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'I felt really, really scared'

Hostage says she gained trust of Atlanta killings suspect

Ashley Smith was held hostage by Brian Nichols in her apartment.
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Atlanta (Georgia)
Crime, Law and Justice

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The woman held hostage by Atlanta courthouse shooting suspect Brian Nichols gained his trust by talking with him for hours and spoke of her 5-year-old daughter in a bid to win his sympathy, she told reporters Sunday.

Smith, who was widowed four years ago, said she cooked Nichols a pancake breakfast before he allowed her to leave for a visit with her daughter.

Her subsequent 911 call led to the capture of Nichols on Saturday, after a 26-hour manhunt.

"She was a champ," said Chief Charles Walters of the Gwinnett County police.

Police said Smith went to a convenience store to buy cigarettes about 2:30 a.m. Saturday.

Upon returning, Smith said she noticed a blue pickup truck had moved to a different parking space, and that she heard the door of the truck close as she got out of her car.

"I started walking to my door, and I felt really, really scared," she said. (Transcript)

Nichols then forced his way into her apartment at gunpoint, she said.

He was sitting in a truck that he stole from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent David Wilhelm after shooting him to death in the Buckhead area, about eight miles north of downtown Atlanta, according to police.

Authorities had launched an extensive search for Nichols, a defendant in a rape trial, after he allegedly killed a judge, a sheriff's deputy and court reporter before escaping from a courthouse in downtown Atlanta about 9 a.m. Friday.

Some 17 hours later, Nichols, 33, followed Smith into her apartment in Duluth, a suburb about 20 miles northeast of Buckhead, tied her up and threatened her life, Smith said.

"He said, 'Do you know who I am?' I said, 'No,' because he had a hat on," Smith said. "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.'"

Nichols bound her with masking tape, a curtain and electrical cord, Smith said.

"I kind of thought he was going to strangle me," she said. "He said, 'I'm not going to hurt you if you just do what I say. I don't want to hurt you. I don't want to hurt anybody else.'"

Smith said Nichols eventually unbound her hands and feet. She spoke with him about her desire to visit her daughter at 10 a.m. at another location.

"I asked him if I could go see her and he told me, 'No,'" she said, choking back tears. "I told him if he hurt me, my little girl wouldn't have a mommy or a daddy."

"I could kind of feel that he started to know who I was," Smith said. "He said, 'Maybe.'"

Smith's husband was stabbed four years ago and died in her arms, she told reporters. She had lived in the apartment for only two days.

Smith said she asked Nichols if she could read. She retrieved a Bible and a copy of "The Purpose-Driven Life." She said he asked her to repeat a paragraph "about what you thought your purpose in life was -- what talents were you given." (Interview with book's author)

Smith said she asked Nichols why he chose her.

"He said he thought I was an angel sent from God, and that I was his sister and he was my brother in Christ," she said. "And that he was lost, and that God led him to me to tell him that he had hurt a lot of people."

"I basically just talked to him and tried to gain his trust.

"I talked to him about my family -- things that had happened in my life. I asked him why he did what he did. And his reason was because he was a soldier."

Smith said: "He asked me what I thought he should do, and I said, 'I think you should turn yourself in. If you don't turn yourself in lots more people are going to get hurt.'"

After 6 a.m., Smith said she followed Nichols so he could hide Wilhelm's truck and then took him back to the apartment in her car. She said that Nichols did not bring any weapons on the trip, and that she had her cellular phone but did not call police.

Smith said Nichols was "overwhelmed" when she made him breakfast and that the two of them watched television coverage of the manhunt.

"I cannot believe that's me on there," Smith said Nichols told her.

"He told me, 'Look at me. Look at my eyes. I'm already dead,'" Smith said.

Smith said she told him that it was a "miracle" he had survived.

"You need to go to prison and share the word of God with all the prisoners there," Smith said she told Nichols.

Smith said Nichols allowed her to leave to visit her daughter about 9:30 a.m. and he gave her money, saying he was going to stay at her apartment for "a few days."

Nichols had stored his weapons under a bed by the time Smith left, she said.

She dialed 911 about 9:50 a.m., law enforcement sources said.

After a SWAT team surrounded the building at the Bridgewater Apartments, Nichols surrendered. He was taken into custody about 11:24 a.m.

A $60,000 reward had been posted for Nichols' capture. Authorities said Saturday they did not yet know if Smith would be eligible for that money.

CNN's Tony Harris, Drew Griffin, KC Wildmoon, Mike Ahlers, Matt Sloane, Kathleen Johnston, Jeanne Meserve, Susan Candiotti, Mike Heard, Kimberly Osias and Mike Brooks contributed to this report.

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