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Purpose-driven hostage

Atlanta mom stops courtroom killer with a word of grace

Purpose-driven hostage

When Ashley Smith began reading The Purpose Driven Life, she couldn't have imagined that just weeks later she would be reading chapter 33 to a quadruple murder suspect who had forced his way into her apartment at gunpoint. She also couldn't have imagined that her calm faith would lead to the calm surrender of a vicious killer.

Authorities arrested Brian Nichols at Mrs. Smith's Duluth, Ga., home on March 12, some 24 hours after the convicted rapist grabbed a gun from an Atlanta courtroom deputy and began a killing spree that left four dead.

The FBI launched a massive manhunt for Mr. Nichols, and nearly 17 hours later the escaped convict wound up 30 miles north in the parking lot of the Bridgewater Apartment complex in a truck he had stolen from David Whilhelm, the 40-year-old federal customs agent he had shot dead hours earlier.

Mrs. Smith, 26, was up late unpacking boxes inside the one-bedroom apartment she had moved into two days before. Around 2:30 a.m. she went out for cigarettes. When she returned Mr. Nichols was waiting.

Mrs. Smith told reporters at a press conference on March 13 that Mr. Nichols stuck a gun in her ribs and said, "I'm not going to hurt you if you do what I say." A terrified Mrs. Smith replied: "OK."

Inside the apartment, Mr. Nichols bound Mrs. Smith's hands and legs with masking tape, an extension cord, and a curtain. "He wrapped my hands in a prayer-in a praying position," Mrs. Smith said. Mr. Nichols carried Mrs. Smith into the bathroom where he covered her head with a towel and took a shower. Later, Mr. Nichols untied Mrs. Smith, and the two began to talk.

Mrs. Smith told Mr. Nichols that her husband, Mack Smith, had been stabbed to death four years earlier, and that he had died in her arms. Mrs. Smith's 5-year-old daughter, Paige, was living with an aunt in Decatur. She was scheduled to visit her daughter later that morning. "I told him if he hurt me, my little girl wouldn't have a mommy or a daddy," she said.

Mrs. Smith then asked for permission to read, and Mr. Nichols agreed. "I got my Bible, and I got a book called The Purpose Driven Life," Mrs. Smith said.

Mrs. Smith read aloud the first paragraph of chapter 33. Mr. Nichols asked: "Will you read that again?" Mrs. Smith complied, and began talking with Mr. Nichols about God. "He needed hope for his life," she said. "He told me he was already dead."

Mrs. Smith knew something about needing hope. After her husband's murder, the young widow sank into a deep depression that left her "not wanting to live but not wanting to die," her mother, Mary Davis, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Mrs. Smith subsequently lost her job, and eventually lost her home and her daughter, unable to afford either. Earlier this year, she decided to start over. Mrs. Smith began holding down a steady job, and she enrolled in the medical assistant's program at Georgia Medical Institute.

Mrs. Smith told Mr. Nichols that God could still have a good purpose for his life too. She urged him to surrender. "After we began to talk, he said he thought I was an angel sent from God," Mrs. Smith said. "And that he was lost and God led him to me to tell him that he had hurt a lot of people."

As the sun began to rise, Mrs. Smith made hot pancakes for her captor. Mr. Nichols was "overwhelmed" by the gesture, according to Mrs. Smith. By 9:00 a.m. she had persuaded him to allow her to leave to visit her daughter.

"I know he was probably hoping deep down that I was going to come back, but I think he knew . . . I had to turn him in," Mrs. Smith said. By the time she left, Mr. Nichols had stored all his weapons under a bed.

Mrs. Smith left her apartment at 9:50 a.m. and immediately called 911. Within minutes a SWAT team surrounded the building, and Mr. Nichols quickly surrendered. Mrs. Smith remembers telling the emergency dispatcher that she was on her way to see her daughter: "I felt really glad to be on my way to see my daughter."

One day later Mrs. Smith told reporters that God had sustained her, and that she believed God had a purpose for her ordeal: "I believe God brought him to my door."

'On probation with God'

High-profile acts of violence and surrender in two cities may have been the outworking of divergent theologies. In Atlanta, Ashley Smith delivered a gospel of grace to alleged courthouse killer Brian Nichols, winning her own freedom, his surrender, and probably saving more lives. But in Milwaukee, church-goer Terry Ratzmann opened fire on fellow members of a Living Church of God (LCOG) congregation, killing seven, including Pastor Randy Gregory and his son James, 16.

While a stunned community searched for answers in Milwaukee, some former members of Herbert Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God, an authoritarian cult from which the LCOG splintered, were not surprised at the murders. At the website of the cult-recovery group Exit and Support Network, several former members posted messages saying they were more surprised such violence hadn't happened before.

LCOG broke off from the WCG after the latter group turned from coercive and authoritarian "Armstrongism" to embrace orthodox Christian teaching such as salvation by grace. LCOG doctrine now mainly mirrors Armstrongism, mixing Jehovah's Witness-style "works" theology with Old Testament legalism, onerous tithes, and sometimes complete ministerial control over members' life decisions, particularly financial ones.

"These people are subjected to incredible pressures to perform 'works' . . . [and] are always unsure of their status before God," said Bill Hohmann, a former WCG member for more than 25 years who now works to "deprogram" others who leave that and similar groups. "If you have to live . . . every day, wondering if you are good enough . . . [under] a ministry that constantly emphasizes you are on probation with God, then you can see how there is no surprise. There have been quite a number of suicides in these groups. The pressure is enormous."

Mr. Hohmann did not minimize Mr. Ratzmann's responsibility for his own actions and noted that some LCOG ministers really are trying to serve their members. But, he said, "they are still expected to guide the members with a stick."

It is unclear what kind of control, if any, Randy Gregory exerted over his congregation, but Brookfield police Capt. Phil Horter told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "We believe that [Mr. Ratzmann's] motive has something to do with the church and the church services, more so than any other possible motive."

Police are focusing on a Feb. 26 incident in which Mr. Ratzmann was scheduled to deliver the closing prayer. Instead, he walked out early after hearing a sermon on how bad circumstances befall people who make ungodly choices. Three years ago, Mr. Ratzmann lost a job he loved, and friends describe him as a lonely man who resented still being single at age 44.

The teaching that only sinners catch life's bad breaks flies in the face of orthodox Christian teaching on the nature of God, said Concordia University of Wisconsin theology professor Timothy Maschke. He noted that most media aren't identifying LCOG as a cultish offshoot of Christianity, but instead as a small Christian denomination. But the group's publications teach that "Christ forgave our past sins, but now we have to get our [own] acts together," Mr. Maschke said. "That's a far cry from the Christian faith that Christ has saved us by grace alone."

-by Lynn Vincent

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.