MIDLAND CITY, Ala. In the front seat of bus number 04-02 sat a boy named Ethan.
The driver, a quiet 66-year-old man named Charles Albert Poland Jr., assigned him the seat because thats where he wanted younger children and those with behavioral problems. Ethan, who according to a great-uncle had already experienced a share of turmoil in his short life, had been diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome. So he sat up front. He even had a name tag on his seat.
It seems unthinkable that even a man with a conspiratorial bent like Jimmy Lee Dykes, Ethans kidnapper, would bear a violent impulse against the familiar small-town universe of school buses and name tags. And it seems hard to imagine, in turn, that this universe could stand up under Dykes sort of violence. But over the past week, as the world of pot luck dinners and prayer meetings joined with the lethal efficiency of elite law enforcement, Dykes fought and lost.
Im happy that the baby is back with his parents, said the Rev. Melvin White of Clio Community Church, who had hauled two barbecue smokers to the scene of the standoff to make ribs for reporters and anyone else who happened by. Sometimes we forget how crazy the world is until this happens here.
Sheriff Wally Olson of Dale County was home when he got a page that a gunman was on a school bus. By the time he was on the road, the news had changed. The driver was dead and, while 20 children had escaped because of his actions, the killer had taken a child into an underground bunker.
IN FOR THE LONG HAUL
From the beginning, Dykes wanted to talk. According to local officials who had been briefed on the operation, Dykes was demanding a TV news reporter, preferably a woman, and a camera operator to whom he could deliver his message. Exactly what he was going to declare was unclear, although he had long harangued his neighbors with diatribes about the government and the inviolability of his property.
Kirke Adams, the district attorney for Dale County who had been called to the scene from coaching high school girls soccer practice, said Dykes never gave an inch.
The demand he made was impossible to accomplish in the way he wanted it done, Adams said. And he would accept no alternative. He added, It was the consensus of the experts that this was going to be a long haul.
As the days wore on, the operations on Private Road 1539 grew. A bland-looking charter plane full of special agents landed at the little airport outside of town last Wednesday evening, prompting a flurry of local phone calls.
The Destiny Church, which sat down the grassy hill from the bunker, became something of a base of operations. Meals came in shifts: fried chicken, green beans, and macaroni and cheese from the Baptists; casseroles and sweet tea from the Methodists.
For days, officers passed food, medicine, toys and other items into the bunker, which was similar to a tornado shelter and apparently had running water, heat and cable television.
Federal agents had managed to smuggle a camera inside and sent in a phone that Dykes was instructed to use for communication. But while agents were able to keep watch over Dykes, he was also able to watch them on the television in his shelter.
Across Highway 231, between a small dirt car lot called Garretts Automotive and an abandoned building that had once been a strip club, an army of TV trucks began to form. Dykes neighbors often wandered over to the cameras to offer their opinions of the mean man or the shovel man who had menaced those around his patch of soil for nearly two years. Dykes could see these interviews, too, and, according to people familiar with the operation, was not happy about it.
Olson, the sole official voice of the authorities, kept his statements to the media brief and even thanked Dykes for allowing officials to pass coloring books, Hot Wheels cars, potato chips and medication to Ethan.
A QUICK ENDING
That same day, behind a wall of blue tarp and just a few dozen yards from where reporters were parsing the frustratingly brief statements from officials, agents built a mock-up of Dykes bunker, down to the hinges on the door. Only after the raid would they learn that Dykes had at least two explosive devices, one inside the bunker and the other in a plastic pipe that extended from it. Members of the FBIs elite Hostage Rescue Team practiced on the mock-up, devising ways to exploit the rare openings Dykes provided.
On Sunday night, it became clear that the practice would become real sooner rather than later. Teams of negotiators and behavioral analysts began seeing a change in Dykes that suggested the boy was in imminent danger.
Big decisions had to be made fairly quickly, Adams, the district attorney, said. Law enforcement became very concerned.
The standoff ended Monday afternoon, nearly six days to the hour after it began. When an opportunity presented itself that would not jeopardize the boy two people who had been briefed on the operation said that Dykes had approached the entrance as he had done regularly to retrieve supplies left for him two flash grenades were thrown inside. With Dykes disoriented, four men moved in, engaging in a brief firefight. Dykes was killed.
Ethans mother, who asked in a statement that the familys privacy be respected, expressed gratitude to those who freed her son.
For the first time in almost a week, I woke up this morning to the most beautiful sight ... my sweet boy, she said. I cant describe how incredible it is to hold him again.
Ethan turns 6 on Wednesday, and people are talking about having a birthday party at the high school football stadium. Some local officials did the national morning talk shows. And the media encampment began to disassemble.
As for bus number 04-02, it has been retired from duty.