From AJC archives: From hostage to celeb in a blink

This article originally appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 14, 2005.

Two days after being held hostage in a killing spree that stunned metro Atlanta and much of the nation, Ashley Smith spent Monday discovering the perks --- and the price --- of sudden celebrity.

National media outlets, film studios and book publishers --- even a hostage training company --- sought out the 26-year-old widowed mother to tell again the dramatic story of the seven hours she spent Saturday in her Duluth apartment with Brian G. Nichols.

But with the national clamor to know the woman who said Nichols called her "an angel sent from God" comes a dark side. Smith is an angel with a troubled past --- a record of mostly petty crimes in the Augusta area.

Smith was trying to put that history behind her when she moved to metro Atlanta, began waitressing and started school. She said she was trying to get on her feet financially so her 5-year-old daughter could live with her instead of with a relative.

Nichols took Smith hostage at the end of a spree that began Friday morning when he broke free at the Fulton County Courthouse, where he was on trial for rape charges. He shot to death a judge, a court reporter, a deputy and, later, a federal agent.

With Smith's instant celebrity comes unbidden scrutiny of her personal life.

"We talked it over, and we said to Ashley, 'You know all your laundry is going to be aired, ' " said her aunt, Kim Rogers of Martinez. "She was going to get a lot of publicity and people are going to find out about her four petty crimes, and there is going to be no stopping it. It is what she is running from and what she is trying to leave behind. It's not good, but it's not horrible.

"We are telling her it's what you are today --- and who you are now --- that is important. Ashley is like other people who have a sordid past and found the Lord. It's not what you've done but what you do from now on."

That record starts with a 1996 shoplifting conviction in Richmond County, when Ashley was 16. At 18, she was found guilty of two counts of possessing alcohol as a minor. At 23 she was arrested twice for speeding, once while DUI and the other with a suspended license.

Because she didn't complete earlier requirements of her misdemeanor convictions, at 24 she faced a probation violation. Later, she completed those obligations and got her driver's license back, her aunt said.

At 25, Smith was arrested and charged with assaulting her mother's ex-husband, Larry Croft. The charges were dropped, her aunt said. And Croft appeared on television Monday to vouch for his stepdaughter's character.

When Smith was 23, her husband Daniel "Mac" McFarland Smith Jr., 27, was stabbed to death outside an Augusta apartment complex on Aug. 18, 2001. Ashley Smith's family said he was killed by old friends in retaliation for his friendship with a neighbor who was an undercover drug agent.

Columbia County sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris said the death resulted from a melee of 12 to 15 people who began fighting each other with fists, bats, sticks, glass, knives and pipes. Many witnesses were gone by the time police got there.

"We have so far been unable to develop enough evidence for a prosecution, " Morris said Monday. "We have one suspect that we have enough on to arrest, but not enough to prosecute."

Smith held her husband as he died. From that crisis, she said, grew a faith that her life had a purpose --- a belief that she shared with Nichols. It isn't clear if she also told him about her minor run-ins with the law. That detail might have added another dramatic element to a story that the national media has found irresistible.

"It's been a whirlwind, " Rogers said Monday, when four book deals had already been offered.

Hollywood came calling, too.

"Ashley's personal drama during the past few years intersecting the Nichols crime spree is almost too sensational to believe, " said George Stelzner of West Egg Studios in Los Angeles, who contacted Smith's attorney Monday about a film project. "Truth is always stranger than fiction."

A center that trains people in how to survive a hostage situation is also interested in Smith's story --- as part of their training. "Ashley Smith did several things that greatly enhanced her survivability in her hostage situation, " said Randy Spivey, director of the National Hostage Survival Training Center in Spokane, Wash.

He noted that with Nichols, Smith humanized herself by speaking of her child. She listened to him and did not argue. She maintained her composure and developed a rapport by speaking of her faith and by offering food. Spivey compared her poise to that of missionaries and military and political detainees who have made it through captivity.

The evangelical Christian press jumped into the spotlight, too. Smith said she read the Bible-based best seller "The Purpose-Driven Life" to Nichols during her ordeal. "We were touched by the way Ashley handled Brian Nichols, " said Aaron Atwood, an assistant editor who sought an interview with Smith for Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based media organization founded by evangelical leader James Dobson.

Smith was inclined to talk to such conservative Christian outlets, her aunt said. "This will be an avenue to share Christ, " Rogers said.

After a series of TV interviews in Atlanta, Smith drove to Augusta to see her daughter, Paige, whom Rogers takes care of.

"Thank God we live in a gated community, " Rogers said of her West Lake subdivision, "because no big trucks can come in here."

But late Monday night, the satellite TV trucks arrived. Smith held a brief news conference and in a prepared statement sought to move the spotlight away from her story.

"I have experienced just about every emotion one could imagine in the span of just a few days, " she said. "Throughout my time with Mr. Nichols I continued to rely on my faith in God. God has helped me through tough times before, and he will help me now. I hope that you will respect my need to rest and to focus my immediate attention on helping the legal authorities proceed with their various investigations.

"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."

Smith has hired a public relations company, Jackson Spalding of Atlanta. Some of those in her circle of confidants expressed concern that overexposure of her story might lead to "the Amber Frey effect." Frey, the former lover who was a key witness against Scott Peterson, the California man convicted of killing his wife, Laci, recently made the rounds of national media promoting a book that recounts the affair.

Smith's attorney has contacted the governor's office to see about her receiving the $60,000 reward offered for help solving the courthouse slayings. As of Monday, no decision had been made.

--- Staff writers Jim Tharpe, Mike Morris and Bill Rankin contributed to this article.