(MCT) — A 5-year-old Alabama boy held hostage in an underground bunker for nearly a week was rescued Monday in a swift operation that left the kidnapper dead, federal authorities announced.
The boy, identified only as Ethan, was whisked to safety and was “doing fine,” an FBI agent told reporters in Midland City, Ala. Agents feared the boy was in “imminent danger” after they spotted 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes holding a gun.
Negotiations with the gunman had deteriorated over the previous 24 hours, according to FBI Special Agent Stephen E. Richardson, prompting agents to storm the bunker at 3:12 p.m. Central time.
“The subject is deceased,” Richardson said of Dykes, but he declined to provide details during a brief news conference late Monday afternoon. Residents described hearing an explosion and gunshots.
“It got really tough to negotiate with him,” Dale County Sheriff Wally Olson told reporters later.
Ethan was reunited with his mother at a hospital in nearby Dothan, Ala. “He’s laughing, joking, playing, eating — the things you’d expect of a 5- or 6-year-old,” Richardson said at an evening briefing.
The rescue ended the nearly weeklong standoff in a rural corner of southeastern Alabama that began when Dykes boarded a schoolbus Jan. 29 and shot the driver to death, then abducted Ethan.
Hospital officials declined to discuss Ethan’s condition.
“By the grace of God, he’s OK,” Olson said.
Citing the ongoing investigation, authorities revealed little at the evening briefing. Asked how agents could see that Dykes was holding a gun, Olson replied: “Using tactics and things of that nature.”
Agents had lowered a camera into the bunker and were closely watching Dykes, CBS News reported, quoting unidentified federal sources. Officers created two diversions to distract Dykes, then entered the bunker from the top, the network reported.
The end of the siege brought tears of relief in Midland City, population 2,300, located deep in the Bible Belt. Residents had endured a week of tension and fear after the bus driver, Charles Poland Jr., 66, was slain trying to protect the children, followed by the standoff and delicate negotiations with Dykes through the ventilation pipe.
“Our God is an awesome God,” Ronda Wilbur, who lived across a dirt road from Dykes’ white trailer, said in an emotional telephone interview minutes after the FBI announced Ethan’s rescue and Dykes’ death.
“Thank God Ethan is safe — and thank God we’ll all be safe from this man now,” added Wilbur, who said Dykes once beat her dog to death and threatened her family with a rifle. “I’ve been telling people for two years that man was going to kill somebody.”
Libby Walden, a Midland City resident who organized nightly prayer vigils for Ethan, said her first words upon hearing of his rescue were: “Praise God! Hallelujah!”
Walden, known in town as “Granny,” said she and others had “prayed hard for that man’s soul,” referring to Dykes. She said she was sorry that Dykes lost his life, but added: “Sometimes you have to lose to gain.”
Asked in a telephone interview whether she planned another prayer vigil for Monday night, Walden replied: “Instead of a vigil, we’re holding a celebration right downtown at the gazebo.”
Wilbur, Dykes’ neighbor, said authorities moved her and other neighbors out of their houses as a precaution. Richardson said it “could be awhile” before agents cleared the crime scene and allowed residents to return home.
Authorities said they were checking the area for any explosives Dykes might have left behind.
Dykes, a Navy veteran who officials said was estranged from his family and railed against the government, built the bunker in case of tornadoes, he told one neighbor. It was equipped with electricity and a TV. Police described it as 6 feet by 8 feet, about 4 feet deep, with a trap door on top.
He apparently did not know Ethan. Authorities said he abducted the child at random after first demanding that the bus driver let him take two boys, ages 6 and 8. Ethan’s 6th birthday is Wednesday.
During his captivity, police provided the boy with medication through a 4-inch ventilation pipe, along with Cheez-It crackers and a red Hot Wheels car he had requested. Officials said Ethan has Asperger’s syndrome.
Earlier Monday, Olson said Dykes had a “very complex” story he wanted told.
“Based on our discussion with Mr. Dykes, he feels like he has a story that’s important to him, although it’s very complex,” the sheriff told reporters. “And we try to make a safe environment for all that.”
After authorities announced the successful rescue, Wilbur said, “People here are so far beyond relieved, I can’t describe it.”
Ed Baker, a retired helicopter pilot and Midland City resident, said in a telephone interview that the town’s focus for the past week has been on young Ethan’s fate:
“That’s the main thing now — that we know he’s OK.”