A new American hero was anointed yesterday, on talk radio and television, in police stations and coffee shops.
Ashley Smith, an anonymous suburbanite last week, burst into the nation's consciousness, lavishly praised as the woman responsible for ending the massive manhunt for the Atlanta courthouse murder suspect. The police chief in Duluth, Ga., where Smith was held captive, crowned her "a champ," and network correspondents and commentators dubbed her "a hero." Her captor, she says, went even further: "An angel sent from God" is what Smith remembers being called by Brian Nichols, the shooting suspect she calmed.
"He told me . . . God had led him to me," recalled Ashley Smith, who says she was held captive for seven hours.
(Curtis Compton - ATLANTA JOURNAL CONSTITUTION)
This 26-year-old widow did what battalions of armed law enforcement officers could not, by making eggs and pancakes -- and by sharing her life story, by reading and listening, and by talking about God. She did it, she has said in detailed retellings of her ordeal for reporters, by trusting Nichols, 33, and by making him trust her.
There, in that suburban apartment north of Atlanta, she told Nichols, hunted and already reviled for allegedly killing four people, that "he wasn't this bad person everybody made him out to be." She read to him from Chapter 33 of the book "A Purpose-Driven Life" and says she told him that he might have a purpose of his own: to turn himself in and spread the word of God in prison.
"He told me I was his sister and he was my brother in Christ, and God had led him to me," she said in a televised interview with a group of reporters in Atlanta on Sunday evening.
Smith's ascendance from suburban anonymity to national renown happened with dizzying speed. Her role in persuading Nichols to give up without a fight Saturday has catapulted her into the instant celebrity's realm of almost-certain book and movie deals. But it was her apparent compassion and empathy that made it impossible not to stop and listen: "I feel sorry for him," she said in the interview. "I don't think he realized what he was doing."
It all began for Smith in an apartment complex in Duluth called the Bridgewater. Early Saturday morning, Smith says, Nichols sneaked up behind her in the parking lot and pushed her into her apartment. He held her at gunpoint, bound her and shoved her into a bathtub. The scenario was familiar. Nichols was on trial last week for the rape of his ex-girlfriend. He had allegedly held her at gunpoint, bound her and shoved her into a bathtub.
Both women tried to placate Nichols, who attended Cardinal Gibbons School -- an all-male Catholic school in Baltimore -- by talking about God. But Nichols's ex-girlfriend testified that making an appeal to his spiritual side "didn't work for her," said Barry Hazen, Nichols's attorney in that case.
Almost from the beginning, Smith said, Nichols seemed to show flashes of polite attentiveness for her, even as he held her against her will. When he decided to take a shower, he covered her head so she would not have to see him naked. When she begged him not to kill her, saying it would leave her daughter without a "mommy or daddy," he listened.
Her approach worked so well that Nichols asked to stay with her for a few days so he could eat some "real food" and watch television after being incarcerated since August. They watched the news together -- seeing round-the-clock coverage of the manhunt. "I cannot believe that's me on there," Nichols told her, Smith recalled.
Smith did not develop trust by being wishy-washy. At one point during her seven-hour ordeal, Nichols told her he was "already dead." He might have had a point -- after all, he was suspected of killing a judge, a court reporter, a sheriff's deputy, and a federal customs and immigration agent. But she would not hear it.
"He needed hope for his life," she recounted in the interview that has been replayed countless times.
"You are not dead -- you are standing right in front of me," she recalled telling Nichols. "If you want to die, you can. It's your choice."
Smith already knew something about untimely death. Her husband was fatally stabbed in August 2001, knocking her life so off kilter that her daughter, Paige -- now 5 -- had to go live with Smith's aunt. She was trying to put herself back together, attending school and looking for a job, when Nichols came into her world after she got back from a quick trip to the store for cigarettes.
During the morning, she recalled, she had many opportunities to escape. Nichols had cut her loose and left his guns on the bed, unattended. But she never picked them up. Instead, she read to him from "The Purpose-Driven Life."
"It mentioned something about what you thought your purpose in life was: What were you? What talents were you given? What gifts were you given to use?" Smith said.
Nichols asked her to follow him in her car while he drove the customs agent's pickup truck away from the apartment complex. She asked whether she could bring her cell phone and he said she could. But she never placed a call. She picked him up after he dropped off the truck and drove back to her home with him, she said. Her decision had a courageous purpose: She feared that he would kill more people if she did not do what he said.
She had taken it upon herself to end the manhunt.
When they got back, she said, she made Nichols breakfast and ate with him. They talked about their families. He wondered what his parents would think; she talked about her faith and her daughter.
"I guess he saw my faith and what I really believed in. And I told him I was a child of God and that I wanted to do God's will," she said. "I guess he began to want to. That's what I think."
By 9 a.m., she was reminding Nichols that she needed to leave, that she needed to see her daughter. She thinks he knew that she would call the police. But he let her go anyway, she said. As she was walking out the door, he had one more question for her: He wanted to know whether he could help her, if he could hang some curtains for her. She looked at him and said, "Do whatever you want." Then, she was gone.