A “PARANOID and combative” Vietnam veteran spent a third day holed up in an underground bunker with a five-year-old hostage in Alabama yesterday, after snatching the boy from a school bus and shooting the driver dead.
Police SWAT teams, FBI agents and sheriff’s deputies surrounded a property in the rural community of Midland City, Alabama, where they were communicating with “survivalist” Jimmy Lee Dykes, 65, through a pipe that leads into his subterranean hideout.
Mr Dykes, who had been due to appear in court on Wednesday to face a charge that he threatened a neighbour with a gun, fled to his trench on Tuesday afternoon after grabbing the boy at random as the child travelled home from school.
The child – identified only by his first name, Ethan, and his parents’ nickname for him, “Love Bug” – is due to turn six later this month. He has Asperger’s syndrome and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Mr Dykes, who is said by locals to have threatened to shoot children who came on his property, allowed police to send the boy’s medication into the bunker, plus colouring books and crayons.
Prayer vigils were held for Ethan, and for the school bus driver who died trying to protect him and the 21 other children who were on the vehicle when Mr Dykes burst on board.
Students told police Mr Dykes had ordered Mr Poland to give him two children aged between six and eight, and that when the driver refused and tried to block his path, he was shot four times.
“We are mourning a hero, 66-year-old Charles Poland, who gave his life to protect 21 students who are now safely home with their parents,” said Donny Bynum, the superintendent of Dale County Schools. “Mr Poland was well loved by all of us here … and we will forever remember his bravery.”
The driver was said to be a quiet, gentle and deeply Christian man who adored seeing the schoolchildren every day. His widow, Jan Poland, said: “He loved them. He loved everybody – and he was loved.”
Police said they had no reason to believe Ethan had been physically harmed and that he had been watching television in the bunker, which is located at the end of a dirt road. TV footage of the scene was not being shown, to prevent Mr Dykes from learning what authorities were doing and minimise his ability to publicise demands or grievances.
“People are hopeful that we can bring this to a successful end,” said Steve Clouse, an Alabama state senator who met the boy’s parents. He said the couple were “holding on by a thread”.
Descriptions of Mr Dykes by members of the local community painted a picture of a violent loner with anti-establishment views, who patrols his property armed with a shotgun – and who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder thought to stem from his military service in the Vietnam War.
He was said to have spent months constructing the bunker, which has an electricity supply and enough food and water to last for several weeks.
The community was also praying for the gunman, said Terry Howard, a pastor at the Newton First Assembly of God Church.
“We don’t understand, but we pray,” he told a local newspaper.
“What many think happens in the big city has come here to our little town and a lot of hurting people are trying to figure out why.”
Michelle Pfannensteil, a local resident, was the first to come across the scene of the crime.
“I was driving by at about 3:30pm and saw this blonde-haired boy who was hysterically waving his hands at the highway,” she said. She described how she then saw several other children behind him, some crying and some standing silently in shock, adding: “I kinda didn’t believe it at first … It was such a bizarre sight.”