Amid Standoff, Alabama Town Mourns Slain Bus Driver

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(Courtesy: CNN)

By Chelsea J. Carter and Vivian Kuo, CNN

MIDLAND CITY, Alabama (CNN) — A funeral service was held in southeastern Alabama on Sunday for a school bus driver hailed as a hero.

Charles Albert Poland Jr., 66, was killed last week when he tried to shield children from a gunman, who police say boarded a bus, shot Poland and grabbed a 5-year-old boy.

The suspect and the boy remained barricaded in an underground bunker in Midland City on Sunday, as the standoff stretched into its sixth day.

“I’m sad to see you gone. You didn’t deserve to die, but you died knowing you kept everyone safe,” read a letter from a student.

Donny Bynum, the superintendent of Dale County schools, read the letter and several others at Poland’s funeral, which was held at the Ozark Civic Center.

“Being on your bus has been some of the best times of my life,” read a second letter.

“I will miss your big, smiling face,” read a third.

Poland was remembered as a loving husband, father and “paw-paw,” who would do anything for his grandchildren. He was the type who brought students ice water on hot days.

According to authorities and witnesses, on Tuesday at about 3:40 p.m., Poland was shuttling children from school to their homes when he dropped students off and the suspect boarded the bus.

The gunman demanded that Poland hand over two children. Poland refused, blocking access to the bus’s narrow aisle as at least 21 children escaped out of the back emergency door, police said.

The gunman shot Poland four times, killing him, grabbed the kindergartener and then barricaded the himself and the boy inside a nearby bunker.

“Charles Albert Poland was a hero,” Bynum said.

Potato chips and toys

Police have said little about what, if any, demands have been made by the man inside the bunker. They said there is no connection between the suspect and the child.

“We continue to maintain an open line of communication 24 hours a day, whenever he wants to talk,” according to a statement released by Alabama State Troopers.

Negotiations are being carried out between the suspect and authorities through a 60-foot plastic ventilation pipe that leads from the bunker, authorities said.

The suspect in the case has been identified by authorities as 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes, who has been described by neighbors and officials as a survivalist with “anti-government” views.

The information authorities have released has primarily been related to the welfare of the boy.

Dykes has allowed “comfort items” to be delivered, such as potato chips and toys, the statement said.

He also has agreed to allow authorities to send down prescription medicine the boy needs, Dale County Sheriff Wally Olson told reporters during a short briefing Saturday morning.

The 5-year-old suffers from Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit disorder, said State. Rep. Steve Clouse.

Dykes has told authorities he has blankets and a heater in the bunker, and authorities have previously said the bunker — built 4 feet underground — has electricity.

It is unclear whether Dykes has access to news reports about the standoff.

The sheriff appeared during a morning news briefing to speak directly to Dykes: “I want to thank him for taking care of our boy. That’s very important.”

Standoff a focal point

The standoff has become a focal point for the people of Midland City, a town of about 2,300 northwest of Dothan.

Signs posted around the town and at the church urge people to pray for the boy.

During a vigil Saturday outside the town hall, Michelle Riley called on Dykes to release the boy.

“He just needs to know that … everybody makes mistakes,” she said. “Everybody’s been through life events that changes them, but (the boy is) innocent. You know, let him go home to his mother. Let him go home to his grandparents. Let him come out to the community. Let him go back to school and be with his friends.”

CNN’s Vivian Kuo reported from Midland City and Chelsea J. Carter wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Dana Ford and George Howell contributed to this report.

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