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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No. I have not.
Do you believe he deserves the death penalty?
That’s kind of a question where it doesn’t really matter what I think. I think ultimately it’s going to be up to the Lord whether or not he gets the death penalty or not in the court system.
Before all this happened, did you have strong feelings either way regarding the death penalty?
I never really had a feeling on it. I don’t believe that anybody deserves to die. I don’t even believe Jesus should have died for us, but he did. But I’m grateful for that.
Did you begin to have feelings for Brian—feeling sorry for him or being angry at him? When you think about him today, when you look back on everything that’s happened, what kinds of feelings come up?
That’s kind of a hard question for me to answer because being on this side of having your husband being taken away from you [Ashley’s husband was murdered]—being a victim of a violent crime or being the family member of one—it’s hard for me to feel sorry for him, but in a way he also let me go and he let my child’s mother live. He let me continue on with my life and so for that, I thank him. I just pray that he will allow God to guide his life and that he’ll find his purpose, whatever that may be.
Can you tell me how you got your copy of “The Purpose-Driven Life”?
I had gone to Augusta one weekend to visit my daughter and the church where my aunt was attending—where I attend now. They were going to start the “40 Days of Purpose” there. I was really battling my drug addiction at the time and was sitting in the church with one dollar bill left to my name—the dollar bill being one that I had done some drugs with a few days before. And I remember just sitting in the church going, “I’ve got to stop. This is just too much for me to handle.” So I threw that dollar bill in the offering plate for the book. Our pastor had said, “If you don’t have any money then don’t worry about it. If you want a book, just grab one. If you have any money to contribute, then you can contribute if you’d like.” I just kind of felt like maybe I should just throw it in there as a sign that I’m going to stop doing drugs and read this book and try to get it to change my life.
And did you start reading it soon after?
I did. I immediately started reading it and just tried to allow God to come in every day that I read it and give me some guidance for my life.
You've met Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose-Driven Life" several times. What is he like?
He’s a very nice, down to earth guy. He gives me encouragement and he has helped me—he guides me on decisions. He’s just a really cool guy. He’s actually invited me to go to Africa with him and his team in January.
Wow. Are you going to go?
I’m seriously considering it.
What would you be doing there?
From how he explained it to me, they don’t really do one thing. They go and mission. During their missions they have a medical team and a building team and all kinds of teams. You don’t really have to specialize in one, you just go around and help people and lead them to Jesus.
What section of “The Purpose-Driven Life” did you read to Brian?
It’s Chapter 32 and it talks about serving God out of your shape. I believe that is what is happening in my life right now—I’m serving God out of my shape. And actually coming into a new shape and learning to be comfortable with that so that I can live for Jesus.
What do you mean by shape?
Shape meaning what I’m doing with my life, really. A year ago I would have told you that you were crazy if you told me that I would be speaking to people about my life. Public speaking, talking to anybody really, was something I wasn’t really able to do or comfortable with doing. But God makes me more and more comfortable with it every day.
What kind of advice can you offer people struggling with addiction?
That they just allow God to take control of that junk in their life, because He really does want [to help you]. I know I didn’t think that God wanted to help me with that problem and I think that’s why I stayed addicted as long as I did. No matter what, your life can change.
Do you still struggle with drug addition today?
I don’t. In fact, that’s another miracle in the story. When I completely surrendered to God I really completely surrendered and said, “I don’t want this life anymore.” And I believe that God just came down and took that away from me. I’ve quit smoking cigarettes also. My mom has cancer now so I immediately quit cold turkey.
So how are things going for you today?
Things are good today. The book tour is wonderful because I get to meet people whose lives are changing because of the book. And it’s really inspiring to me and keeps me going.
What else inspires you?
That really does inspire me the most—seeing not just people with addictions come up and say, “Thanks for what you’ve done. You’re honesty has helped change my life” but people who are struggling with simple, little problems of not giving it to God.