Brian Nichols, the alleged Atlanta spree killer

Photo Credit: AP Photo

For 24 agonizing hours, the world was on pins and needles as live coverage of Brian Nichols, an accused killer on the loose, poured out of Atlanta. At the center of that storm was Ashley Smith, the young woman held hostage, who allegedly talked her way to freedom.

On the morning of that fateful day, prisoner Brian Nichols, accused of brutally raping his girlfriend, was on his way to an Atlanta courthouse. Nichols allegedly attacked his sole escort, sheriff's deputy Cynthia Hall, critically injuring her before taking her gun.

Armed and dangerous, it was reported that Brian Nichols entered the courthouse and took three hostages. He allegedly made his way to the courtroom of Judge Rowland Barnes, who was presiding over his rape trial, and is accused of shooting and killing Judge Barnes and a court reporter.

Amidst the ensuing chaos, Nichols escaped and allegedly shot and killed another victim before heading to a nearby parking garage. There, he is accused of violently assaulting a reporter and stealing his car. He then fled the scene.

A massive manhunt commenced, but hours later Nichols allegedly killed again, this time stealing his victim's gun and pickup truck.
Ashley Smith on meeting Brian Nichols

Four years ago, Ashley Smith witnessed her husband's murder. Since that tragic night, Ashley says she battled an addiction to crystal meth. Unable to control her drug addiction, she gave up custody of her 5-year-old daughter, Paige. After spending time in drug rehab, Ashley was starting over with a new job as a waitress and had just moved into a new apartment.

The day of Brian Nichols's alleged killing spree, Ashley was busy unpacking boxes at her new home. Late that evening, she went out to buy a pack of cigarettes. When she returned, she noticed Brian Nichols sitting in a pickup truck.

Ashley describes the frightening moment when their paths crossed: "I was hurrying to get my key in the door and I stuck my key in the door and unlocked the door and turned around and there he was. And I started screaming at the top of my lungs."

Ashley says that Nichols then put a gun to her face and forced her inside her apartment. How did she react? "I did everything that he said," says Ashley. "I figured the best way for me to survive was going to be to do whatever he told me to do."
Oprah and Ashley Smith

According to Ashley, Nichols said he would not harm her, but he wanted to take a shower. She says he bound her hands and legs, and carried her into the bathroom. Ashley says that what happened next gave her hope that she could survive: "He said, 'I'm going to put this towel over your head so you don't have to watch me take a shower.' And right then I was thinking, 'Are you respecting me?' Here I am thinking that this man's going to kill me but now he's putting a towel over my head so I don't have to watch him take a shower."

After Nichols draped a towel over her head, Ashley says she continued to talk with Nichols. She says her strategy was to "just to try to relate to him. Try to get some common ground between us. And then make it out of there alive. I had to make him feel like I was a person just like him."
Ashley Smith on her drug addiction

At the time Brian Nichols is said to have broken into Ashley's apartment, she was struggling to quit her addiction to methamphetamines. Ashley says Nichols asked her if she had any marijuana that he could smoke. Without thinking, Ashley says she offered Nichols crystal meth instead. "It just came out of my mouth: 'I don't have any pot, but I have some ice,'" says Ashley. "And immediately I thought, 'What have you just done? You have just offered the thing that has ruined your life, and made you crazy, to a killer.'"

Nichols accepted and asked Ashley if she would take the drug as well. But at that moment, Ashley says she had a breakthrough: "That moment I heard God say to me, 'Ashley, you have got to do something good for your life right now. I'm going to give you one chance. You can do this with him, and I'm bringing you home because you're not going to stop. Or you can say no and I'll let you live to help people in the world.'"

Ashley says she provided Nichols with crystal meth but did not use it herself. "It was a total sigh of relief for me," says Ashley. "It was kind of like, 'Wow, I can breathe now.' I said no to something that has run my life for years."
Ashley Smith made her kidnapper pancakes.

Sensing she had established a rapport with Nichols, Ashley says she began to feel more confident that her life would be spared. She even helped Nichols get rid of the stolen pickup truck. Despite being in separate cars at one point, Ashley chose not to call police.

"I thought of every scenario possible," explains Ashley. "If I were to call the police, then he could drive off … I knew pretty much by the way he was treating me that he was going to let me go. Or, in my head I was getting out of that house no matter what. So I knew that once the truck was gone, if I could just get him back to my apartment, he would be left in the apartment alone."

When Ashley and Nichols returned to her apartment, she made pancakes for them to eat. "I was hungry at the time. … He asked for permission to do things. And [I thought,] 'You know what? If he wanted to kill me, he could have done it long ago.' … I had to begin to trust him a little bit."

All night long, Ashley told Brian Nichols that she needed to leave in the morning to see her daughter and to go to work, otherwise people would get suspicious. When morning rolled around, Brian Nichols did in fact let her leave. This time, Ashley called 911. Nichols surrendered to police unarmed, waving a white T-shirt in the air.

Brian Nichols is now awaiting trial and is charged with murder, kidnapping, and escape. He faces the death penalty if convicted, but has pled not guilty.
Rick Warren, author of 'The Purpose Driven Life,' and Ashley Smith

At one point in her ordeal, Ashley says she read passages from The Purpose Driven Life by pastor Rick Warren aloud to Brian Nichols. Ashley has credited The Purpose Driven Life for helping her survive. Rick and Ashley have spoken before, but they'd never met face-to-face…until now.

"There are two great stories in Ashley's life," Rick says. "One of them is you don't have to be perfect to be used by God. If God only used perfect people, nothing would get done because none of us are perfect. God uses us in spite of our faults, our mistakes, our weaknesses. … The bottom line is God will use anybody if you're available. That's the key. She happened to be available and she responded in love instead of fear as we just heard in her story. I think the other thing is that no matter how bad your problems are, God's purpose is bigger. And we see this in her life, that God had a purpose that she didn't know, that was so much bigger than the problems she was going through, and even the problems Brian was going through."

Though Ashley says she told Nichols that she would visit him in prison, she now says it's unlikely that will happen. "I don't feel led to do that right now," she says. "I think that my purpose and my time with Brian Nichols was that seven hours."
Jennifer survived a violent attacker.

One warm spring day, Jennifer was buckling her 21-month-old son and 9-month-old daughter into their stroller for a walk. All of a sudden a man appeared. His name was Matthew Charles Gibson, a violent sex offender who had just escaped from jail after being arrested for raping a 15-year-old girl. He was covered in cuts and soaking wet after crawling over a razor wire fence and crossing a river. Jennifer says Gibson asked if her husband was home. Startled, she said no, and he asked to go inside her home so she could clean the blood off of him. Terrified, Jennifer brought her children inside and washed the blood off Gibson. Next he demanded clean clothes and when Jennifer went to the closet, he began choking her.

"I started to feel like I was going to pass out," Jennifer says. "I thought, 'This is it.' And I just kept looking into his eyes and thinking that I'm dead now. As my body started to go limp, he let me go. Then I was hysterical…begging and pleading for my life, begging and pleading for my children's lives." Gibson then dragged Jennifer into the kitchen where he held a butcher knife to her throat and her son's throat. He then dragged her into the bedroom and sexually assaulted her.

Then, Jennifer says, "A peace came over me. A calm came over me. I started to remember an Oprah Show that I had seen a few months earlier about a lady who got away from her attacker. There was a checklist. And I could see that checklist in my mind of the different things that you need to do to get away from your kidnapper."
Jennifer talks about escaping her attacker.

After she was raped, Gibson forced Jennifer and her children into a car. But Jennifer, using the advice she saw on The Oprah Show, appealed to him to let her leave the children in the house. "It was the hardest thing I could ever do," Jennifer says. "But I knew that they would be better off without me bringing them with us. I just wanted to get them away from him, and him away from them."

Once she and Gibson were in the car, she asked him to put on his seatbelt, which he did. "I had already had in my head that I was going to jump from the car," she says. "And I thought maybe he would struggle to grab me and to keep me in the car if he had the lap belt across him."

Jennifer says she passed the police station and several other businesses, but couldn't jump from the car because of oncoming traffic. "I didn't want to have an accident," Jennifer says. "I didn't want to hurt anybody else."

Finally, as they were approaching a gas station she decided it was time to jump from the car. "I slowly unbuckled my seatbelt and tried to be as quiet as I could," she says. "[Gibson] saw me and he said, 'Fine, jump! Jump! Just jump!' And I did. … [The car] ran over my shoulder and my hip…and I got up and ran as hard I could to that gas station. When I was in the gas station, I turned around and looked at him and he was running outside of the car and dangling because his lap belt was across him and he couldn't get free."

After Jennifer jumped from the car, it collided with a pole and police immediately caught Gibson. He pled guilty to sexual abuse and escape, and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Jennifer forgave her rapist

Oprah: How do you go on? Do you continuously live in fear? Are you always looking over your shoulder?

Jennifer: For a while, absolutely, you have that fight or flight [reaction]. One thing that helped me through it is that night I thought, "What am I going to do with all this? What am I going to do with what's happened to me?" And I thought, "I don't want this to ever, ever happen to any other woman. Ever. So I'm going to pray for [Gibson] that he gets healed, that God heals him so he never does this to another woman again." I thought, "He's going to get out someday. Rapists don't go to jail for life." So I prayed for him. I prayed for him that night; I prayed for him every day that God would heal him and change his heart and make him be, someday, a good citizen. And through that, I learned to forgive—not forget, not dismiss—but to forgive him in a way and that helped heal me.