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 an American hero. On Monday, Ashley Smith, 26, described by her family as a soft touch, a drifter between dead-end 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 Monday after surrendering peacefully to the authorities. He was expected to be formally charged with shooting dead a judge, a court reporter and a police deputy, and the subsequent killing of a customs agent.
Their encounter began at 2 a.m. on Saturday when Smith took a break from unpacking boxes in her new flat and went on a cigarette run. As she unlocked the door, Nichols appeared, jabbing a gun in her side. He removed his baseball cap to make sure Smith recognized him as the armed and dangerous outlaw accused of killing four people that day.
Her hands were bound in a praying position with masking tape, and her feet immobilized with curtains and an extension cord. Then, according to the account in Monday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nichols laid 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 5-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. "I asked him why he did what he did and his reason was that he was a soldier."
Smith then got Nichols to talk about his alleged victims and the toll their deaths would take on their families. She urged him to surrender to the authorities.
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. "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."
Together they watched the television news of the attack on the courthouse, Nichols claiming he couldn't believe the broadcast was talking about him.
At dawn, the two left the flat, 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 mobile phone for fear that would lead to a shootout.
Nichols abandoned the stolen truck a few miles away, and Smith drove him back to her flat. "Wow, you didn't drive off," he was reported as saying. "I thought you were going to."
Back home, she served Nichols orange juice, and cooked him eggs and pancakes. A little later, after washing up, she prepared to leave to meet her daughter. As she left, Nichols called after her, offering to hang pictures or curtains in the flat with a power tool he had stolen from the customs agent's car, and handed her $40.
"You're an angel sent from God to me," he told her.
Smith promised to visit him in prison.
Minutes later, she telephoned to tell police that Nichols was in her flat. He later walked out waving a white cloth.
"I feel like I met him for a reason," Smith told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "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."