For six days, residents of the small town of Midland City, Ala., could do nothing but pray for the 5-year-old boy taken hostage—and nothing could have proved more powerful.
On Monday evening, after nearly a week of negotiations and citywide nightly prayer vigils, officers decided it was time to end the hostage drama that captured national media attention. Ethan, the young boy snatched by 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes from a school bus on Jan. 29 and held captive in an underground bunker, was in imminent danger, officials decided, and it was time to move.
Officers stormed the bunker, killed the boy’s captor, who authorities say was armed and threatening the Kindergartener at the time, and rescued the boy, reuniting him with his mother.
The hostage drama, and its resolution, prompted an outpouring of faith even mainstream media outlets couldn’t ignore or dismiss. During a press briefing after the rescue, the local sheriff credited God with bringing Ethan home safely.
“This boy is a very special child,” said Dale County Sheriff Wally Olson Monday night. “He's been through and endured a lot, and by the grace of God, he's OK. That was the mission of every man and woman on this compound. Of every law enforcement officer, every first responder, and all of the community who prayed to bring him home safely."
Shortly before officers rescued the boy, Melissa Knighton, city clerk, said a woman had been praying in the town center.
“She must have had a direct line to God because shortly after she left, they heard the news,” Knighton said—Dykes was dead and the boy, who has only been identified by his first name, was safe.
Steve Richardson of the Mobile FBI office said he had been to the hospital to see the boy and that he appeared to be OK, laughing, joking, eating, and "doing the things you'd expect a normal 5- or 6-year-old to do."
Michael Senn, pastor of a church near where reporters had been camped out since the standoff began, said he was relieved the child had been taken to safety. However, he also recalled the bus driver, Charles Albert Poland Jr., who has been hailed as a hero for protecting nearly two dozen other children on the bus before Dykes shot him.
"As we rejoice tonight for (the boy) and his family, we still have a great emptiness in our community because a great man was lost in this whole ordeal," Senn said.
On Sunday, more than 500 people attended a memorial service for Poland Jr.
"This man was a true hero who was willing to give up his life so others might live," Gov. Robert Bentley said in a statement after the rescue.
Throughout the ordeal, authorities had been speaking with Dykes though a plastic pipe that went into the shelter. They also sent food, medicine and other items into the bunker, which apparently had running water, heat and cable television but no toilet. It was about 4 feet underground, with about 50 square feet of floor space.
Neighbors described Dykes as a menacing, unpredictable 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.
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, the neighbor whose dog Dykes killed, expressed the relief felt by many in the area: "The nightmare is over."