MIDLAND CITY, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama family celebrated the rescue of a 5-year-old held hostage for a week in an underground bunker as authorities painstakingly checked for bombs on the abductor’s property today, a day after a police raid left the man dead.
The FBI and other law enforcement officials left plenty of questions open about how they made the call to rush in and what happened inside the closet-sized hideout on the rural property, where the boy had been held by Jimmy Lee Dykes. But relatives said there was no question about the relief they feel.
“If I could, I would do cartwheels all the way down the road,” the boy’s great-aunt, Debra Cook, told ABC’s Good Morning America today — a day before the boy’s 6th birthday. “We’d all been walking around in a fog.”
She said the boy was happy and playing with his old toys, including a dinosaur. “He was having the biggest time,” Cook said.
School officials said at a news conference today that they planned to have a party to celebrate the boy’s birthday, which is Wednesday, though they had not yet set a date for the party. The celebration, likely at the high school football field, would also honor the memory of Charles Albert Poland Jr., the bus driver credited as a hero for his actions to keep nearly two dozen other children on the bus safe when Dykes boarded and abducted the boy.
Principal Phillip Parker said his colleagues were eagerly awaiting the boy’s return, though he did not know when that would be.
“We’d love to have him back tomorrow,” he said.
Parker stands at the entrance to the school every day as the children arrive, and described the boy as a friendly, energetic child who comes up, shakes his hand and then continues on into the school as if he’s in a hurry.
After FBI agents determined that talks with an increasingly agitated Dykes were breaking down, they stormed the shelter Monday afternoon and freed the kindergartner. The 65-year-old armed captor was killed by law enforcement agents, an official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the investigation into the case that had captured national attention.
Dale County Coroner Woodrow Hilboldt said today that officials had not yet removed Dykes’ body from the underground shelter. Hilboldt said he does not know how Dykes died because he has not yet examined the body. Hilboldt said the body will be taken to Montgomery for an autopsy, though he did not know exactly when that may happen.
Meanwhile, federal authorities were tight-lipped about specifics of how they ended the standoff.
Neighbors said they heard a bang and gunshots, but the FBI wouldn’t confirm that. Authorities also kept under wraps exactly how they were able to monitor Dykes and the boy in such a confined space.
“We have a big crime scene behind us to process,” said FBI agent Steve Richardson of the agency’s office in Mobile. “I can’t talk about sources, techniques or methods that we used. But I can tell you the success story is (the boy) is safe.”
Dale County Sheriff Wally Olson said Dykes was armed when officers entered the bunker. He added the boy was threatened, but declined to elaborate.
“That’s why we went inside — to save the child,” he said.
It was not immediately clear how authorities determined the man had a gun.
The boy was reunited with his mother and taken to a hospital to be checked out. Officials have said he has Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Richardson said he saw the child at the hospital, and the boy was laughing, joking, eating and “doing the things you’d expect a normal 5- or 6-year-old to do.”
The rescue capped a hostage drama that disrupted the lives of many in a tranquil town of 2,400 people set amid peanut farms and cotton fields some 100 miles southeast of the state capital of Montgomery.
It’s a small, close-knit community that has long relied on a strong Christian faith, a policy of “love thy neighbor” and the power of group prayer.
The child’s plight prompted nightly candlelight vigils. Fliers appealing for his safe release were posted around town, and ribbons were placed on a chain-link fence at the school where the kindergartner was enrolled.
While a town anxiously waited for days, authorities had been speaking with Dykes though a plastic pipe that led into the bunker. The shelter was about 4 feet underground, with about 50 square feet of floor space, built like the tornado shelters frequently found in the South.
Authorities sent food, medicine and other items into the bunker, which apparently had running water, heat and cable television but no toilet.
The standoff unfolded just a few hundred yards from U.S. 231, a busy four-lane highway where both sides of the road were lined with law enforcement vehicles from local, state and federal authorities.
When it was over, one acquaintance, Roger Arnold, commented: “He always said he’d never be taken alive. I knew he’d never come out of there.”
On Tuesday, FBI bomb technicians were to continue scouring the property for any explosive devices as officials prepared to collect evidence and more thoroughly study the site, said FBI special agent Jason Pack.
Authorities have not said whether they had determined the property had been rigged with any explosives.
Asked about local disclosures that Dykes had been killed by law enforcement officers, Pack responded in an email early Tuesday: “The facts surrounding the incident will be established by a shooting review team” from Washington in coming days.
At the request of law enforcement authorities, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had approved the provision of certain equipment that could be employed to assist in the hostage situation, according to a U.S. official who requested anonymity to discuss a pending law enforcement matter. It is not clear whether the equipment was actually used.
Neighbors described Dykes as a nuisance who 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.
Government records and interviews with neighbors indicate that Dykes joined the Navy in Midland City and served on active duty from 1964 to 1969. His record shows several awards, including the Vietnam Service Medal and the Good Conduct Medal. During his service, Dykes was trained in aviation maintenance.
He had some scrapes with the law in Florida, including a 1995 arrest for improper exhibition of a weapon. The misdemeanor was dismissed. He also was arrested for marijuana possession in 2000.
He returned to Alabama about two years ago, moving onto the rural tract about 100 yards from his nearest neighbors.
Ronda Wilbur, a neighbor of Dykes who said the man beat her dog to death last year with a pipe, expressed relief like other neighbors who described the suspect as volatile and threatening.
“The nightmare is over,” Wilbur said.