The Midland City child hostage standoff, stretching into its seventh day Monday, shows no visible change at the scene off of U.S. 231 in Dale County. Local and national media outlets remain on scene awaiting any movement from authorities regarding a man and a 5-year-old hostage who remain tucked out of sight in an underground bunker.
Though the suspect, Jimmy Lee Dykes, is accused of gunning down the child's bus driver a week ago, authorities praised him over the weekend for taking care of his child hostage. Authorities say Dykes has provided the child with things sent into the bunker by authorities including a red HotWheels car and Cheez-Its crackers.
Dykes told authorities the bunker is outfitted with an electric heater and numerous blankets which allowed the pair to keep warm as temperatures plunged overnight this weekend.
Authorities on the scene say Dykes continues to have an open line of communication with negotiators, though there's been no official word given on demands Dykes may have.
The small southeastern Alabama town of Midland City, about 2.5 hours from the state capital of Montgomery, has been flooded by numerous law enforcement agencies, as well as crews connected to media outlets around the world.
News conferences to update the status of the situation have been few, brief, and thin on details with Dale County Sheriff Wally Olson leading the briefs. Most last less than two minutes and end with reiterations that negotiations, taking place via a PVC pipe connected to the buried bunker, are ongoing.
Olson has thanked the media for patience and promised to release information as fast as possible. He also warned that unless information came from him at the podium he uses, the information is rumor and he won't speculate on it.
Authorities are keeping any information they may have close to the vest in an effort not to damage their operation. But citizens of Midland City, where approximately 2,300 people call home, are growing anxious. The situation hasn't changed in nearly 80 hours.
Friday, police departments in Montgomery and Prattville offered to assist with any help authorities in Dale County may need. Officers with MPD are now being utilized for perimeter support. Prattville officers are on standby, according to Chief Mark Thompson said his department is ready to help in any way. "It's just real trying on them," Chief Thompson said of local law enforcement whom he says may know the child and his family and not be able to rescue him as fast as they would like.
SLAIN BUS DRIVER
More details are emerging about the slain bus driver. The Dale County Sheriff's Department confirmed the body that was taken from the crime scene early Wednesday morning belonged to Charles Albert Poland, Jr.
Poland had been with the Dale County Board of Education as a bus driver since 2009 and was described as a cheerful and happy man who loved his job. Mr. Poland, 66, was acting in his official duties, transporting 21 students, when he was fatally shot.
The word "hero" is now being applied to the man who was attempting to protect his passengers. Witnesses say Poland was shot multiple times, 3 possibly 4 times, after he refused to comply with the suspect's demand that a child, or 2 children, get off the bus and come with him.
The Poland family has asked for privacy in their time of grief, but Poland's sister, who lives in Idaho, spoke with Spokane, Washington NBC affiliate KHQ. "We will get through this," Vicki Upchurch said. "My brother was very religious. He had a deep faith. He lived that life too."
Upchurch told KHQ that the family grew up in Idaho, and many still live there. But her brother joined the Army in the 1960s and ultimately moved to Alabama. She said he'd been driving the school bus to help support his wife until she could retire.
Poland's visitation was held Saturday at Sorrell's Funeral Home in Slocomb, Alabama. His funeral took place Sunday at the Ozark Civic Center.
Flowers were accepted as were donations to the Autism Society of Alabama.
Friday, cameras captured footage of the crime scene, Poland's school bus, being towed away to an undisclosed location with a police unit following close behind.
PRAYER VIGILS/COMMUNITY COUNSELING
Concerned citizens attended vigils at several churches Wednesday night, lighting candles and praying for the boy's safe release.
The surrounding community is holding its collective breath in hopes that the hostage situation will end peacefully. "Right now the whole town seems like they're just in a mourning stage," said nearby convenience store manager Carl McKenzie. Even though McKenzie doesn't know the boy, "I would go take that child's place if I could, just to get him out of danger."
For those in the area around Midland City who need professional counseling, The Wiregrass Red Cross Grief Counseling Service is available. Suzanne Geiger, Coordinator for Disaster Mental Health, says affected citizens may be showing signs of anger, withdrawal, depression, sense of loss, great sadness, or fear. Those who need someone to talk to can call (334) 792-9852 or can go to their physical location across the street from Calvary Baptist Church in Dothan.
For students, school leaders are giving them time away from the classroom. Ariton School and G W Long Schools will resume classes on Monday, February 4. Dale County High School, Midland City Elementary School, Newton Elementary School and South Dale Middle School will remain closed until further notice.
Very little information is being release, or published, about the child at the center of this conflict. Many in the community identify him only as "Ethan". His mother calls him "Love Bug", according to State Senator Harri Anne Smith in a Thursday morning interview on NBC's Today Show. Smith said the boy's family is "holding on by a thread".
The child, who turns 6 this week, is said to have a medical condition for which authorities have been able to provide medication. He's also been given the crayons and coloring book he requested Wednesday.
There's been no connection made between the suspect and the child. and it's believed the boy was chosen at random. No known hostage demands have been made.
SUSPECT - JIMMY LEE DYKES
Neighbors described Dykes as being "anti-government" and "a long time concern" and some expressed no surprise that he could be involved in a situation like the current one with law enforcement.
While one neighbor says Dykes is responsible for the beating death of their dog, and he's accused of gunning down the bus driver, Kelly Miller believes he has no desire to hurt the child. She believes he has some sort of message he wants to get out, though she admits she doesn't know what that message might be.
If he is trying to communicate with the outside world, Dykes may continue to do so from subterranean levels for the foreseeable future. He's been said to have previously spent more than a week in the homemade bunker without coming out.
Thought to be a "survivalist" or "Doomsday prepper", if Dykes planned the situation he's currently in, his bunker could be stocked with food and other items that could extend his ability to stay below ground long term. He's thought to have electricity, television, and possibly a heat source. It's not known what kind of weaponry he may have stocked.
Dykes is said to be a Vietnam era veteran who may suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
He now appears on the radar of the Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC. The Montgomery-based SPLC tracks hate groups and underground organizations and says Dykes came to their attention after Tuesday's events because of anti-American beliefs they say he's shown.
SPLC's Mark Potok said of Dykes' past that he was described as "very much standoffish and very much a loner". Dykes was virtually unknown to anyone outside his small town, until now. Potok said it wasn't clear if Dykes is connected to any anti-government group or radical group. "We just don't know," he said.
Officials can't, or won't, confirm if Dykes' hostage situation is connected to his alleged anti-American beliefs.
SUSPECT TARGETS SCHOOL BUS
The situation started around 3:40 p.m. Tuesday, January 29 near the Destiny Church at the intersection of U.S. Highway 231 and Private Road 1539 in the small, southeastern Alabama town of Midland City. The Dale County town is located approximately 2-and-a-half hours from the state capital of Montgomery.
The Dale County Sheriff's Department and a multitude of other law enforcement, including surrounding police departments, Alabama State Troopers and SWAT team converged on the community in the aftermath of the shooting and kidnapping.
Authorities began communicating with the suspect via a PVC pipe connected to the bunker. While the child was said to be in "okay" condition, considering the circumstances, authorities remained cautious, calling it a "delicate" situation.
Though there's no confirmed evidence of explosive devices, a bomb squad is on scene. Everyone living in the immediate area around the scene was evacuated "as a precautionary measure" the Dale County Sheriff's Dept. said. Many residents sought other shelter overnight as Sheriff Wally Olson concluded it could be a long night.
NEIGHBOR: DYKES AND POLAND HAD RUN-IN 1 DAY PRIOR
Neighbors have come forward to offer their analysis of the suspect, 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes, whom police believe fatally shot bus driver Charles Albert Poland, Jr. before taking the child. (Read more about Dykes and Poland in headlines below).
Dykes' next-door neighbor, Kelly Miller, heard the shots as they were being fired and could hear screaming. "Within seconds of me grasping what was going on, I knew it was Jim," she said.
Miller says Monday, the day before the shooting and kidnapping, Dykes got on Poland's bus and spoke with him, though the nature of the conversation is not known. The next morning, Miller says Poland offered Dykes a gift of eggs and marmalade as a way of saying thanks for clearing off the driveway where the bus had to turn around.
Miller, whose sons Jessie and Jackson ride the bus but were among those allowed to leave before the fatal shooting, said Poland left the gifts at Dykes's fence after he refused to accept them. Dykes called Miller's father to the property fence a short time later at which time gave him the gifts saying, "Here. I don't want this."
Miller broke into tears, the thought of someone taking one of her children running through her mind, as she pointed to one of her sons sitting beside her at their kitchen table. "I can't even wrap my head around it."
WITNESSES: OTHER STUDENTS WERE TRAUMATIZED
A man who spoke with several children who were on-board the school bus said the students told him they witnessed a man step on-board where he shot the driver and took a young boy hostage.
Michael Senn, a local minister whose church owns the building occupied by Destiny Church, though it's currently being rented by another congregation, said while he was not on the scene when the incident happened, he spoke with several of the children a short time later.
Senn said one girl told him that the man who got on-board told most of the students to get off the bus. He then grabbed a young boy and shot the bus driver four times.
Senn said the children who got off the bus ran toward for safety and hid behind Destiny Church. "All the kids are at a safe place," he said, though he added all of them appeared to be in shock.
"I spoke to a young guy, 13-years-old, that was really traumatized," Senn said. The boy, who is "really good friends" with the hostage, witnessed the entire incident. "I talked with him and ministered with him and prayed with him before he left," Senn said before family came and picked him up.
NEIGHBOR: HE RETREATED TO "HOMEMADE BOMB SHELTER"
Mike Creel, a neighbor of Dykes, said he spoke with some of the students who were on the bus and was told that the suspect boarded the vehicle as it stopped to drop off some students. Creel said students told him the suspect was trying to take two children from the bus but only managed to leave with one. "He was only able to get a hold of one," Creel said the other riders told him, because the child fainted and was grabbed.
Creel said after firing on the driver, the suspect "retreated back onto his land" where "he's hidden in his homemade bomb shelter."
Creel said he chased after the suspect. "I ran into his yard. I didn't realize that it was actually him [the neighbor] at the time..." Creel said he ran right past the suspect's house and underground bomb shelter to the edge of a field where he thought a stranger was possibly running. Creel said by the time he found out it was his neighbor, he was out of the yard and the police were arriving on scene.
Creel said the suspect has lived on the property for around two years and, "that was one of the first things he started building."
Word of the fatal shooting and kidnapping spread through the community, and across the country quickly. Many local residents expressed shock over the situation.
Jacey Green knew the bus driver who lost his life. "The bus driver was my teacher's husband," Green said. "I feel bad for her. I think people shouldn't be doing this to that little kid."
"It's so disheartening," said Chelsea Cooper of Ozark. " You think, you know, things like this would be under control. You would think your children would be okay on a school bus or at a school."
Donny Bynum, Superintendent of the Dale County School System, is asking for prayer for the student, his family and Mr. Poland's family. Poland said counseling will be available at local schools as soon as the hostage situation in resolved. He added, "This is a law enforcement issue and is being conducted as such."
"First and foremost, we want to convey our deepest regrets to the family of the slain bus driver and at the same time, prepare for the anticipated, safe rescue of our abducted student," said Dr. Tommy Bice, State Superintendent of Education. "We will continue to work collaboratively with local and state law enforcement agencies in this ongoing investigation.
Bice continued, "We will at the appropriate time, complete an analysis of the facts. At this time, our number one focus is the safe return of our student to his parents and to honor the life of our fallen colleague." Bice was in Dale County all day Thursday to meet with local school personnel.
"I have spent the day with the superintendent Donny Bynum, his key staff, principals and counselors from the Dale County School System and am humbled by their leadership and coordinated effort in this very trying and ongoing situation," Bice explained.
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley has been notified of the situation and his office says he is closely monitoring the situation.
U.S. Representative Martha Roby (R-Dist.2) tweeted to her followers urging patience "as law enforcement officers do their best to get to the bottom of this..." and asked her followers to "be prayerful, lifting up those affected in prayers for comfort and healing."
State Senator Harri Anne Smith, (I-Dist. 29), asked her constituents and others to "Please pray for the families whose hearts are broken tonight in Dale County. Special prayers for the Brave Bus Drivers family who did his best to protect his children. Special prayers for "Love Bug" the five year old son of a Mother awaiting his safe return. Special prayers for the children who were on the Bus who had to witness such a horrible act."
Copyright 2013 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.
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