Hostage reads ‘Purpose-Driven Life’
to alleged Atlanta courthouse killer
By Erin Curry
ATLANTA (BP)–Ashley Smith, the Atlanta-area woman taken hostage by the subject of the largest manhunt in Georgia history March 12, calmed the alleged killer by reading an excerpt from “The Purpose-Driven Life” and talking with him about God. She escaped by persuading him to let her pick up her daughter from an AWANA children’s program at a Southern Baptist church.
“I asked him if I could read,” Smith, 26, said in recounting the ordeal to reporters outside her attorney’s office March 13. “He said, ‘What do you want to read?’
“‘Well, I have a book in my room.’ So I went and got it. I got my Bible, and I got a book called ‘The Purpose-Driven Life.’ I turned it to the chapter that I was on that day. It was chapter 33. And I started to read the first paragraph of it. After I read it, he said, ‘Stop. Will you read it again?’
“So I read it again to him,” Smith said.
On Day 33 of the book, author Rick Warren, a Southern Baptist pastor in California, writes, “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.”
The alleged gunman, Brian Nichols, overpowered an Atlanta courthouse deputy as he was being escorted to court for a rape trial March 11. He then shot and killed the presiding judge and a court reporter before killing another deputy as he left the courthouse. Later he killed a federal agent in an attempt to flee authorities.
Nichols, 33, held Smith at gunpoint outside her Duluth apartment around 2:30 a.m. March 12, apparently having chosen her at random as she returned from a trip to a nearby store. Once he removed his hat, she recognized him as the man wanted for the killing spree and chose to cooperate with his demands. He tied her up and then began to converse with her.
Smith asked Nichols not to kill her because she was scheduled to pick up her 5-year-old daughter the next morning. Four years ago, Smith’s husband died in her arms after being stabbed in a knife fight, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Smith was concerned that her daughter would become an orphan.
M. Allen Hughes, administrative pastor at Hebron Baptist Church in Dacula, Ga., told Baptist Press he was under the impression Smith planned to pick up her daughter at the church’s AWANA function Saturday morning.
“My understanding was that her little girl was participating and that she was supposed to come pick up her little girl and obviously didn’t get to do that because of the situation,” Hughes said. “Some relative picked up the little girl for her, and … when the relative found out that she did not pick the little girl up, that’s how they knew something was going on. That’s pretty much all we know on this end.”
As time passed during the early morning hours at the apartment, Nichols and Smith talked about God, family and life experiences while the fugitive apparently became more comfortable with the hostage. She began to help the gunman consider the families of the victims he had shot that day and asked him if he thought about how they might be feeling.
“After we began to talk, he said he thought that I was an angel sent from God and that I was his sister and he was my brother in Christ and that he was lost and God led him right to me to tell him that he had hurt a lot of people,” Smith told reporters. “And the families — the people — to let him know how they felt because I had gone through it myself.”
Nichols held photographs of Smith’s family in his hands and said repeatedly that he did not want to hurt anyone else, according to a CNN transcript of Smith’s statements to reporters.
“He said, ‘Can I stay here for a few days? I just want to eat some real food and watch some TV and sleep and just do normal things that normal people do,'” Smith said.
As they continued to talk, Nichols mentioned that he considered his life to be over.
“He needed hope for his life. He told me that he was already dead,” Smith told reporters. “He said, ‘Look at me. Look at my eyes. I am already dead.’ And I said, ‘You are not dead. You are standing right in front of me. If you want to die, you can. It’s your choice.’
“But after I started to read to him, he saw — 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. I guess he began to want to. That’s what I think,” she said.
When he was hungry, Smith made pancakes for Nichols and they talked more about God.
“I said, ‘Do you believe in miracles? Because if you don’t believe in miracles — you are here for a reason. You’re here in my apartment for some reason. You got out of that courthouse with police everywhere, and you don’t think that’s a miracle? You don’t think you’re supposed to be sitting right here in front of me listening to me tell you, you know, your reason here?’
“I said, ‘You know, your miracle could be that you need to — you need to be caught for this,'” Smith continued. “‘You need to go to prison and you need to share the Word of God with them, with all the prisoners there.'”
By 9:30 a.m., Nichols agreed to let Smith leave to pick up her daughter. When she reached the first stop sign on her route, Smith dialed 911 and within minutes a Gwinnett County police SWAT team had surrounded the apartment with Nichols inside, according to The Journal-Constitution. Nichols waved a white piece of cloth to signal his surrender and was taken into custody.
“I believe God brought him to my door so he couldn’t hurt anyone else,” Smith said.