Boy Held Hostage for Nearly a Week
By Chelsea J. Carter and George Howell, CNN
MIDLAND CITY, Alabama (CNN) — Residents of Midland City, Alabama, gathered to show support and offer prayers for the family of a 5-year-old hostage held in a bunker.
Saturday marked the fifth day of an armed standoff in that town, where authorities are negotiating through a ventilation pipe with the man accused of barricading himself and the boy underground.
Police have been tight-lipped about a possible motive since the hostage drama began unfolding with the shooting of school bus driver and the abduction of the 5-year-old.
In a sign of perhaps how tense negotiations are between authorities and the suspect, officials have refused to detail what, if any, demands have been made by the suspect.
Michelle Riley, a resident of Midland City, pleaded for the suspect to let the boy — Ethan — go.
“He just needs to know that … everybody makes mistakes. Everybody’s been through life events that changes them, but Ethan’s 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,” she said.
She spoke at a Saturday vigil for the boy held outside the Midland City town hall. Residents there sang “Amazing Grace.”
“I’m here in support of this family,” said Deborah Trammell, also at the vigil. She explained that she lost a son five years ago in a car accident.
“I can relate to this family because they’ve had a child all of a sudden plucked out of their lives,” she said.
On Friday, the Dale County sheriff confirmed what neighbors have been saying and local news outlets have been reporting since the standoff began — the suspected gunman’s identity.
He is Jimmy Lee Dykes, 65, a Vietnam veteran and retired truck driver who moved to the area about five years ago.
The sheriff’s department released a photo of a gray-bearded, unsmiling Dykes and brief physical description: white male, 6 feet tall, weighing 170 pounds with brown eyes and gray hair.
Officials have been in “constant communication” with Dykes, Sheriff Wally Olson said Saturday. Dykes has told police that he has an electric heater and blankets for the boy. The sheriff publicly thanked Dykes for taking care of the child.
This much is known, according to police and witness statements: On Tuesday at about 3:40 p.m., bus driver Charles Poland Jr. was shuttling children from school to their homes when he dropped children off and the gunman boarded the bus.
The gunman demanded that Poland, 66, 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, according to police.
The gunman shot Poland four times, killing him; grabbed the boy and then barricaded the two of them inside a nearby bunker.
It’s unclear whether the gunman was after a specific child on the bus. Police have said there is no connection between the suspect and the abducted boy, whose identity is being withheld.
The suspect, who police have identified as Dykes, is holed up in a bunker 4 feet underground and built at least partially out of PVC pipe, authorities have said.
A hostage negotiator has been communicating with the alleged gunman through a 60-foot-long plastic ventilation pipe in an effort to end the standoff.
Authorities believe the boy is physically unharmed.
The suspect agreed to let police send down coloring books, crayons and prescription medication that the boy needs for treatment for Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit disorder, State Rep. Steve Clouse told CNN.
Neighbors have said the bunker has electricity, and Dykes has been known to stay in it for up to eight days, said James Arrington, the police chief in nearby Pinckard.
Dykes has been described as a self-styled survivalist with “anti-government” views, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch.
The incident called to mind another bus hijacking. In 1976, three masked men boarded a school bus in Chowchilla, California, taking 26 children and their driver hostage. They were forced into a buried vehicle, where they spent 16 terrifying hours before they were able to escape.
Jennifer Hyde was on that bus. She was 9 years old, and described what happened as the end of her childhood.
“You couldn’t just go on and have a normal childhood when you faced a life threatening situation like that. You just can’t go on and be carefree,” she told CNN’s Don Lemon.
She said her heart goes out to Ethan: “I can’t imagine him being alone in the situation that he’s in. At least I was able to have other children with me and one adult that I knew and could trust.”
As negotiations in Alabama continue, preparations were under way for Poland’s funeral.
Services for the late school bus driver will be held Sunday at the Ozark Civic Center.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley praised Poland for protecting the children on his bus.
“He stood in that place, and when that man came to take two children, he said no. And he lost his life because of that … he did his job, and I’m proud of him as the governor but I’m just proud of him as a human being,” he said.
CNN’s George Howell reported from Midland City and Chelsea J. Carter wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Vivian Kuo and Dana Ford contributed to this report.