Details emerge about US hostage-taker

2013-02-04 10:10
A sign encouraging prayer for a 5-year-old boy being held hostage, hangs on a fence surrounding Midland City Elementary school. (, Joe Songer/ AP)

A sign encouraging prayer for a 5-year-old boy being held hostage, hangs on a fence surrounding Midland City Elementary school. (, Joe Songer/ AP)

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Midland City - As an Alabama standoff and hostage drama marked a sixth day on Sunday, more details emerged about the suspect at the centre, with neighbours and officials painting a picture of an isolated man estranged from his family.

Authorities say Jim Lee Dykes, aged 65 - a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War known as Jimmy to neighbours - gunned down a school bus driver and then abducted a 5-year-old boy from the bus, taking him to an underground bunker on his rural property.

The driver, 66-year-old Charles Albert Poland Jnr, who was shot trying to protect children on his bus, was buried on Sunday.

Dykes, described as a loner who railed against the government, lives up a dirt road outside this tiny hamlet north of Dothan in the southeast corner of the state. His home is just off the main road north to the state capital of Montgomery, about 130km away.

The FBI said in a statement on Sunday that authorities continue to have an open line of communication with Dykes. The little boy requested Cheez-Its and red Hot Wheels cars, and both were delivered to the bunker, FBI spokesperson Jason Pack said.

Authorities had said they also were delivering medicine and other comfort items, and that Dykes was making the child as comfortable as possible.

Black ribbons

In the nearby community of Ozark on Sunday, more than 500 people filed into the Civic Centre to pay a final tribute to Poland.

Poland is now "an angel who is watching over" the little boy, said Dale County School Superintendent Donny Bynum, who read letters written by three students who had ridden on Poland's bus. "You didn't deserve to die but you died knowing you kept everyone safe," one child wrote.

Authorities said Dykes boarded a stopped school bus filled with 21 children on Tuesday afternoon and demanded two boys between 6 and 8 years old. When Poland tried to block his way, the gunman shot him several times and took the 5-year-old boy.

Outside the funeral, school buses from several counties lined the funeral procession route. The buses had black ribbons tied to their side mirrors.

Dykes grew up in the Dothan area. Mel Adams, a Midland City Council member who owns the lot where reporters are gathered, said he has known Dykes since they were ages 3 and 4.

He said Dykes has a sister and a brother, but that he is estranged from his family.

Open line of communication

Adams said he didn't know what caused the falling-out, but that "he had told part of his family to go to hell".

Midland City Mayor Virgil Skipper said Dykes' sister is in a nursing home. Adams said law enforcement officers have talked to Dykes' family members and advised them not to speak with reporters, and that officers told her there was nothing she could do to help the child in the bunker.

The FBI said in a statement on Sunday that authorities continue to have an open line of communication with Dykes and that they planned to deliver to the bunker additional comfort items such as food, toys and medicine. They also said Dykes was making the child as comfortable as possible.

Government records and interviews with neighbours indicate that Dykes grew up in the Dothan area and joined the Navy in Midland City, serving 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.

Later, Dykes lived in Florida, where he worked as a surveyor and a long-haul truck driver although it's unclear for how long.

He had some scrapes with the law there, including a 1995 arrest for improper exhibition of a weapon. The misdemeanour was dismissed. He also was arrested for marijuana possession in 2000.

Lost touch

He returned to Alabama about two years ago, moving onto the rural tract about 90m from his nearest neighbours, Michael Creel and his father, Greg.

Neighbours described Dykes as a man 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. Michael Creel said Dykes had an adult daughter, but the two lost touch years ago.

The Dykes property has a white trailer which, according to Creel, Dykes said he bought from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after it was used to house evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. The property also has a steel shipping container - like those on container ships - in which Dykes stores tools and supplies.

Next to the container is the underground bunker where authorities say Dykes is holed up with the 5-year-old. Neighbours say that the bunker has a pipe so Dykes could hear people coming near his driveway. Authorities have been using the ventilation pipe to communicate with him.

The younger Creel, who said he helped Dykes with supplies to build the bunker and has been in it twice, said Dykes wanted protection from hurricanes.

"He said he lived in Florida and had hurricanes hit. He wanted someplace he could go down in and be safe," Creel said. Authorities say the bunker is about 1.8m by 2.4m, and the only entrance is a trap door at the top.

Conservative talk radio fan

Such bunkers are not uncommon in rural Alabama because of the threat of tornadoes.

Greg Creel was a friend of Dykes, but he said he would not comment for The Associated Press. "I will only talk to the police and the FBI," he said.

Michael Creel said Dykes kept to himself and listened a lot to conservative talk radio.

"He was very into what's going on with the nation and the politics and all the laws being made. The things he didn't agree with, he would ventilate," he said.

James Arrington, police chief of the neighbouring town of Pinckard, put it differently.

"He's against the government, starting with Obama on down," he said.

'Bitter guy'

Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Centre in Montgomery, a group that tracks hate crimes, said Dykes was not on the group's radar.

Although the fatal shootings in December at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, are still on everyone's mind, Dees said he doesn't think Dykes was trying to be a copycat.

"Probably not. He had a whole bus load full of kids, and he could have walked up there and shot the whole crowd of them," he said.

"I think he's just a really angry and bitter guy with some anger management issues," Dees said. "He is just against everything - the government and his neighbours."

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