A little over a decade after Brian Nichols’ murderous rampage left four people dead, others injured and a city gripped with fear, the movie Captive, released this month, depicts his key encounter with Ashley Smith, a widowed young mother in Atlanta, Georgia.
Ashley at the time was at an all-time low in her life, after having lost her first husband to drug-related violence.
On that fateful night, Ashley decided on a late-night cigarette run as Nichols, having fatally shot Judge Rowland W. Barnes, court reporter Julie Ann Brandau, Fulton County Sheriff’s Deputy Sgt. Hoyt Teasley and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent David G. Wilhelm, pulled into her apartment parking lot in a stolen vehicle.
‘Nichols was on trial for rape when he shot his way out of the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta on March 11, 2005. He overpowered and savagely beat Fulton County Sheriff’s Deputy Cynthia Hall, then used her gun to kill Barnes, Brandau and Teasley before fleeing. He chanced on Wilhelm and killed the off-duty federal agent at his home before making his way to Gwinnett County and, serendipitously, Smith’s apartment,’ said a story in the Atlantic Journal-Constitution.
Finding Jesus and a future
As a result of her near death experience with the killer, Ashley gave her life back to Christ, walked away from her drug habit that had held her captive for so long, and has now remarried.
She is now known as Ashley Smith Robinson and now lives in the Augusta area, where she works as an X-ray technician at a hospital there. As she says, ‘It’s never too late to turn your life around.’
I was anxious to talk with Ashley to get her side of the story and she agreed. In it, she told me that, up until that time, her life had been full of ups and downs.
Ashley Smith Robinson
‘I was raised in a Christian home and had a really good life as a child,’ she began. ‘But then, at about 18 or 19, I started making some bad choices, and then I also got married young. After about two-and-a-half years of marriage, my husband was brutally murdered in front of me. He was stabbed to death and he died in my arms.
‘I didn’t deal with his death in a very positive manner and you can imagine that many emotions flooded me – from anger, fear, and sadness. Instead of really facing the reality of those problems, I just covered them up with drugs. So when Brian Nichols came into my life I was in the middle of a spiritual warfare, trying to go back and forth between God and drugs or God and the world, and I was failing miserably.’
Ashley said she had tried various kinds of drugs, but her first encounter with Meth was in 2001, when one of her friends came to see her.
I asked Ashley what exactly does Meth do, and she replied, ‘For most people, it gives you energy and it speeds you up. It’s kind of equivalent to cocaine and it’s kind of a speed. When I took it, it had me cleaning my house all the time and getting all kinds of work done. That’s what it did to me at first, but as it began to take over my life, it didn’t do anything but take my sanity from me and it began to have negative effects on my life.’
I then asked Ashley Smith to take us back to that fateful early-morning encounter with Nichols.
‘I was in the middle of moving into a new apartment and had begun unpacking my things and, at about two in the morning before I was to go to bed, I went out for cigarettes and it was then that I noticed a truck pulling up by my apartment complex. But when I came back, about five minutes later, I noticed that the man was still sitting in the truck. I got out of my car and began walking towards my front door. He then got out of his truck and began to follow me closer and closer to my door. And then, when I unlocked the door, he was right there with a gun pointed right at me’
She added, ‘He was a big guy. He was very scary. I immediately started to scream and asked him “not to hurt me.” He told me to “shut up” and said that if I did, he wouldn’t hurt me.’
By now Ashley was in her home and was desperately trying to keep control of her feelings. Nichols continued to be very aggressive.
Making a connection
‘Although my daughter Paige was not in the home at the time,’ said Ashley ‘there were tons of pictures of her everywhere and, of course, I talked to Brian Nicholas about her the whole time.’
In a bid to try and find any similarities between them, Ashley asked Nichols if he had any children. ‘He told me that he and his wife had just had a son, a couple days before this happened,’ she said.
As the time went along, Nichols, who was obviously very tense, posed a question to Ashley.
‘He asked me if I had any marijuana in the house and I told him that I did not, but I had some Meth that I had used it the day before. It was in a place in my home that if he were to ransack it, he would easily find it, and I didn’t want to make him upset with me for lying,’ she continued. ‘So I brought out the Meth, and on three separate occasions, he asked me if I want to use it with him, but I told him that I didn’t want to.
‘And that was when I saw Jesus. It was almost like Brian Nichols was not Brian Nichols anymore and Jesus began asking me, “Ashley, do you want a new life, because if you do, then you don’t do those drugs, but if you want to continue living the life that you have been doing, go ahead and do those drugs and I’m just going to take you home.” It was very clear to me that God was asking me to make a life-changing decision and so I chose not to do the drugs.
‘Brian didn’t seem mad at me and I told him those drugs had ruined my life and I didn’t want anything else to do with them. He left it at that. There were three lines on the table to do and he did two of them and left one there and it stayed there all night.’
‘I don’t know that he necessarily changed so much, but I guess he did calm down quite a bit. I don’t know if that was a result of doing the drugs or not, but he turned from this angry, almost scared person, to someone who somewhat calmer, and he then sat down on the couch and turned on the TV and watched it a little bit,’ said Ashely. ‘Then news would come on about what had occurred.
‘He kind of reacted to that because he said that the news was not reporting the correct information. He was especially mad the news reader said that he had shot Cynthia Hall, who was the deputy who was escorting him into the courthouse that day. He turned and said aloud that he’d just “hit her over the head with the gun.” Then he looked up that the ceiling and surprisingly prayed, “God, please let her live.”’
Purpose in life
After a couple of heart-stopping hours, and as the time slowly dragged on at a snail’s pace, Ashley, decided to bring out a copy of a book she had been reading, The Purpose Driven Life, by Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church.
‘I asked Brian Nichols if I could read. And he said that was okay if I read it out loud, and so I read one chapter to him. Afterwards, we talked a little about what our purpose in life was, because that’s kind of what the chapter was about.
‘He suddenly said, “What do you think my purpose is?” I said, “Well, you have to turn yourself in and you have to pay for what you did.” I then added, “People in prison need Jesus too, so maybe that’s what you’re supposed to do with the rest of your life.”
‘Then he told me, “I think your purpose is to share God with other people and help them tell them your story of how God’s changed your life.”’
It was, indeed a strange situation, as Ashley had gone out to get a packet of cigarettes and before she knew it, she has got a murderer in her home who is doing her drugs, and then she is reading a Christian book to him on what was the longest night of her life!
‘Yeah, it was pretty surreal when I look back on it now,’ she said.
‘What was amazing was that I didn’t have to escape,’ she said. ‘He just let me leave the next morning. The whole night, I had been telling him that I was supposed to have a meeting with my daughter that morning and, I kept asking him if I was going to be able to leave to go and see her.
‘At first, he told me that I wasn’t going to be able to go, but as the night went on, he seemed to warm up to the fact that I might be able to. I just kept telling him, “Imagine how she’s going to feel and also people are going to know something’s wrong, because I don’t ever miss a meeting with her. So if I don’t show up, people are going to start asking questions and wondering why I’m not there.”’
Just when it seemed impossible for Ashley to escape, a miracle occurred and, at 9am, Nichols suddenly said, ‘When do you need to leave to see Paige?’ To which she replied, ‘Now sounds like a real good time for me.’ And with that, he just let her walk out the door. And, as she was leaving, Nichols even asked her if there was anything he could for her while she was gone?
Was he hoping you wouldn’t call the police? I asked Ashley.
‘I don’t know what he was thinking – but part of me thinks that he thought I was possibly going to come back after I visited Paige, but part of me also knows, because of the conversations that we had had, that he knew I was going to call the police. So, after I left my apartment, I asked God to please not let anyone else get hurt. I also said in my prayer, “Thank you for letting me live and make it out alive. I did call 911 once I got in the car and rounded the corner.”’
Within minutes, police were swarming the complex and Brian Nichols was safely taken into custody. On December 13, 2008, Nichols was sentenced to multiple life sentences with no chance of parole.
Laying down brokenness before God
I concluded by asking Ashley Smith why she feels God allowed her to live, and she said, ‘I really believe that God spared my life because he wanted me to go around the world and tell people that he changed me. You know, I didn’t do anything in my apartment that night but lay down my brokenness to God and he’s brought me to a very different place in my life in the last 10 years from where I was then.’
Ashley has now married again, and goes by the name of Ashley Smith Robinson. She is back in active worship at her local church, attends weekly Bible study, and enjoys a full life with her new husband, their four-year-old son, her 14-year-old stepdaughter and her daughter, Paige, who is now 16.
She has returned to the familiar embrace of her extended, sports-loving family and has written a memoir called Unlikely Angel -The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Hostage Hero, which debuted at #15 on the New York Times Bestseller List. http://www.amazon.com.au/Unlikely-Angel-Untold-Atlanta-Hostage-ebook/dp/B0040GJDXA
According to her wishes, some of the proceeds from the book will be donated to a memorial fund that will honour the victims of the courthouse tragedy.
The movie filmed in Charlotte, NC and Mexico City, is based on Ashley’s memoir Unlikely Angel with screenplay by Hollywood veteran, Brian Bird, who attends Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California.
Captive stars Kate Mara as Ashley and Nigerian-born British actor, David Oyelowo as Nichols (He played the Rev Martin Luther King Jr. in last year’s Selma). It focuses on what happens during the hours Nichols held her captive.
I’m making my recorded extraordinary 17-minute audio interview with Ashley for immediate broadcast to media outlets around the world in an MP3 audio file. For details, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org requesting it and letting me know who you represent.
ASSIST and ASSIST News Service founder Dan Wooding is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist. Link: www.assistnews.net. Recommended: Dan Wooding’s Mary: My Story