MIDLAND CITY, Ala. — A six-day standoff between an angry and violent survivalist who held a 5-year-old boy hostage in an underground bunker and a legion of local, state and federal law enforcement officials ended Monday with the death of the kidnapper and the freeing of the boy.
Stephen E. Richardson, the special agent in charge of the FBI's division in Mobile, told reporters that the boy, named Ethan, was rescued at 3:12 p.m. and that he "appeared physically unharmed and is being treated at a local hospital." Richardson added, "The subject is deceased."
The subject was 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes, who boarded a school bus last Tuesday afternoon, killed the driver and took the boy into a bunker he had installed in his backyard.
Neighbors speculated that Dykes had kidnapped the boy as part of a scheme to air his thoughts and grievances on a larger platform, and at a news conference earlier Tuesday, Sheriff Wally Olson of Dale County acknowledged that to be a major motive.
"Based on our discussions he feels like he has a story that is important to him, although it's very complex," said the sheriff, who appeared wearier than in recent days.
Officials had been in constant communication with Dykes, speaking with him on a mobile phone and passing toys, food and coloring books into the bunker through a plastic pipe he had installed so he could hear any trespassers on his property. Officials had also been able to pass medication to Ethan, who was described as having Asperger's syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
In comments to reporters after the rescue, Richardson suggested that talks had recently broken down.
"Within the past 24 hours, negotiations deteriorated and Dykes was observed holding a gun," he said. "At this point, FBI agents, fearing the child was in imminent danger, entered the bunker and rescued the child."
For some time, officials had been able to monitor movements within the bunker using high-tech surveillance equipment, said two people who had been briefed on the operation. They had also built a mock-up of the bunker nearby, where authorities could test various options while devising a rescue plan.
On Monday afternoon, sensing that Dykes was becoming rattled and that the threat to the boy was growing, the authorities dropped two devices into the bunker that created loud explosions, heard by people across a highway. The explosions disoriented Dykes, and immediately afterward two or three members of the FBI Hostage Rescue Team went into the bunker and retrieved the child.
Dykes was killed in the operation.
Ethan and his mother were relieved to be reunited, Richardson said. "He's laughing, joking, playing, eating -- the things that you would expect a normal 5- to 6-year-old young man to do. He's very brave. He's very lucky."
Fears that the bunker might be booby-trapped appeared to be unfounded, but bomb experts were scouring the scene after the rescue.
The standoff began last Tuesday when Dykes approached a bus driven by Charles Albert Poland Jr., saying he wanted to give him some broccoli he had grown in his garden. The two knew each other; Poland had given Dykes a gift of eggs and homemade jam several days earlier. Once on the bus, Dykes handed Poland a note and demanded two children between the ages of 6 and 8.
Poland opened the emergency door in the back of the bus and as the children escaped he blocked Dykes' way; Dykes shot him four times, killing him. Dykes then managed to take Ethan and set off the six-day siege.
"He was a very bad man, a terrible man," said Terrica Singletary, 14, who was among the 20 children who managed to flee the bus.
On Sunday, Poland was given a hero's funeral, with hundreds going to a civic center up the road to honor a small-town bus driver whom many of the attendees had never met.
The little community also began to learn about Dykes, who had moved onto a patch of property on the grassy hill about two years ago.
Neighbors of Dykes generally kept their distance, which he made easy. He frequently made violent threats to anyone who wandered onto his property, once even beating a neighbors' dog to death with a lead pipe. He would sometimes sit watching and holding a rifle when young children played in a nearby yard. Late into the night he would dig in the backyard of his travel trailer, or patrol his property with a flashlight and a long gun.
When he did enter into conversations, they frequently involved conspiracies about the federal, state and local government, and the very forces he had brought down on himself when he kidnapped Ethan.
"What he's done the last seven days has been his own justification," said Jason Brogden, the lawyer for Midland City. "By virtue of his own actions, his paranoia came to fruition."
Throughout the standoff, there was talk of little else in southeastern Alabama, a mostly rural region called the Wiregrass. Over lunch at restaurants and even at a Super Bowl party in nearby Ozark, conversations would not roam far before returning to whether that little boy had gotten out yet and what that crazy man must be thinking.
Marquees in front of gas stations urged people to pray for Ethan and the family of Poland, the 66-year-old bus driver, and every night at a gazebo on the lawn of City Hall, people did just that, holding candles and concluding with a chorus of "Amazing Grace."
"This is exactly what we prayed for," said Pastor Michael Senn, a local minister, whose church owns a building where many of the schoolchildren fled after escaping from the bus. "We're just a small community in the Bible Belt. What got us through this tragedy was the community pulling together and praying together."