Woman spoke with captor about God, family, called 911

Tribune staff reporters

ATLANTA -- If she hadn't run out of cigarettes, Ashley Smith might never have met the former Baltimore man accused of killing an Atlanta judge and three others.

Instead, a late-night run for smokes became an opportunity for Brian Nichols to put a gun to her side and force his way into the suburban apartment she had moved into two days earlier, she said. Within hours, they agreed that God had brought them together.

At first he had wrapped her up with tape and an extension cord, she said. She thought he might try to strangle her. Eventually, her calm manner seemed to calm him.

"I don't want to hurt you," she recalled Nichols telling her. "I don't want to hurt anybody else."

They talked throughout the night, Smith, 26, said in a conference with Atlanta news media last night, a day after the arrest of the suspect alleged to have killed four people in a rampage beginning Friday morning at the Fulton County Courthouse.

Smith said that during her seven-hour hostage ordeal, they talked about the book she was reading, her 5-year-old daughter and the death of her husband four years ago.

"I told him that if he hurt me, my little girl wouldn't have a mommy or daddy," she said.

She begged him to let her go see her daughter Saturday morning. At first he said no. Then he said maybe. Then he asked for her help to ditch a pickup truck allegedly taken after the killing of an off-duty federal agent.

She went with him, took her cell phone, thought about calling police, but concluded she might get caught in some sort of crossfire between Nichols and police. So she waited.

He told her he just wanted to relax in her place for a few days, watch television and eat some real food. She cooked him breakfast -- pancakes with butter. He put his guns under her bed -- and let her flee at 9:30 a.m. Saturday to see her daughter.

"He just wanted some normalness in his life right then," she said. "He said he thought I was an angel sent from God. And that he was lost and God led him right to me."

Smith was accosted as she arrived home at 2 a.m. after her trip to a convenience store to buy cigarettes. Nichols spotted her in the parking lot of her apartment complex and approached her with a gun as she was about to enter her apartment, she said.

When Nichols let Smith leave, she went to her apartment complex's leasing office and called 911. Nichols was captured soon afterward.

As prosecutors sorted through possible charges against Nichols, questions remained about Friday's courthouse shooting. Critics were asking why a rape defendant was led to court without handcuffs by a single deputy and whether the beleaguered Fulton County Sheriff's Department, embroiled in controversy for more than a year, was negligent.

On Friday, Nichols, 33, who was entering the final day of his retrial on rape charges, overpowered the deputy, took her gun and went to a courtroom where he fatally shot Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes, 64, and court reporter Julie Ann Brandau, 46, police said. After fleeing the courthouse, he shot and killed Sheriff's Deputy Hoyt Teasley, 43, who had run after him.

Police said Nichols hijacked several cars and killed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent David Wilhelm before surrendering about 26 hours after the crime spree began.

Nichols was held yesterday on a federal firearms charge while prosecutors sorted out additional federal and state charges. Officials said he could appear in court as early as today. Nichols likely will face federal charges in the death of agent Wilhelm, whose body was found Saturday in a house in Atlanta.

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