Praying and talking were the tactics and hope was the strategy as a standoff continued for a third day between a gunman who kidnapped a 5-year-old boy and walled them both off in an underground shelter in rural Alabama.
“They’re still talking,” Robin Litchfield, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Public Safety, told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday. “Negotiators are negotiating and the boy is OK.”
State, local and federal officials have been very tight-lipped about the situation, which began on Tuesday when the gunman killed a school bus driver and snatched one of the children from the vehicle. There are heavily armed SWAT teams at the scene, but officials have made it clear they intend to wait out the man and to keep talking.
There is no indication if the man has made any demands.
Asked at a Thursday morning news conference how long the standoff would last, Dale County Sheriff Wally Olson replied to reporters, “We have no way of knowing that right now.”
The boy, only known by his first name of Ethan, is believed to be coping with his imprisonment in a bunker some eight feet underground.
“We have no reason to believe that the child has been harmed,” Olson said at one of the infrequent briefings at the scene along a hard-scrabble dead-end road in Midland City, about 90 miles from Mobile.
The episode began on Tuesday afternoon when the gunman attacked a school bus and grabbed one of the 22 children coming home from classes. The bus driver, identified as Charles Albert Poland Jr., 66, tried to stop the man and was killed. Witnesses have said Poland was shot perhaps as many as four times by the gunman, who then fled with the boy.
Officials have not formally named the gunman, but neighbors have identified the man as Jimmy Lee Dykes, 65, a retired truck driver and veteran who has had frequent scrapes with neighbors and the law.
Dykes was free on a $500 bond in connection with a complaint last month that led to a menacing charge. Dykes had been scheduled to go to trial on Wednesday morning to deal with the complaint, which stems from a dispute with a neighbor that allegedly included Dykes firing several shots.
Midland City is a town of about 2,300 and Dykes had lived in his home for more than a year, neighbors told reporters. Described as a survivalist by officials, Dykes had dug out the underground bunker. It has electricity and a stash of food supplies, according to officials.
Neighbors said Dykes complained about the government’s intrusions and was standoffish to everyone else, except for the occasions when he threatened neighbors with violence if they or their animals trespassed. One neighbor, Ronda Wilbur, told reporters that Dykes had beat her 120-pound dog with a lead pipe because it had crossed the line. The dog died a week later.
“He said his only regret was he didn't beat him to death all the way,” Wilbur said. “If a man can kill a dog, and beat it with a lead pipe and brag about it, it's nothing until it's going to be people.”
Authorities have been communicating through a PVC pipe that's large enough for officials to pass medicine down for the boy, who requires medication daily, according to state Rep. Steve Clouse.
“We are all just hoping this can come to a safe end,” Clouse told NBC’s “Today” show. The boy’s family is “holding on by a thread,” he said.
When asked a news conference what the community could do to help the situation, Sheriff Olson replied, “Pray.”
The community has responded in kind through the night. Prayer vigils have been held in several areas and candles have been burned in the hope the child would be freed and in memory of the bus driver, who was hailed as a hero from preventing even more of his charges from ending up underground.
“Right now the whole town seems like they’re just in a mourning stage,” convenience store manager Carl McKenzie told WSFA-TV. “I would go take that child’s place if I could, just to get him out of danger.”