On 29 January 2013, 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes boarded a school bus in Midland City, Alabama packed with kids being dropped off after their school day. Dykes approached the bus driver, 66-year-old Charles Poland, known as Chuck, and demanded he personally chose two boys from the bus who would be taken hostage. A demand this dedicated driver could not contemplate and he argued with Dykes, positioning himself in front of the bus aisle in attempt to protect the children. Dykes pulled out a gun and shot Chuck Poland dead with five bullets before grabbing 5-year-old Ethan Gilman and carrying him off the bus.
One of the other children, 15-year-old Tre Watts, desperately called emergency services to report what had happened, all the while transfixed by the body of his bus driver lying dead just feet in front of him. “He just shot Mr. Poland,” he said, “I think Mr. Poland is dead.”
As police raced to the scene they received a second 911 call. This time from Dykes himself informing them of who he was and that he had just taken a child hostage. Dykes told police of his location, a bunker 12 feet below ground on his property. He had built the bunker himself and rigged it with explosives, running a ventilation pipe from inside out to the gate of his land, leaving it exposed for police to use in order to communicate with him. Dykes had taken Ethan Gilman down into this 6 foot by 8 foot space and was refusing to release him.
The FBI Hostage Rescue Team were called in to start what would be six long intense days of negotiation trying to persuade Jimmy Dykes to release Ethan unharmed and give himself up to police.
While negotiations continued at the bunker, further police teams were trying to find any information on Dykes, his frame of mind, and his intentions in order to help keep Ethan alive. He was an angry man, known around his community as a person with grudges who regularly, ranted about the gun laws he disapproved of, and the authoritarian state he believed he lived under. In regular disputes with his neighbours on the day of the abduction and murder of Chuck Poland, Dykes was supposed to be in court facing firearm charges after threatening one of his neighbours in the months previously.
On the school bus, police discovered a note lying on the floor which appeared to be the instructions Dykes wanted to give to Chuck Poland. Part of the note read:
“You will choose two smart, well mannered, good kids, age 6-10….you will connect them at the wrist with this tie, bring them forward, they & I will leave the bus….my name is Jim Dykes. Take a deep breath; you can do this.”
The note also included statements that Dykes didn’t want to harm Chuck or traumatize the children any further than necessary, statements which he did not stick to when he actually boarded the bus to carry out his plans.
It became clear that Jimmy Dyke’s intentions were to kill Ethan and commit suicide. He demanded police send a female reporter into the bunker to ‘hold his hand’ while he killed himself live on television. Molly Amman, a behavioural scientist who works with the FBI, was flown to the scene to assess the hostage situation and provide insight into the best ways to negotiate with Dykes.
Speaking with ABC news after the incident, Molly Amman told them it was clear that Dykes was “angry but intelligent and controlled,” making him extremely dangerous and at high risk of detonating the explosives he had set up, killing both himself and 5-year-old Ethan. She said Jimmy Dykes “lacked empathy, remorse, regret” over the killing of Chuck Poland and his abduction of Ethan.
During the negotiations, Dykes would regularly descent into ranting at the police from inside his bunker. “You know goddamn well what I’d say when I go public,” he shouted, “It’s going to create chaos. It’s going to create riots. … People are going be standing up to this [expletive] dictatorial, incompetent, self-righteous, bunch of sorry bastards in government.”
Police had managed to get small cameras into the bunker in order to monitor what Dykes was doing and discover what the set up was below ground. Dykes had fitted out his bunker with electricity, a television, food and water and police persuaded him to accept a colouring book and crayons for Ethan through a hatch at the entrance. His frequent preparation of his firearms and explosives, however, told them he was nearing his final stand which would most likely include the death of Ethan. Chillingly he also informed negotiators, “If anything happens to me, I have told Ethan to pull the trigger.”
Time was running out and the FBI team made a brave decision to storm the bunker to rescue Ethan under serious risk but, the risk to his life if they didn’t was even greater with Dykes becoming more agitated. On 4 February 2013, the FBI tactical team threw a stun grenade into the entrance to the bunker to give them opportunity to enter. Dykes was unfazed and responded by detonating one of his home-made bombs he had located near the entrance. When the tactical team did get down into the bunker, Dykes immediately opened fire. Their training, team work and bravery enabled them to respond rapidly, killing Jimmy Dykes and rescuing Ethan unharmed.
The safe rescue of 5-year-old Ethan was a remarkable achievement considering the challenges they were facing during a week of tense negotiations and building fear on the potential outcome of this incident. Ethan Gilman was 5-years-old at the time of his abduction and appears to have coped with his ordeal extremely well. One year later, in 2014, Ethan’s older brother Camren Kirkland told reporters at The San Diego Union Tribune, his brother was doing well and showing no signs of stress or lingering problems after his ordeal. The skills, decision making and determination to save a child in danger shown by the FBI saved the life of Ethan Gilman, in a hostage situation described as one of the most complex hostage-barricade incidents in recent times in the United States.