Law officers at the Dale County hostage scene in Midland City, Ala. on Thursday morning, Jan. 31, 2013. A gunman holed up in a bunker with a young hostage has kept law officers at bay since the standoff began when he killed a school bus driver and dragged the boy away, authorities said. (AP Photo/Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)
MIDLAND CITY, Ala.— Residents in a rural Alabama town prayed and called for the release of a 5-year-old boy being held captive underground for a fourth day by a man accused of gunning down a bus driver and then taking the child hostage.
The suspected gunman has been locked in a standoff with law enforcement officers near the small town of Midland City since Tuesday, when authorities say he grabbed the kindergarten student from a school bus after fatally shooting 66-year-old driver Charles Albert Poland Jr.
The suspect and child, who by all accounts did not know each other, then disappeared into an underground bunker on the man’s property in southeastern Alabama that is said to be equipped with electricity and several weeks’ worth of supplies.
The shooting and hostage-taking happened as a national debate rages over gun violence, especially in schools, after a gunman shot dead 20 students and six staff members at a Connecticut elementary school in December.
Law enforcement negotiators have continued to communicate with the man identified by neighbors as 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes. Officials said they believed the child was unharmed.
Michael Senn, a pastor who lives near the private dirt road that runs onto Dykes’ property, told the Dothan Eagle newspaper that authorities had been able to maintain contact with Dykes through some sort of pipe, possibly made of PVC, leading into the bunker.
“They’ve been talking to him pretty regularly,” Senn said.
Law enforcement officials have offered few details about the standoff and have not officially released the names of the suspect or the child.
But homemade signs seen around the town identify the boy as Ethan. A school official said his sixth birthday is next week.
Messages such as “Please release Ethan” and “Pray 4 Ethan” were tacked up outside the town hall, where a somber candlelight vigil on Thursday night drew about 100 people.
Many of those in attendance were students at Dale County High School, which along with several other local schools have been closed while the standoff drags on.
Dykes had been due to appear for a bench trial on Wednesday after his arrest last month on a menacing charge involving one of his neighbors, court records showed.
A Dale County Sheriff’s Office investigator told the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch blog this week that Dykes had been described as a Vietnam veteran and survivalist who did not trust the government.