MIDLAND CITY, Ala. – The standoff between police and a gunman accused of holding a kindergartner hostage in an underground bunker dragged into a fourth day Friday, as authorities sought to continue delicate conversations with the man through a pipe and worked to safely end the tense situation.
Police said Jimmy Lee Dykes shot a school bus driver to death, grabbed a 5-year-old boy off the bus and slipped into an underground bunker on his property in rural Alabama, where the pair has been since Tuesday. There were signs the standoff could go on: The shelter has electricity, food and TV, and police have delivered the boy’s medication through a 4-inch-wide ventilation pipe leading to the bunker.
Hostage negotiators have used the pipe to talk to the gunman, but investigators have been tightlipped about their conversations.
Former FBI hostage negotiator Clint Van Zandt said authorities at the scene shouldn’t rush to resolve the standoff as long as they are confident the boy is unharmed. He cautioned against any drastic measures, such as cutting the electricity or putting sleep gas inside the bunker because it could agitate Dykes.
The negotiator should try to ease Dykes’ anxieties over what will happen when the standoff ends, and refer to both the boy and Dykes by their first names to humanize them, he said.
“I want to give him a reason to come out,” Van Zandt said, “and my reason is, ‘You didn’t mean that to happen. It was unintentional. It could have happened to anyone. It was an accident. People have accidents, Jimmy Lee. It’s not that big a thing. You and I can work that out.”’
The shelter was about 4 feet underground, with about 6-by-8 feet of floor space and the PVC pipe that negotiators were speaking through, said James Arrington, police chief of the neighboring town of Pinckard.
“He will have to give up sooner or later because (authorities) are not leaving,” Arrington said. “It’s pretty small, but he’s been known to stay in there eight days.”
Midland City Mayor Virgil Skipper said he has been briefed by law enforcement agents and has visited with the boy’s parents.
“He’s crying for his parents,” he said. “They are holding up good. They are praying and asking all of us to pray with them.”
Republican Rep. Steve Clouse, who represents the Midland City area, said he visited the boy’s mother Thursday and she is “hanging on by a thread.”
“Everybody is praying with her for the boy,” he said.
Clouse said the mother told him that the boy has Asperger’s syndrome as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Police have been delivering medication to him through the pipe, he added.
The normally quiet red clay road leading to the bunker was teemed Friday with more than a dozen police cars and trucks, a fire truck, a helicopter, officers from multiple agencies and news media near Midland City, population 2,300.
Police vehicles have come and gone steadily for hours from the command post, a small church taken over for that use.
Dykes was known around the neighborhood as a menacing figure who neighbors said 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.
The chief confirmed that Dykes held anti-government views, as described by multiple neighbors: “He’s against the government – starting with Obama on down.”
“He doesn’t like law enforcement or the government telling him what to do,” he said. “He’s just a loner.”
No motive has been discussed by investigators, but the police chief said the FBI had evidence suggesting it could be considered a hate crime. Federal authorities have not released any details about the standoff or the investigation. The mayor said he hasn’t seen anything tying together Dykes’ anti-government views and the allegations against him.
Authorities said the gunman boarded a stopped school bus filled with children Tuesday afternoon and demanded two boys between 6 and 8 years old. When the driver tried to block his way, the gunman shot him several times and took the 5-year-old boy.
The bus driver, Charles Albert Poland Jr., 66, was hailed by locals as a hero who gave his life to protect the pupils on his bus.
The yellow Dale County school bus was processed for evidence and authorities drove it Friday down the dirt road, away from the bunker, before a wrecker hauled it away.
Dykes had been scheduled to appear in court Wednesday to answer charges he shot at his neighbors in a dispute last month over a speed bump. Neighbor Claudia Davis said he yelled and fired shots at her, her son and her baby grandson over damage Dykes claimed their pickup truck did to a makeshift speed bump in the dirt road. No one was hurt.
The son, James Davis Jr., believes Tuesday’s shooting was connected to the court date. “I believe he thought I was going to be in court and he was going to get more charges than the menacing, which he deserved, and he had a bunch of stuff to hide and that’s why he did it.”
Neighbors described a number of other run-ins with Dykes in the time since he moved to this small rural town near the Georgia and Florida lines, a region known for peanut farming.
A neighbor directly across the street, Brock Parrish, said Dykes usually wore overalls and glasses and his posture was hunched-over. He said Dykes usually drove a run-down “creeper” van with some of the windows covered in aluminum foil.
Parrish often saw him digging in his yard, as if he was preparing to lay down a driveway or building foundation. He lived in a small camping trailer there and patrolled his lawn at night, walking from corner to corner with a flashlight and a long gun. Parrish described the weapon as an assault rifle, while another neighbor said it was a shotgun; authorities have not disclosed what firearms Dykes might have in his possession.
Court records showed Dykes was arrested in Florida in 1995 for improper exhibition of a weapon, but the misdemeanor was dismissed. The circumstances of the arrest were not detailed in his criminal record. He also was arrested for marijuana possession in 2000.