In 2005, Brian Nichols escaped from an Atlanta courthouse, broke into Ashley Smith’s apartment and took the woman hostage. He had nothing left to lose. But thanks to Smith and a copy of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, he actually had everything to gain. And so, as it turned out, did Smith.
The story—the basis for the upcoming movie Captive (opening in theaters this Friday)—feels almost too outlandish to be believed if it wasn’t absolutely true. And no one knows how true this story is more than Ashley Smith herself.
I had a chance to talk with Smith about the seven hours she spent with Nichols, her own walk with God and the upcoming movie.
Bob Waliszewski: We all know your story has a happy ending for you. But while it’s happening, no one knew that. What was going through your mind initially? What was going through your mind seven hours later?
Ashley Smith: There are a lot of different emotions that I felt at that moment, but when I first was taken hostage I reflected back to a conversation that my aunt and I had had earlier during the week. For those that don’t know, I was battling a drug addiction at the time. I had lost custody of my child, so my aunt had custody of her. She often gave me challenges during the week and said, “Don’t you want a better life? Can you get it together?” She had said to me a week before this happened, “I want you to know that the Bible study girls prayed over you today and they prayed that if God’s not going to change you then He’ll just take you home.” So here I was staring into the barrel of this gun thinking to myself, I’m never going to change and I’m gonna go home right now and I’m gonna be with Jesus. But I began to scream and of course fear flooded me and I just began to beg for my life. Throughout the night I went from being scared to fearful to at times having a little bit of hope. All in all I really met Jesus that night. I really saw Jesus in what was going on, and I think [just] before I walked out of the apartment seven hours later, I thought maybe—just maybe—everything was going to be okay.
Waliszewski: You battled an addiction with methamphetamine and it’s unblinkingly portrayed in the film. Tell us how and why you got started. And then how God set you free.
Smith: I had dabbled in drugs since I was 17 or 18 years old, but meth was always one thing I promised myself I would never do. Then in 2001, my first husband and my daughter’s father was brutally murdered in front of me. He died in my arms, and so after that I began to turn to drugs pretty heavily. In 2003 was when I started doing meth. The reason I started doing it was because all my friends were doing it. They had energy and they were all skinny and it just seemed appealing to me until I started to do it and the first time I did it, it made me feel like it gave me superhuman strength. But after that, all it did was wreck [me].
During the Brian Nichols event there was a time when he asked me if I had any drugs. In an attempt to do everything he asked me to, I gave him the meth that I had in the house. He asked me three times, “Do you want to do this with me? How about you do this with me? Why don’t we do this together?” Beyond a shadow of a doubt I believe with all my heart that Jesus Christ took the body of Brian Nichols and Jesus was asking me a question. Did I want to continue living my life the way I was? Because if I did, I could go ahead and do those drugs, I could die right then and there. Or I could choose not to do the drugs and God would have a life for me where He could use me and fulfill my purpose for Him. I really saw God asking me that question, and I looked at Brian Nichols and I said, “Whether I’ve got five minutes to live or whether I’ve got 50 years to live, I will never touch that stuff again,” and by the grace of God I didn’t then and I haven’t since the day before Brian Nichols came into our lives.
Waliszewski: How did you end up with Rick Warren’s book in your apartment? Did the film have it right?
Smith: That was a little bit of drama put into it. I actually got the book on February 7, 2005. I had come home from Atlanta to visit with my daughter, Paige and my aunt had invited me to church. I hadn’t been to church in a very, very long time. Upon much telling her I shouldn’t go, I went anyway and that’s where I got the book.
Waliszewski: Did you buy it, or did somebody give it to you?
Smith: Well, the story in itself is a little … crazy, because the books were actually on sale and I heard the pastor say, “If you don’t have the money just take it.” I had a dollar bill that I had done drugs with a couple days before and I put it in the offering plate and that was my way of getting the book.
Waliszewski: What would you like film-goers to come away with after seeing this film?
Smith: I really hope that people see that there’s nothing you can do to make God not love you. I want people to know that God is waiting on us to give him our brokenness. You know somebody might not be struggling with drug addiction or something that I went through, but they are struggling with something. I believed … for a long time that I had to look a certain way, talk a certain way for God to love me and that could be nothing further than the truth. When I laid down my brokenness to God and gave him every bit of me, that’s when he completely changed my life. And so I hope that people see that.
I hope that Christian people take their un-Christian friends to this movie simply because this is a movie that talks about redemption. It’s a movie that talks about Jesus … reaching down into the pits of hell that my life had become and changing it. I just want people that aren’t Christians to see that and to feel the power of God. I was in Los Angeles last week and I was talking to one of the guys from Paramount [Pictures, which is distributing the film]. One of the things that stuck with me so much, he said to me, “Ashley, I’m not even a Christian and this film made me cry.” For somebody to say that, that’s what it’s all about. The film is already a success in my book because I just wanted it to touch people. I wanted people to experience Jesus and just by that one comment I know it’s touched one person.
Waliszewski: Film makers only have so many minutes to tell their stories. So, leaving out parts is a big part of a director’s job. What do you wish had been told in this film that either was edited out or never filmed in the first place?
Smith: There is absolutely nothing that I would have done differently. … I struggled a little bit with some of the scenes in the way that they were changed and not 100% true because I wanted everything to be 100% true, but … I realized, after watching the movie several times, that the scenes that were added actually tell the exact emotion that I was feeling at that moment in time, and had they done it a different way it wouldn’t have showed that emotion. I am 110% happy with the way it turned out.
Waliszewski: Have you been in any contact with Brian Nichols since that night in your apartment?
Smith: I have not had any connection with him whatsoever other than seeing him in court when I testified. … After watching the film I have started to think that maybe I should write or something like that, but that has not been done yet.
Waliszewski: How has the Lord been using you?
Smith: I wrote the book, Unlikely Angel 10 years ago and it recently was re-released in the stores with the new title, Captive on it, of course. God needed me to go around to women’s centers, recovery homes … I was just at one of the local Christian high schools this morning speaking to the students. God has just really blessed this story.