Wed, Mar 16, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Unlikely hero hailed after weekend drama in Atlanta

THE GUARDIAN , WASHINGTON

Illustrations of Ashley Smith, hostage, and Brian Nichols, her captor and murder suspect in the Atlanta courthouse shooting, drawn by Janet Hamlin.

SOURCE: AP

The ordeal began with a gun in the ribs in the middle of the night. By morning, after a pancake breakfast, the man accused of killing four in an Atlanta courthouse rampage was offering to hang curtains in his hostage's flat, and she was a US hero.

On Monday, Ashley Smith, 26, described by her family as a soft touch, a drifter between deadend jobs who couldn't earn enough to look after her own daughter, was hailed by police for her courage and negotiating skills.

Through the course of that night, she won the trust of a man accused in a rash of killings, bringing a peaceful end to a 26-hour manhunt.

Brian Nichols, the alleged gunman, was in a federal prison on Monday after surrendering peacefully to the authorities. He was expected to be formally charged yesterday with shooting dead a judge, a court reporter, a police deputy, and the subsequent killing of a customs agent.

Their encounter began at 2am on Saturday when Smith took a break from unpacking boxes in her new apartment, and went on a cigarette run. As she unlocked the door upon her return, Nichols appeared, jabbing a gun in her side.

Her hands were bound in a praying position with masking tape, and her feet immobilized with curtains and an extension cord. Then, according to Monday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, Nichols lay down his gun on the bathroom counter, and took a shower, telling Smith he just needed to relax. He untied her, and led her to the living room, explaining: "I've had a really long day."

The two began to talk. Smith showed Nichols her photo album, saying she was the widowed mother of a five-year-old daughter, and that her husband had been killed in a knife fight.

She begged him not to kill her, because that would leave her daughter an orphan. She told him her daughter was expecting to see her later that morning at church.

"He told me he just wanted a place to stay to watch TV, to eat some real food," she told CNN.

Smith then got Nichols to talk about his alleged victims, and the toll their deaths would take on their families and urged him to surrender.

Nichols went on to speak about his despair. "He needed hope for his life. He told me he was already dead. He said: `Look at me. Look at my eyes. I am already dead.' I said you are not dead. You are standing right here in front of me."

She showed him the book she'd been reading, The Purpose Driven Life. Nichols was so struck by the passage she read aloud, he asked her to read it again.

Later they watched the TV news of the attack on the courthouse.

At dawn, the two left the apartment, with Smith following Nichols in her car, so that he could move the truck he is accused of stealing from the murdered customs agent. Smith dismissed the idea of calling police on her cellphone for fear that would lead to a shootout. Nichols abandoned the truck a few kilometers away, and Smith drove him back to her apartment. Back home, she served Nichols orange juice, and cooked him eggs and pancakes.

As she left to meet her daughter, Nichols called after her, offering to hang pictures or curtains in the apartment and handing her US$40.

"You're an angel sent from God to me," he told her.

Minutes later, she telephoned to tell police that Nichols was in her apartment. He later walked out waving a white cloth.

"I feel like I met him for a reason," Smith said. "If that was for myself not to get killed, or any other police officers not to, or for him to save hundreds of other people in prison, my purpose was fulfilled."

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