Small Alabama Town Tries to Come to Grips With Kidnapping

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MIDLAND CITY, Ala. – Many things hold little Southern towns together. There is a common love of the region, the peace that comes with a rural life and, often, prayer.

In this town of 2,300 in the heart of peanut country, people drew on all of those as they endured what by Thursday night had stretched into an unimaginable situation.

A relative newcomer to town – a man who had fought in Vietnam and appeared to harbor a deep distrust of government and a grudge against every neighbor – shot and killed a bus driver, grabbed a five-year-old boy named Ethan and then disappeared with the boy into a well-equipped bunker he had spent the last several months digging in his yard.

By all accounts, the man neighbors identified as Jimmy Lee Dykes had no connection to the boy.

As far as we know, there is no relation at all -- he just wanted a child for a hostage situation," said Michael Senn, a pastor at the Midway Assembly of God Church who comforted some of the children who escaped from the bus and ran to his church. He, like so many clerics in this Bible-reading community, has been leading prayer services as the hours stretched into days.

By Thursday night, no end was in sight. The F.B.I. stayed in contact with Mr. Dykes by day and let him sleep at night, said Police Chief James Arrington of Pinckard, a nearby city.

"They're taking time and trying to wear him out," he said. "He may do harm if they try to rush him. We don't know how much ammunition or bombs he has."

Mr. Dykes, neighbors said, has been known to stay in his bunker for up to eight days. Some said they watched him build it, carrying cinder blocks and digging for hours.

No one is sure exactly why he took the boy.

"He don't care too much for the government. That's all we know," Mr. Arrington said.

The boy, whom his mother calls "love bug," is reportedly doing well in the bunker, said an Alabama state senator, Harri Anne Smith, in a television interview early Thursday. She and Alabama state Rep. Steve Clouse have met with Ethan's mother, and said food and medication her son needed for autism was delivered to the bunker through a 60-foot plastic pipe that was about four inches in diameter.

Still, Mr. Clouse said, the family is " just holding on by a thread."

As it became clear that the standoff would continue – the bunker was well supplied with food and, apparently, a television and lights – national news media began arriving.

Through Wednesday and into Thursday, residents watched as their tiny town, where the National Peanut Festival in nearby Dothan is usually the biggest event of the year, was a constant presence on national television.

The killing of the bus driver and the resulting standoff soon became one more point of discussion in the national debate about guns. Most people here own guns and hunt. And Mr. Cobb and others are steadfast in their belief that guns are not the problem, mental health is.

Around town and along the entrance to the dirt road where the bunker was sunk into Mr. Dykes's land, people began arguing in favor of allowing bus drivers to carry guns.

"I follow the old Boy Scout's motto – 'be prepared,' " said James Alexander, 72, who said he sleeps with a gun by his pillow. "I cannot foresee a way to prevent this without shooting the guy."

Although reporters were held across the highway from a red dirt road that leads into the little neighborhood of about 13 houses, and there were no major developments to report on Thursday, the story cycled through coverage of state and national hearings on gun violence and mental health prompted by the shootings in Newtown, Conn., in December.

"It's crazy," said Tyler Cobb, a high school junior who was one of more than 90 students who met to pray for Ethan on Wednesday. "It happened in Connecticut. But it really hits home when it happens here. Our little town on CNN. It's just weird."

Five more formal prayer vigils were held Wednesday, and on Thursday members of a church youth group gathered to pray across the highway from the road that leads to bunker.

Prayer took hold on social media sites, too. A Twitter call to pray for Ethan gained steam.

The bus driver, Charles Albert Poland Jr., 66, encountered Mr. Dykes as he drove children home from school Tuesday. Mr. Dykes, according to police reports based on interviews with children who were on the bus, demanded two boys between the ages of 6 and 8.

Mr. Poland held Mr. Dykes back at the front of the bus while children escaped out the back. He then was hit with as many as four bullets from a 9-millimeter pistol. The well-liked driver was quickly called a hero by people who live here.

With the driver down, Mr. Dykes grabbed two children, the police said. One escaped. Ethan may have frozen or fainted, allowing Mr. Dykes to take him swiftly from the bus.

Tim Byrd, chief investigator with the Dale County Sheriff's Office, told the Southern Poverty Law Center's Hatewatch blog that Mr. Dykes was a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress who "did not trust the government."

He was also scheduled to face charges of menacing in court Wednesday after neighbors claimed he shot a gun at them in a dispute over someone driving on his property.

Meanwhile, the community did what small communities do. It didn't take long for church goers to start cooking, joining the Salvation Army and the Red Cross in efforts to feed more than 50 weary F.B..I negotiators and law enforcement officers from at least eight agencies.

"Everybody wants to help, everybody is talking about the boy," said Lisa Boatwright, a secretary at a nearby church. "But there's only one thing we can do: pray this ends safely."

Robbie Brown reported from Midland City, Ala., and Kim Severson from Atlanta.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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