs to die, and you're going to die if you don't."

Smith asks Nichols how he feels about what he did — what about the families of the victims?

She senses a change. "He wasn't a warrior anymore," she recalled later.

"You can go in there right now, pick up that gun and kill me," he tells her. "I'd rather you do it than the police."

He talks about his mother, who is in Africa on business, and wonders what she must be thinking about her son.

They sit watching the TV news of the shooting spree. The screen fills with the story of his attack on Cynthia Hall, the 51-year-old deputy he had overpowered Friday morning to begin his rampage.

"I didn't shoot her," Nichols interjects. "I hit her really hard. Lord, I'm sorry. . . . I hope she lives."

He sees himself on the broadcast. "I can't believe that's me," he says.

Nichols later pulls out the badge and driver's license of David Wilhelm, the U.S. customs agent whom he is accused of killing hours before. He hands them to Smith.

Smith looks at the license and tells Nichols that Wilhelm was 40 years old. "He probably has a wife and kids," she says.

"I didn't want to kill him," Nichols says. "He wouldn't do what I asked him to do. He fought me, so I had to kill him."

Smith tells Nichols he must surrender.

"I deserve a bullet in the back," he tells her.

No, Smith says, but he must be held accountable for what he did.

Smith tells Nichols his life still has a purpose. By ministering to other inmates, "you can go to jail and save many more people than you killed."

As the night wears on, Smith begins to feel her chances improve.

Nichols tells her he will let her go to see her daughter later in the morning.

Around 6:15 a.m., Nichols says that before sunrise he needs to move the truck he is accused of stealing from Wilhelm.

She agrees to follow him in her car. He leaves the guns under her bed.

As they drive, Smith thinks about calling 911 on her cellphone, but she decides against it. She fears police will come and surround them. There'd be a shootout.

Nichols ditches the truck off Buford Highway, about two miles from the apartment complex.

"Wow, you didn't drive off," Nichols says as he gets into her car. "I thought you were going to."

She drives him back to her apartment. She no longer doubts that she will be set free.

Back at the apartment, Nichols is hungry. She cooks him eggs and pancakes, gives him fruit juice. They have breakfast together.

Nichols asks when she needs to see her daughter. At 10:00 a.m., Smith responds. It'd be good if she could leave at 9:30 to get there.

Smith washes the dishes and gets ready to leave.

Nichols asks her to come visit him in jail. "You're an angel sent from God to me," he tells her. "I want to talk to you again. Will you come see me?"

She tells him she will.

"I'll be back in a little while," she says.

Nichols gives her an odd look that makes Smith wonder whether he believes her.

At the door, he hands her $40. "Take it," Nichols says. "I don't have any need for it."

Nichols holds an electronic stud finder he took from Wilhelm's truck and asks if he can hang some of her pictures or curtains while she's gone.

Smith tells him to do whatever he likes.

As she walks into the bright, warm daylight, Smith begins to tremble. She drives to a stop sign and dials 911. She tells the dispatcher that Nichols is in her apartment.

Within minutes, a Gwinnett police SWAT team swarms outside Smith's apartment. Nichols holds out a white piece of cloth and surrenders. Smith was watching from behind a van parked across the parking lot.

Sunday night, after recounting her time with Nichols, Smith said she believes there was some purpose to his finding her.

"I believe God brought him to my door so he couldn't hurt anyone else," she said.

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