Atlanta hostage turning around 'sad, tough' life

/ Source: The Associated Press

Ashley Smith didn’t always make the right choices. She married a man who was a hard worker, but he liked hanging out with the “good old boys” — the same crowd who might have been behind his stabbing death 3½ years ago.

As a teen, she was arrested for shoplifting and was on probation for a year. Later came arrests for drunken driving, speeding and battery.

But when she was taken hostage by the man suspected of a triple slaying at an Atlanta courthouse and later the killing of a federal agent, the 26-year-old mother, waitress and student relied on her calmness and spiritual upbringing to survive the seven-hour ordeal in her apartment.

“Some of the choices she made growing up were not really approved by me, but I just had to rely upon her growing out of that status,” Smith’s grandfather Dick Machovec said Monday in a telephone interview from his home in Augusta.

Machovec and his wife, Ann, hoped Ashley’s upbringing would eventually balance out bad judgment. She was raised in the church and regularly attended Sunday services.

Prayers answered
This weekend, their prayers were answered.

“It was almost like she was recalling all these things she learned as a child,” he said.

Smith was up late moving into her apartment early Saturday when Brian Nichols allegedly followed her to her door and put a gun to her side.

He briefly bound her in duct tape, Smith said, but released her as she repeatedly told him about her desire to live so that her daughter would have at least one parent.

She read to him from “The Purpose-Driven Life,” the best-selling religious book by Rick Warren. He stopped her and asked her to repeat the beginning, and the two discussed its themes.

Eventually, he let her go, and she called 911.

Keeping a level head, leaning on faith and bonding with her captor may have saved Smith’s life — one she was beginning to turn around.

Smith was raised by her grandparents after her mother ran into some problems, Machovec said. He did not elaborate, only saying his granddaughter had a “sad life and it’s been tough through the years.”

“She told us, ’One of these days, I’m gonna make you proud of me,”’ Machovec said. “I said, ’Well then, you better choose better friends than what you do.”’

An athletic scholarship got her to Augusta College, but she left after only a few months and married Mack Smith, a carpenter. The young couple then had a daughter, Paige.

In 2001, Smith’s husband died in her arms after he had been stabbed; his killer has not been found. She eventually left Augusta to live with her mother, Mary Jo. She left behind her daughter with an aunt.

Life was improving
Recently, Smith’s life was improving. By March, she had finished six months of a medical assistant course, was working two jobs and had moved into a new apartment. She sees Paige about once a week.

Tony Cook, general manager of Barnacles Seafood, Oysters and Sports in Duluth, saw promise in Smith when he hired her as a waitress. She had been on the job, training, for just two days before becoming a hostage.

“She had a great personality, she was easy to talk to, and very likeable,” Cook said.

Her ordeal may continue to change her life — she’s gotten four offers for a book deal, her aunt told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and a Hollywood studio proposed a film project. A center that trains people in how to survive a hostage situation is also interested in her story for part of its training.

Smith’s lawyer contacted the governor’s office to see about collecting the $60,000 reward offered for information leading to Nichols’ capture. Officials said no decision had been made.

Despite all the attention, Smith was humble about her part in Nichols’ surrender.

“My role was really very small in the grand scheme of things,” she said Monday. “The real heroes are the judicial and law enforcement officers who gave their lives and those who risked their lives to bring this to an end.”