Authorities stormed an underground bunker Monday in southeastern Alabama, freeing a five-year-old boy and leaving his captor dead after a week of fruitless negotiations that left authorities convinced the child was in imminent danger.

Jimmy Lee Dykes, 65, had taken the child off a school bus after fatally shooting the driver, authorities said. He was known by neighbours for his anti-government rants and for patrolling his property with a gun, ready to shoot trespassers. He had stayed for several days in the tiny bunker before.

si-alab-neighbours-220-rtr3

Mike Creel and Ronda Wilbur, neighbours of Jimmy Lee Dykes, embrace after a five-year-old boy was rescued from a hostage situation. (Phil Sears/Reuters)

"He always said he'd never be taken alive. I knew he'd never come out of there," said an acquaintance, Roger Arnold.

Dykes had been seen with a gun, and officers concluded the boy was in imminent danger, said Steve Richardson of the FBI's office in Mobile. It was not immediately clear how authorities determined the man had a gun, or exactly how Dykes died.

Monday evening, officers were sweeping the property to make sure Dykes had not set up any bombs that could detonate. Full details of the bunker raid had not yet emerged. However, neighbours described hearing what sounded like gunshots around the time officials said they entered the shelter.

At a late Monday news conference, authorities declined to elaborate on how they had observed Dykes or on how he died, citing the pending investigation.

Dale County Sheriff Wally Olson said Dykes was armed when officers entered the bunker to rescue the child. He said the boy was threatened but declined to elaborate.

"That's why we went inside — to save the child," he said.

Reunited with mom

Authorities said the boy, named Ethan, has been reunited with his mother and appears to be OK.

Richardson said he had been to the hospital to see the boy and he was 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 had been hailed as a hero for protecting nearly two dozen other children on the bus before being shot by Dykes.

"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.

The rescue capped a long drama that drew international attention to this town of 2,400 people nestled amid peanut farms and cotton fields that has long relied on a strong Christian faith, a policy of "love thy neighbour" and the power of group prayer. The child's plight prompted nightly candlelight vigils.

Throughout the ordeal, authorities had been speaking with Dykes though a plastic pipe that went into the shelter. They also sent items like food and medicine — the boy is said to have Asperger's syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — into the bunker, which apparently had running water, heat and cable television but no toilet. The structure was about a metre underground, with about five square metres of floor space.

Neighbours feared Dykes

Neighbours described Dykes as a menacing, unpredictable man. Government records indicate he served in the Navy from 1964 to 1969, earning several awards, including the Vietnam Service Medal and the Good Conduct Medal.

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 metres from his nearest neighbours.

Arnold recalled that, for a time, Dykes lived in his pickup truck in the parking lot of the apartment complex where Dykes' sister lived. He would stay warm by building a fire in a can on the floorboard and kept boxes of letters he wrote to the president and the unspecified head of the mafia, Arnold said.

Dykes believed the government had control of many things, including a dog track he frequented in the Florida Panhandle. Arnold said that Dykes believed if a dog was getting too far ahead and wasn't supposed to win, the government would shock it.

Ronda Wilbur, a neighbour of Dykes who said the man beat her dog to death last year with a pipe, said she was relieved to be done with the stress of knowing Dykes was patrolling his yard and willing to shoot at anyone or anything that trespassed.

"The nightmare is over," she said. "It's been a long couple of years of having constant stress."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said incorrectly in a photo caption that the five-year-old boy was Dykes's son. In fact, the boy was unrelated to his captor.
    Feb 05, 2013 10:39 AM ET