MIDLAND CITY, Ala. » Authorities stormed an underground bunker in Alabama today, freeing a 5-year-old boy who had been held hostage for nearly a week in the tiny underground shelter and leaving the boy’s abductor dead.
After days of fruitless negotiations, talks had deteriorated with an increasingly agitated Jimmy Lee Dykes, who had kidnapped the child from a school bus after fatally shooting the driver.
Dykes had been seen with a gun, and officers concluded the boy was in imminent danger, said Steve Richardson of the FBI’s office in Mobile.
Officials refused to say how the 65-year-old died.
"Ever since this started, there’s never been a moment that (the boy) wasn’t on my mind," said Michael Senn, pastor of a church near where reporters had been camped out since the standoff began. "So when I heard that he was OK, it was just like a thousand pounds lifted off of me."
The rescue capped a long drama that drew national attention to this town of 2,400 people nestled amid peanut farms and cotton fields that has long relied on a strong Christian faith, a policy of "love thy neighbor" and the power of group prayer. The child’s plight prompted nightly candlelight vigils.
Throughout the ordeal, authorities had been speaking with Dykes though a plastic pipe that went into the shelter. They also sent food, medicine and other items into the bunker, which apparently had running water, heat and cable television but no toilet. It was about 4 feet underground, with about 50 square feet of floor space.
Authorities said the kindergartner appeared unharmed. He was taken to a hospital in nearby Dothan. Officials have said he has Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
FBI bomb technicians were clearing the property for explosive devices and planned to look more closely at the scene when it’s safe, FBI spokesman Jason Pack said.
Daryle Hendry, who lives about a quarter-mile from the bunker, said he heard a boom Monday afternoon, followed by what sounded like a gunshot.
Melissa Knighton, city clerk in Midland City, said a woman had been praying in the town center Monday afternoon. Not long after, the mayor called with news that Dykes was dead and that the boy was safe.
"She must have had a direct line to God because shortly after she left, they heard the news," Knighton said.
Neighbors described Dykes as a menacing, unpredictable man who once beat a dog to death with a lead pipe, threatened to shoot children for setting foot on his property and patrolled his yard at night with a flashlight and a firearm.
Government records and interviews with neighbors indicate that Dykes joined the Navy in Midland City and served on active duty from 1964 to 1969. His record shows several awards, including the Vietnam Service Medal and the Good Conduct Medal. During his service, Dykes was trained in aviation maintenance.
He had some scrapes with the law in Florida, including a 1995 arrest for improper exhibition of a weapon. The misdemeanor was dismissed. He also was arrested for marijuana possession in 2000.
He returned to Alabama about two years ago, moving onto the rural tract about 100 yards from his nearest neighbors.
Ronda Wilbur, a neighbor of Dykes who said the man beat her dog to death last year with a pipe, said she was relieved to be done with the stress of knowing Dykes was patrolling his yard and willing to shoot at anyone or anything that trespassed.
"The nightmare is over. It’s been a long couple of years of having constant stress," she said.
On Sunday, more than 500 people attended a memorial service for bus driver Charles Albert Poland Jr., who was hailed as a hero for protecting the two dozen other children on the bus before he was gunned down and the little boy grabbed.
"This man was a true hero who was willing to give up his life so others might live," Gov. Robert Bentley said in a news release after learning of the boy’s rescue.