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CNN PEOPLE IN THE NEWS

The Life of Ashley Smith, Woman Who Turned in Atlanta Courthouse Murder Suspect

Aired March 17, 2005 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
ANNOUNCER: Up next on a special edition of PEOPLE IN THE NEWS, after years of struggling she was finally starting over.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was trying to get on the straight and narrow. She was trying to get her life back in order.

ANNOUNCER: She grew up in a deeply religious family, became a star athlete and student.

BONNIE COLBERG, TEACHER: She wasn't the kind to take the status quo. She always wanted to know why.

ANNOUNCER: But later, brushes with the law and her husband's murder sent her life into a tailspin.

LARRY CROFT, STEPFATHER: He died right there in her arms. She was weeping uncontrollably and it was horrific.

ANNOUNCER: Her road to recovery would collide with a killing spree.

ASHLEY SMITH: I told him that if he hurt me my little girl wouldn't have a mommy or a daddy.

ANNOUNCER: After a long night of fear and faith, she would emerge an unlikely hero.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She said she became very aware that this was her moment to do something good.

ANNOUNCER: Ashley Smith, a hero's journey, now on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi. Welcome to this special edition of PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. I'm Paula Zahn.

In a shooting rampage that stunned a nation, Ashley Smith went from hostage to hero in an instant, her ordeal with the accused Atlanta courtroom killer the stuff of Hollywood movies. And yet, what do we really know of this young woman, this young woman driven to courage? Well, over the next hour, a look at a hero's journey from the past she was fighting to put behind her to a day she could never have imagined.

Here's Sharon Collins.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everybody off the sidewalk.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have now also confirmed Nichols is in custody at this location.

SHARON COLLINS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As the drama unfolded during Atlanta's courthouse rampage and manhunt, there was an image that would leave a lasting impression, at a distance, a young woman sitting on the curb calmly talking to police.

CHIEF CHARLES WALTERS, GWINNETT COUNTY POLICE: She was not panicked. She handled it very responsibly. She was a champ.

LARRY HACKETT, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "PEOPLE" MAGAZINE: She was literally unpacking for a new life in a new apartment, unpacking boxes, trying to get on her feet when suddenly she is thrust into this incredibly trying, taxing moment.

SMITH: Thank you for your prayers and may God bless you all.

COLLINS: She would soon be hailed as a hero for the way she conducted herself during her hostage ordeal. But who was this woman and how did she escape harm from the accused gunman and bring a killing spree to a peaceful end?

SMITH: I told him that if he hurt me my little girl wouldn't have a mommy or a daddy and she was expecting to see me the next morning.

COLLINS: Twenty-six-year-old Ashley Smith had been trying to get her life back together when Brian Nichols allegedly held a gun to her ribs and forced his way into her home. Suddenly, the man wanted for murder was face-to-face with a young widowed mom who had been battling her own personal demons.

CROFT: This child has had a few knocks. A couple of them she's caused herself, most she has not.

DICK MACHOVEC, GRANDFATHER: Oh, yes, Ashley went the ways of the world for a while but when it was needed she hit a homerun for Christ.

COLLINS: Raised by a devout Christian family, Smith had struggled with her faith during several brushes with the law and after the brutal 2001 murder of her husband Mack.

REV. FRANK PAGE, SMITH'S FORMER PASTOR: She was devastated like anyone else would be.

COLLINS: Ashley's life took a downward turn. In the last few years, she went through drug rehab twice.

PAGE: She went through some tough times, some dark times where I don't think her faith was very strong. It certainly wasn't strong enough.

COLLINS: But relatives and close friends say Ashley began to turn back to God, which helped her move away from her troubled past. They say it was this renewed faith that gave her the strength and compassion to reason with the fugitive holed up in her apartment.

PAGE: She was able to relate to him as a person who struggled, has gone through tough times by someone who has come out of that and Ashley has.

CROFT: You know the stories about faith not ever giving up, not ever -- not ever thinking that -- that all is lost and she has always been that way.

COLLINS: She was Ashley Copeland then born in 1978 in Augusta, Georgia. Ashley's grandparents, Dick and Ann Machovec had settled in Augusta after Dick retired from the Marines. Ashley's father walked out on them when she was two and in those early years she spent much of her time with her maternal grandparents.

ANN MACHOVEC, GRANDMOTHER: I had so many grandchildren around me right then. There was just so much going on there in the house and I pretty much thought poor Ashley. And then I thought well she'll be able to take care of herself and she has a level head.

COLLINS: Life revolved around home and the Augusta Christian schools where Dick Machovec was headmaster.

COLBERG: They were a very strong, close-knit family.

COLLINS: Bonnie Colberg taught at Augusta Christian. She supervised Ashley on drill team, taught her Bible class.

COLBERG: Ashley was passionate. She's independent. Ashley was a free thinker. She was the one that would come in and question why people were doing things that they were doing. She wasn't the kind to take a status quo. She always wanted to know why.

COLLINS: Ashley was competitive too, played basketball for Augusta Christian and was named Athlete of the Year.

COLBERG: She gave 110 percent when she played basketball. She was the number one person out there trying to make things happen.

COLLINS: Competitive and questioning, Ashley was also trying to figure out what role faith and religion played in her life. Frank Page was the family pastor during those years at the Warren Baptist Church.

PAGE: When she was a teenager she gave her life to Christ and I baptized her and in our church that's a baptism by immersion. It's a symbol of death, burial and resurrection. COLLINS: But even as Ashley was professing her faith, she was struggling with more earthly issues that face any teenager or young adult and that conflict would mark the next decade of her life.

PAGE: Like many teenagers, she, you know, went through some rebellious times, difficulties at home or problems in her life.

COLLINS: When this special edition of PEOPLE IN THE NEWS returns, rebellious times and tragic times for Ashley.

CROFT: He fell back and he died right there in her arms, right there in her arms.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: Welcome back to a special edition of PEOPLE IN THE NEWS, a hero's journey.

COLLINS (voice-over): She was a good student and a standout athlete at Augusta Christian. She had been baptized and pledged her life to God. But Ashley Copeland's teenager years were not easy ones. Her pastor, Frank Page, counseled her during those years.

PAGE: Well, there were times of teenage rebellion. There were times when she would move away from the Lord and be rebellious to authority just like most teenagers do.

COLLINS: Ashley's first brush with the law came when she was 16, still in high school, a shoplifting conviction for stealing a shirt from the local Macy's.

PAGE: I think her faith has always been real since she was a teenager but faith for many of us, in fact probably most all people, sometimes has an ebb and flow and she went through some tough times, some dark times where I don't think her faith was very strong. It certainly wasn't strong enough.

COLLINS: Ashley's rebelliousness led to more charges. There was an arrest for underage drinking. She lasted just one quarter at a local college before dropping out.

Her stepfather at the time, Larry Croft, says that Ashley was a good kid who started hanging out with the wrong people and that she started drinking and using drugs.

Croft and Ashley were close, even though he says she didn't always appreciate the tough love he and her mother tried to impose on her. When her life looked like it was getting out of control, he put her to work in his water purification business.

CROFT: She can do anything. The child is a brilliant, brilliant child and she would do things like bookkeeping, answering the phone, helping me with my closing sales calls, things like that.

COLLINS: Ashley met a young man, Daniel Smith, "Mack," who was trying to overcome his own troubled past.

CROFT: She saw him. She says "I'm going to marry that man" and sure enough they ended up getting married. It was tumultuous at first and then it began to level out because he started basically listening to her and I could see the change in him.

COLLINS: The leveling out, Croft says, began after Ashley and Mack Smith's daughter Page (ph) was born five years ago.

CROFT: He had started his business. I had helped him get his business started and they were doing quite well, as a matter of fact. And, as a matter of fact, they had gotten a whole new (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of friends and that's really what preceded the problem the night he was killed.

COLLINS: The circumstances of that night remain unclear to this day but at some point in the early morning hours of August 18, 2001, Mack and Ashley went to the Applecross Apartments in suburban Augusta to confront some of Mack's former friends who had been hassling them.

CROFT: There was some animosity over the fact that they had befriended a sheriff's deputy that lived in their neighborhood and they were being accused of being -- what did Ashley say -- the guy called up that night and said "You're a narc."

I think that's the term that they used and that's basically what precipitated the fight between Mack and these group of savages that actually beat him severely and then two of them stabbed him to death.

COLLINS: Ashley told police and her family she had been across the parking lot when the brawl began. She quickly called her stepfather for help but it was too late.

CROFT: He fell back and into her arms in the back of that truck and he died right there in her arms, right there in her arms and I was -- I got on the scene about, oh gosh, they hadn't even taken him away yet and she was just -- she was just, of course, I mean it was, it was horrible. She was weeping uncontrollably and it was -- it was horrific.

COLLINS: Friends and family say Ashley went into a deep depression after Mack's death.

CROFT: She was devastated like anyone else would be. She had this small child that she was caring for. Her life had begun to get a lot better. Mack's business was growing and all of a sudden this was all yanked away and she was -- she was distraught.

COLLINS: Just months after Mack's death, she was convicted on a DUI charge and went into a court-related rehabilitation program. Larry Croft brushes off an incident where she broke into his home but said he knew she needed help coping with drug addiction. He paid for her when she voluntarily went back into rehab last year. HACKETT: According to her family and to others she was trying to get on the straight and narrow. She was trying to get her life back in order. She was taking responsibility for herself.

PAGE: I think within the last two years is when she began to get very serious about growing strong in her faith.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What was happening at that time in her life? Was that two years after her husband died? Was she out of rehab at that time?

PAGE: That is correct. Since coming out of that situation she has made a slow, steady progress toward stability and maturity.

COLLINS: After drug rehab, Ashley went back to school. She gave up custody of Page to her aunt in Augusta and moved to suburban Atlanta returning weekly to see her daughter.

Four weeks ago, her aunt gave her a copy of "The Purpose Driven Life," a book that offered a Christian-based guide to living. Ashley, in turn, told her family not to lose faith in her.

D. MACHOVEC: She told us this years ago. She says "Papa and Mama, believe me, I'm going to do something that's going to make you proud of me."

COLLINS: When this special edition of PEOPLE IN THE NEWS continues, Brian Nichols' story from his own church-going past to alleged killer and to his fateful encounter with Ashley Smith.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS (voice-over): At Baltimore's Ray of Hope Baptist Church this past Sunday, optimism was in short supply.

PASTOR CHARLES FRANKLIN, JR., RAY OF HOPE BAPTIST CHURCH: We know that this was a hideous act, committed by a childhood friend of mine. I watched and I listened to the news but my mind could not comprehend how this could happen to one of our own.

COLLINS: Pastor Charles Franklin, Jr. has known Brian Nichols since they were both five years old.

FRANKLIN: But none of us would have ever seen this happening to someone that we know and that is so loveable, the jokes in the neighborhood and very intelligent and, you know, what point drove him to this?

COLLINS: The question looms large over Edner (ph) Gardens, the quiet tight-knit Baltimore neighborhood where Nichols grew up. This was an area where middle-class families could escape the drugs and crime so commonplace in the inner city.

JANE BREWER, FORMER NEIGHBOR: People in this neighborhood and all around that has Christian and educational values that usually if the kids come up under this kind of system they -- they usually become very, you know, good kids.

COLLINS: Nichols stayed busy as a member of both the basketball and football teams at Cardinal Gibbons (ph), his all boys Catholic high school.

TRACY BREWER, FORMER NEIGHBOR: I remember him as a fun-loving person, laughed a lot, smiled a lot, liked to play, you know, liked to joke, really a typical young guy.

COLLINS: An occasional class clown, he was serious enough about karate to earn a black belt as a teenager. Friends say he used to spend hours flipping through martial arts magazines and once thought it would be cool to be a ninja.

CURTIS POPE, CHILDHOOD FRIEND: He was an athlete, basketball, football, martial arts but never, never someone who used the martial arts on a negative note so it was always positive.

COLLINS: Karate temporarily took a back seat to football in 1989 when Nichols left Baltimore for Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. Three hours away from home and away from the watchful eyes of his parents and neighbors, the 6'1" linebacker started to get into trouble.

Arrested three times, Nichols was charged with underage drinking and disorderly conduct. Although he was the son of two college graduates, Nichols dropped out of Kutztown after three semesters. By the time Brian Nichols got to Atlanta in 1995, he had matured.

MARK NICHOLS, BROTHER: He was doing, I guess he was living good, you know, for a black guy his age, you know, and that position, an engineer at Hewlett Packard making six figures and living comfortable.

COLLINS: He had a condo in an upscale neighborhood, a BMW, a long-term girlfriend and an active role in his local church.

NICHOLS: He really was in the church, you know. I had heard at one time he was playing the keyboard for the church, you know. He was going every week, playing the keyboard, you know. He used to tell me "You need to get into God," you know, because I used to be into a lot of things, you know. He's like, "You need to stop and you need to get into God."

COLLINS: It seemed like he had everything going for him but neighbors say there was another side to Brian Nichols.

MEG ARMISTEAD, NEIGHBOR: He was one of those folks that just really didn't care, didn't have a lot of respect for the property.

TIM SPRUELL, NEIGHBOR: He had a mean, vicious dog and I didn't want to get anywhere near him. I always thought he looked mean and like someone I didn't want to talk to.

COLLINS: Brian Nichols' world turned upside down in the summer of 2004. He was charged with kidnapping and raping his girlfriend of seven years and spent six months in jail awaiting trial.

Jurors described him as calm, intelligent, and eager to tell his side of the story. The trial ended in a hung jury with eight of the 12 jurors wanting to acquit Brian Nichols of rape.

JACK LILES, JURY FOREMAN: There absolutely was not enough physical evidence to either support the alleged victim's story and her sequence of events that took place in her version of the story or to discredit Brian's story and his version and his sequence of events. The prosecution just didn't have quite the supporting evidence that was -- that really tied it all together and made her story 100 percent make sense to us.

COLLINS: As the retrial got underway though, it became clear that things were not going as smoothly for Nichols' defense.

BARRY HAZEN, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: There was a substantial difference between the first and second trials. There was a lot more evidence in the second case, mostly of a corroborative nature. There were claims that were made that were just uncorroborated during the first trial and the question was who's telling the truth?

COLLINS: This time around, jurors said Nichols made them feel nervous and uncomfortable.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Anytime any of us looked up, we saw him looking at our reaction and so it made us a little nervous and we always kind of looked the other way.

COLLINS: But mayhem on the morning of March 11th would prevent the jurors from delivering a verdict.

When this special edition of PEOPLE IN THE NEWS continues, a shooting spree, a manhunt and 26 hours of terror.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As I was getting ready to give him my wallet and that's when he told me to get in the trunk and I knew this was serious.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Welcome back to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.

Ashley Smith would have seemed the most unlikely hero just a week or so ago, a young widow, a waitress, a woman just trying to overcome her past. And then she was taken hostage amid a killing spree in Atlanta, an ordeal that would turn into a seven-hour saga of courage.

Here again is Sharon Collins.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Friday morning, March 11, it's a warm, sunny day in downtown Atlanta, the calm before the storm. Two people whose lives are heading in different directions find themselves on a fateful collision course. One of them is an alleged killer on the run, the other a single mom trying to put her life back on the right track.

Their journey begins at 8:30 a.m., as Brian Nichols is on his way back to the Fulton County Courthouse to stand trial for the alleged rape and kidnapping of his former girlfriend; 30 minutes later, according to authorities, the 6'1'' Nichols, a martial arts expert, manages to overpower Sheriff's Deputy Cynthia Hall as she removes his handcuffs. Nichols shoves her into a holding cell, takes the key to a lockbox where the deputy has stored her gun.

He gets the gun, then changes into street clothes and calmly walks away. But instead of easily escaping into the street, Nichols walks across the skyway and into the old courthouse. On the way, he briefly takes people hostage, including another deputy. Taking the second deputy's gun, Nichols walks into the eighth floor courtroom, enters from behind the bench, and allegedly shoots and kills Judge Rowland Barnes and court reporter Julie Brandau.

Ashley Smith watches the events unfold Friday morning from her suburban Atlanta apartment while unpacking boxes. She had just moved in days before and is still unaware she is about to become part of the story; 9:15 a.m., Nichols dashes down a stairwell and into the street, where, according to witnesses, he shoots Deputy Hoyt Teasley, who is in pursuit. Teasley's wounds are fatal.

Nichols disappears into a neighboring parking garage, then launches a series of carjackings.

DON O'BRIANT, "THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION": He walked toward me and, the next thing I knew, he hit me and I was on the concrete.

COLLINS: Minutes later, Nichols is seen on these Turner Security camera images jumping into O'Briant's green Honda accord and driving off, or so it appears; 9:30 a.m.:

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everybody off the sidewalk.

COLLINS: As chaos reigns, Nichols is seen again on a different camera, but from inside that same parking deck, this time in a change of clothing and not driving, as police believed, but calmly walking away.

What comes next is one of the most extensive manhunts in Georgia history. The dragnet of state and federal agencies flash alerts nationwide, urging motorists to be on the lookout for a green Honda. All alone, Nichols is completing the perfect getaway. He moves unnoticed across the street through a crowd, arriving a few minutes later at a commuter train station. He board MARTA and heads eight miles north to the Buckhead area of Atlanta. Nichols is now within 14 miles of a chance encounter with Ashley Smith. The violent rampage is not over yet. Later that afternoon, Ashley arrives to work at a nearby restaurant. She spends her shift in training as a hostess. The breaking news coverage is heard in the background.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Murder in the court.

COLLINS: Ashley's co-workers remember how tired she says she was from all the heavy lifting.

EDDIE SUBKO, CO-WORKER: She told me she felt like "Sanford and Son." She said, you should have seen me going down the road. I had my mattresses strapped down on the roof of my car.

COLLINS: Ten-forty p.m., Brian Nichols surfaces again, allegedly committing more acts of violence in an apparent sense of desperation. He allegedly assaults a woman as she is about to enter her boyfriend's Buckhead apartment.

Sometimes later, but less than five minutes away on foot, Nichols allegedly kills again, his victim, David Wilhelm, a special agent with U.S. Immigration. Wilhelm had been working late on his new home, still under construction. Nichols takes his gun, his badge and his blue Chevrolet pickup. Wilhelm's body won't be discovered until the next morning.

Nichols begins to travel further northeast. At approximately 11:00 p.m., back in downtown Atlanta, police realize they have made a mistaken assumption. The green Honda they have spent hour looking for turns up right beneath their noses. It's discovered in the very same parking garage from where it has been stolen, only one floor down. It's getting late. Police have lost their best lead. They have no idea where Brian Nichols is.

Ashley Smith is back home from work. She begins more unpacking, but then decides to go purchase some cigarettes, a decision that could have proven deadly.

ASHLEY SMITH, FORMER HOSTAGE: It was about 2:00 in the morning. I left my -- I was leaving my apartment to go to the store. I noticed a blue truck in the parking lot with a man in it.

COLLINS: Ashley arrived at this QuikTrip convenience store shortly after 2:00 a.m..

SMITH: I came back to my apartment about five minutes later and the truck was still there and he was still in it. And I kind of got a little worried then. So I got my key to my -- to my house ready. And I opened up my car door, and I got out and shut it. And I heard his shut right behind me.

I started walking to my door, and I felt really, really scared. And he was right there. And I started to scream. And he put a gun to my side and he said, Don't scream. If you don't scream, I won't hurt you. COLLINS: Coming up, Ashley Smith's ordeal as hostage.

LARRY CROFT, STEPFATHER OF ASHLEY: And she has never lost her faith. And it will see you through the worst of times. And that's exactly what was going on the night that this fellow broke into her apartment.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS (voice-over): It was about 2:30 in the morning. Ashley Smith has just returned to her apartment after a late-night run for cigarettes. Waiting for her there, she says, a stranger with a gun. She did what he demanded. She unlocked the door.

SMITH: And he said, do you know who I am?

COLLINS: She says she did not recognize Brian Nichols, the target of a multistate man hunt.

SMITH: And then he took his hat off, and he said, Now do you know who I am? And I said, Yeah, I know who you are. Please don't hurt me. Just please don't hurt me. I have a 5-year-old little girl. Please don't hurt me.

COLLINS: How much impact would her plea have on the heavily armed accused rapist, the suspect in four murders?

SMITH: He said, I'm not going to hurt you, if you just do what I say. I said, All right. So he told me to get in the bathtub. So I got in the bathtub.

He said, You know, somebody could have heard your scream already. And if they did, the police are on the way, and I'm going to have to hold you hostage, and I'm going to have to kill and probably myself and lots of other people. And I don't want that.

COLLINS: Despite Nichols' assurance that he wouldn't hurt her if she cooperated, Ashley Smith feared the worst.

SMITH: And then he said, I want to relax, and I don't feel comfortable with you right now. So I'm going to have to tie you up.

He brought some masking tape and an extension cord and a curtain in there, and I kind of thought he was going to strangle me.

COLLINS: But then an odd request. She says Nichols told her he wanted to take a shower.

SMITH: He said, Well, I'm going to put a towel over your head so you don't have to watch me take a shower. So I said, OK. All right.

COLLINS: After his shower, a turning point. SMITH: He cut the tape off of me, unwrapped the extension cord and curtain.

COLLINS: In a hostage situation, survival often depends on the victim's ability to come across as a person. Apparently, Ashley Smith did just that.

SMITH: I told him that I was supposed to go see my little girl the next morning at 10:00, and I asked him if I could go see her. And he told me no.

My husband died four years ago, and I told him that if he hurt me, my little girl wouldn't have a mommy or a daddy. And she was expecting to see me the next morning. And if he didn't let me go, she would be really upset.

He still told me no. But I could -- I could kind of feel that he started to know who I was, and he said, Maybe, maybe I'll let you go.

COLLINS: Nichols was curious about her next request. She asked if he would allow her to read.

SMITH: He said, What do you want to read? I said, Well, I have a book in my room, so I went and got it.

COLLINS: "The Purpose Driven Life," a best-selling self-help book.

RICK WARREN, AUTHOR, "THE PURPOSE DRIVEN LIFE": It's all about God.

COLLINS: The author is Baptist minister Rick Warren, spiritual leader of a Southern California mega-church. His message, you are not an accident. God has a plan.

WARREN: Most people are not purpose-driven. They are pressure- driven.

COLLINS: Her choice of books was not out of character, say family members.

CROFT: She has never lost her faith. And that inner peace that comes with the saving grace of Jesus Christ, that's exactly what was going on the night that this fellow broke into her apartment.

SMITH: I turned it to the chapter that I was on that day, which was chapter 33.

COLLINS: "We serve God by serving others. In our self-serving culture, with its me-first mentality, acting like a servant is not a popular concept.

SMITH: After I read it, he said, Stop. Will you read it again? I said, Yes, I'll read it again.

So I read it again to him. It mentioned something about what you thought your purpose in life was.

COLLINS: By Smith's description, a man transformed, at least for the moment, a man on the run who wanted to rest.

SMITH: He just told me that he wanted a place to stay, to relax, to sit down, to watch TV, to eat some real food.

COLLINS: Smith says she talked about her family and her life and that she asked her captor about his family.

SMITH: I asked him why he chose me and why he chose Bridgewater Apartments, and he said he didn't know, just randomly.

COLLINS: Would his random choice be one more link in the chain of death? Despite Smith's faith that she was put on Earth for a purpose, she couldn't know how the night would end.

SMITH: But after we began to talk, and he said he thought that I was an angel sent from God.

COLLINS: An angel sent from God.

When we come back, Ashley Smith's flight to freedom.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: Welcome back to a special edition of PEOPLE IN THE NEWS, "Ashley Smith: A Hero's Journey."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Here's a picture of the man, 34-year-old Brian Nichols.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Also, he was charged with false imprisonment, aggravated assault.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... shot a judge, shot a court reporter.

COLLINS: The fugitive from justice had disappeared, armed and dangerous.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Talking about he was being tried for rape very recently.

COLLINS: He was here telling Ashley Smith, a 26-year-old widowed mother, that she was an angel sent from God.

SMITH: He asked me what I thought he should do.

And I said, I think you should turn yourself in. He said, can I stay here for a few days? I just -- I want to eat some real food and watch some TV and sleep and just do normal things that normal people do. COLLINS: Seeking to build trust, Smith says, she told him he could stay.

SMITH: He needed hope for his life. He told me that he was already dead. He said, look at me. Look at my eyes. I am already dead.

COLLINS: Before dawn, Nichols decided to ditch the truck he had allegedly stolen from David Wilhelm, the Immigration and Customs agent.

SMITH: I knew that if I didn't agree to go with him, he would kill me right then or the police would never find him or it would take longer and someone else would get hurt. And I was trying to avoid that.

COLLINS: And then she says she considered calling for help.

SMITH: I said, Can I take my cell phone? And he said, Do you want to? I said, Yeah. And I'm thinking, well, I might call the police then, and I might not. So I took it anyway.

COLLINS: She followed him from her parking lot. He abandoned the truck. Then she drove him back to her apartment.

SMITH: And he was hungry, so I cooked him breakfast. He was overwhelmed. Wow. He said, real butter? Pancakes.

COLLINS: Again, they talked of faith.

SMITH: I said, Do you believe in miracles? Because if you don't believe in miracles, you're 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?

COLLINS: As the morning grew late, Ashley Smith's thought of her daughter and apparently so did Brian Nichols.

SMITH: Well, 9:00 came. He said, What time do you have to leave? I said, I need to be there at 10:00, so I need to leave about 9:30. So I sat down and talked to him a little bit more.

He put the guns under the bed. Like you know, I'm done, I'm not going to mess around with it anymore.

COLLINS: She says Nichols offered her money, $40.

SMITH: I basically said, you keep the money. And he said, no, I don't need it.

COLLINS: This time, when she left, she made the call.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Gwinnett Police communications.

SMITH: I told them that he was there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What is your address?

SMITH: And she asked me where I was. I said, I'm on my way to see my daughter.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's advising he is wanting to turn himself in to us at this time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The suspect is coming out with his hands up.

COLLINS: Her seven-hour ordeal ended peacefully.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Through one source, CNN is confirming that Brian Nichols, after this 26-hour manhunt, is in custody at this hour, where just a few minutes ago a hostage situation...

COLLINS: Ashley Smith called her family.

KIM ROGERS, AUNT OF ASHLEY: And she said, Brian Nichols was at my house last night. And it didn't register with me. And I said, who? And she says, the killer.

COLLINS: The woman who had made so many bad choices, so many mistakes, had now done something very right.

REV. FRANK PAGE, BAPTIZED ASHLEY SMITH: And she said she became very aware that this was her moment to do something good, to do something good for God, to do something that her daughter would be proud of, to do something that would really count.

COLLINS: While the front-page story focused on the capture, Ashley finally made it to see her 5-year-old daughter, Paige.

LARRY HACKETT, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "PEOPLE": And they spent the day watching the Cartoon Network. And, at the end of it, rather than what we would expect, which would be that the daughter would fall asleep in the mom's lap, the mom, Ashley, fell asleep in Paige's lap.

COLLINS: Though her future was uncertain, Ashley Smith had transcended her past. On this day, she had completed a hero's journey.

SMITH: It's natural to focus on the conclusion of any story, but my role was really very small in the grand scheme of things. The real heroes are the judicial and law enforcement officials who gave their lives and those who risked their lives to bring this to an end.

Thank you for your prayers and may God bless you all.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: The day her ordeal ended, even with all that was going on around her, Ashley Smith actually took the time to call the restaurant where she worked to say she would not be in that night. And, in the understatement of the year, the restaurant manager said he understood. That's it for this special edition of PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. Thanks so much for joining us.

Up next, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT."

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