In March 2005, after allegedly killing four people--three in an Atlanta courthouse--Brian Nichols took Ashley Smith hostage in her apartment. For seven hours, Smith, a widowed single mom, talked to Nichols about her faith, her addiction to crystal meth, and the young daughter she was struggling to regain custody of. She also read to Nichols from Pastor Rick Warren's best-selling book, "The Purpose-Driven Life."
Today, Smith is drug-free, reunited with her daughter, and rededicated to her Christian faith. She believes it was God who helped her survive not only the encounter with Nichols, but also her addiction. She spoke with Beliefnet about her new book, "Unlikely Angel," which chronicles her hostage ordeal and her recovery.
Was it strange being identified as a Christian heroine after the ordeal?
Not Christian, but heroine, yes. I always, from day one, was going to proclaim Jesus’ name and let everybody know that He was my personal Lord and savior. But as far as a heroine, I’m still not comfortable with that title. The only hero that I’m comfortable being is my daughter’s.
Is she living with you now?
I live with my aunt and uncle, and she lives there also.
What do you think your image is within the Christian community?
I think that for the most part they see me as a sinner just like them, saved by grace. If Jesus wanted us to be perfect then he would have hung us up on the cross.
I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say, even if they don’t have an addiction to drugs or something like that, “You really helped me realize that even with all this little small junk in my life, God wants it too and I need to let him guide my life.” A lot of people have said I’ve been an inspiration to help them realize how much God loves them and what He really does want out of our lives.
In the book, you describe giving Brian crystal meth but declining to do it with him. You describe that—saying no to the drugs—as your defining moment, which up until then had been your husband’s death. How did that evolution from one defining moment to the other happen?
I think that those two defining moments are so totally different because my husband’s death (the first defining moment) led to a very downward spiral into drug addiction. The next defining moment [was] being led out of that addiction.
You were doing drugs before he died, but did it get worse after he died?
During the weekend we’d smoke pot and participate in doing [other] drugs but it was never an everyday thing. But after he died, I did drugs every day and became totally addicted and dependent on them.
So why was the second defining moment—saying no to the crystal meth—more important than the first defining moment?
Because the crystal meth was actually an idol that I had been worshipping for two years. It had rotted my teeth, it thinned out my hair, it had made me give [away] custody of the child that I loved most. I lost so much. I lost my family—I lost myself, really. To say no to that and to realize that all I had to do was say no to it and [that] God had a plan to change my life, was so defining for me because I really believed God was not going to give me another chance. This was the last chance He was going to give me to completely surrender even my addiction to Him. For a long time I thought God doesn’t want to have anything to do with drug addiction and He’s just not big enough to handle this. I was wrong.
At one point Brian Nichols told you to remember that he was in control of the situation, but you said you knew that God was the one actually in control. How did you know this?
I knew that God was in control from the very beginning, because obviously I started praying to God silently and begging that God save my life and I knew it was ultimately going to be up to Him. But as far as [God] being in control [so that] maybe I would make it out of there alive, was really when I chose not to do the drugs. I said maybe He’ll give me another chance if I just promise to change my life now and really do it.
When you were talking to Brian about why he specifically chose to go to your apartment building and specifically chose to hold you hostage, he said, “Maybe you’re my angel sent from God.” Do you believe that it was God’s purpose for you to help him?
Yes, I believe that it was God’s purpose for me to help him turn himself in and I also believe that God had a purpose for him coming into my life—and changing my life too.
I don’t know that if Brian Nichols would have not come to my house that night and had a gun and me be faced with the decision of whether to do the drugs or not, that I would have stopped. I don’t know that my life wouldn’t be changed right now. I believe that not only did God save me from Brian Nichols, and save him from hurting other people, but he saved me from a drug addiction.
If you could change anything about how you handled the whole situation, would you?
I don’t know what else I would change other than I might have not flown off the handle and say, “Hey, I’ve got some drugs” because that really did just come out of my mouth. But God turned that around and made that work.
It was almost like it was a miracle that he didn’t get so high, wasn’t it?
Yeah. The effects it had on him were completely opposite from the effects that it has on most people. So right there too was more proof to me that God’s hand was at work because he didn’t react in a way that a lot of people who do that stuff do.
Does Brian Nichols deserve the death penalty?
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