It’s been nearly five years to the day that Ashley Smith made the 9-1-1 call leading to Brian Nichols’ surrender.
The story of the seven hours preceding that March 12, 2005, phone call seemed almost impossible to swallow: a polite, soft-spoken waitress from Augusta gets inside the mind of a man fresh off a killing spree, gains his trust, makes him pancakes, stays alive and gets free.
Editor's Note: This article was published in 2010, five years after the Fulton County Courthouse shootings. In 2015, the 10th anniversary of the shootings, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is taking another look at the case of Brian Nichols and the events around that violent day. 2015 Coverage: Brian Nichols shootings 10 years later.
She recounted the events of the night Nichols forced his way into her home on television two days later, and the nation saw the same calm demeanor and steady blue eyes that had soothed Nichols as he showered, ate, watched television and did his laundry after murdering four people. Days later when she returned to the scene, she discovered that in the time after he let her go and before the authorities arrived, he’d hung a mirror she’d been meaning to put up in her new apartment.
Today, Ashley Smith Robinson – she married Daniel Robinson in June 2007 – says that was “the one event that really changed my life.” She earns a living from speaking engagements, mainly before religious groups, retelling her ordeal and the self-transformation that followed.
She’s also on track to complete the radiologic technology program at Lanier Tech in September. She someday hopes to do ultrasounds.
But people will always know her for the poise under pressure that led to the media moniker, the Atlanta Hostage Hero.
Six months after the public first marveled at the details of March 12, with its bizarrely squeaky-clean images of scrambled eggs and the pair huddled over Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life,” a second wave of news stories added a different veneer. Smith Robinson’s book about the ordeal, “Unlikely Angel,” revealed she’d given Nichols a few lines of methamphetamine to snort from her stash.
“I thought if I’m going to write a book, then I’m going to be completely honest about my life,” she said. “Initially, I wasn’t trying to hide [the drugs] from the police, I was trying to hide it from my family.”
When Nichols pulled a gun on her outside Bridgewater Apartments in Duluth, Smith Robinson was trying to get her life back on track, kick meth and get a career going to prove to her family she was capable of being a mother.
The book showed that this pretty blond Georgia girl had a dark side of her own, a well she drew from to elicit compassion from Nichols. She writes about a past that includes drug-induced psychotic visions, hospitalization, sending her daughter, Paige, away to be raised by an aunt so she could have more time to party, and holding her first husband, Paige's father, in her arms as he died from a knife wound after a violent fight in a parking lot in 2001.
But that was then. Paige, 10, now lives with her mom, and Smith Robinson’s post-Brian Nichols life seems safe and successful. She coaches Paige’s basketball team, has learned to Scuba dive, runs marathons, attends classes and is active in her church.
Until now, she's spurned offers to make a movie about her life. But she’s recently OK’d preliminary plans with “Amazing Grace” producer Ken Wales to make a Christian-themed movie about the event. She’s not sure when it would be released.
Nichols himself predicted the windfall of positive change that would grow out of her time with him. She writes in her book that just before he let her go he said, “Everybody’s going to praise you and talk about how wonderful you are.” Soon after, Nichols surrendered peacefully in front of Ashley’s apartment and admitted his crimes.
Smith Robinson immediately left Atlanta at that time and sought shelter with her aunt and uncle at their house in a gated community near Augusta.
“It was very important that I went from one extreme to the other after that happened,” she said. Her aunt, Kim Rogers, who had been raising Paige for the past three years, walked her through it all.
“We had to help her clean the slate while we knew so many people would be trying to get in touch with her,” Rogers said. “When Larry King called the house, I knew it was serious business.”
When Smith Robinson talks about the night with Nichols, she says it was God, not her, who made the psychological maneuvers to relate to his outrage. On March 14, 2005, when she apologized on his behalf, she seemed in the odd position of serving as a bridge between the killer and his victims. She’s since been in contact with immediate family members of all the victims, save one.
She’s not sure yet if she'll ever have further contact with Nichols. She said she couldn’t look at him during the five and a half hours she spent repeating the facts in the 2008 trial that led to his imprisonment with no chance of parole.
“From day one, I always said, ‘God, if you want me to have anymore contact with this person whatsoever, I need for you to lay it heavy on my heart.' For a very long time, I haven’t felt that. Recently, I’ve felt like maybe I’m supposed to write a letter, but I need to be sure this is God talking and not something else.
"I don’t know what that letter would say. The only thing that comes to mind is that when we were talking, he asked me what his purpose in life was. I told him maybe it was to minister to people in prison. I think that’s one thing I would write: What are you doing with your life? I’ve made something positive out of mine. What are you doing with yours?"