The 2013 Alabama Bunker Hostage Crisis

The site where Ethan was held hostage in an underground bunker.
The site where Ethan was held hostage in an underground bunker.

On January 29, 2013, a hostage crisis, lasting almost seven days, began in the Wiregrass Region near U.S. Highway 231 in Midland City, Alabama. Jimmy Lee Dykes, a 65-year-old Vietnam War-era veteran boarded a Dale County school bus, killed the driver, and took a five-year-old boy hostage. On the afternoon of February 4, law enforcement agents entered the bunker, killed Dykes, and rescued the child.


– Bus driver slaying

Just after 3:30 p.m., Dykes boarded a Dale County school bus that was stopped in Midland City and told the driver that he wanted to take two children, six and eight years old, both boys, from the bus. The school bus driver, 66-year-old Charles Albert Poland, Jr., refused to let him take the children and challenged Dykes to shoot him. He blocked access to the aisle of the bus while Dykes continued to argue with him.

Dykes fired five shots, killing Poland, and left the bus taking Ethan Gilman, a five-year-old student from Midland City Elementary School, with him. After he had left the bus with Ethan, the students on the bus left through the front door, having to pass by the body of Mr. Poland with whom many of them had a relationship for years. Authorities indicated that there was no pre-existing relationship between Ethan and Dykes. Fifteen-year-old Tre’ Watts, who was present on the bus, was the first person to call 911; he began the call when Dykes boarded the bus.

– Child abduction

After the shooting, Dykes took Ethan to a 6-foot by 8-foot underground bunker on his property. Dykes’ bunker was equipped with a ventilation pipe. Hostage negotiators used the pipe to communicate with Dykes, who allowed prescription medication for Ethan to be passed through it. Police cooperated with Dykes in an attempt to obtain Ethan’s release and to bring the situation to a favorable conclusion. Dykes had stored homemade bombs in his underground bunker.

– Negotiations

Soon after the shooting and abduction, Dykes called 911 and gave instructions on how to communicate with him. FBI hostage negotiators arrived on the scene of the bunker and began communicating with Dykes through a narrow PVC ventilation pipe that ran down into the bunker, per his instructions. Allegedly, Dykes demanded a news reporter with a camera to enter the bunker and broadcast him live on the news.

Because Ethan lived with Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD, Dykes accepted medication for Ethan, which was sent through the PVC pipe along with a coloring book and crayons. It was later confirmed that Dykes wanted a female reporter to broadcast him live in the bunker, and that he would commit suicide on live television. Investigators also revealed that he had been “training” Ethan to detonate the improvised explosive devices inside the bunker.

– Rescue

On February 4, 2013, at 3:12 p.m. CST, the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team breached the roof of the bunker using explosive charges after negotiations began to break down and they saw, using a hidden camera, Dykes holding a gun. The agents threw stun grenades into the bunker before exchanging gunfire with Dykes, killing him, and rescuing the boy. Ethan was taken to the hospital and was reported to be in good condition. According to sources, two improvised explosive devices were discovered near the bunker, one inside the PVC pipe, the other inside the bunker.

The PVC pipe used by Dykes for communication.
The PVC pipe used by Dykes for communication.

The perpetrator

Jimmy Lee Dykes, a Vietnam War veteran, was identified as the gunman. He had one daughter. He previously lived in Florida, where he was arrested for brandishing a gun in 1995. In 2000, he was arrested for marijuana possession charges. In recent years, he moved to Midland City, where he beat a neighbor’s dog to death with an iron pipe when it walked onto his property, warned children to not enter his property, and built a speed bump to prevent motorists from driving too fast down the street. Dykes was also known to have patrolled his property at night with a shotgun and a flashlight. The day prior to the standoff, he was due in court for a hearing on a menacing case in which he allegedly fired a gun at neighbors. An investigation into Dykes recently revealed that he had cleared a path on his property for school buses to take, and that he had started speaking to Charles Poland weeks prior to the incident.


The following week, Phil McGraw interviewed Ethan and his mother. On February 26, the bunker where Dykes held Ethan captive was demolished by officials, who stated that it posed “a biological risk”.



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