Within hours after an armed, angry man shot a school bus driver and kidnapped a 5-year-old boy, workers feverishly unloaded boxes packed with percussive grenades, military C-4 explosives and an array of guns from a windowless DC-9 that had landed just miles from the suspect’s isolated compound.
Helmeted officers decked out in tan fatigues, camouflage and body armor, many carrying long guns, rumbled in rented cargo trucks to and from the property in southeastern Alabama where 65-year-old Jim Lee Dykes and his young captive were hunkered down in a roughly 6-by-8-foot hand-dug bunker with only one small hatch for an entryway.
Two Humvees belonging to the Dale County Sheriff’s Department and a tan, military-style personnel carrier were parked in a field beside the bunker throughout much of the ordeal, along with sport-utility vehicles. Officers dressed in combat-style gear could be seen watching the bunker from an opening in the roof of the tan personnel vehicle.
And as the standoff stretched into days, drones flew large, lazy circles high above the scene at night.
In many ways, the scene resembled more of a war-time situation than a domestic crime scene as civilian law enforcement relied heavily on military tactics and equipment to end the six-day ordeal.
No military combat personnel were at the scene, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
But authorities’ decision to rely on every tool at their disposal paid off: Dykes had planted an explosive device in a ventilation pipe he’d told negotiators to use to communicate with him on his property in the rural Alabama community of Midland City, and also placed another explosive device inside the bunker, the FBI said.
Dykes appeared to have “reinforced the bunker against any attempted entry by law enforcement," FBI agent Jason Pack said.
Elite team responds
The raid on the bunker was carried out by the FBI’s hostage response team, which serves as the agency’s full-time counterterrorism unit, Pack said. Trained in military tactics and outfitted with combat-style gear and weapons, the group was formed 30 years ago in preparation for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Composed of FBI agents, some of whom have prior military experience, the team is deployed quickly to trouble spots and provides assistance to local FBI offices during hostage situations. It has participated in hostage situations more than 800 times in the U.S. and elsewhere since 1983, the FBI said.
“As an elite counterterrorism tactical team for law enforcement, the HRT is one of the best, if not the best, in the United States," Sean Joyce, deputy FBI director, said in a statement released during the Alabama standoff.
In addition to employing its counterterrorism unit, the FBI brought out a full array of military-style equipment, including armored personnel carriers and combat rifles. Many were visible at the scene during the standoff.
A replica of the bunker
According to a U.S. official, about a dozen active-duty Navy Seabees — sailors who belong to special naval construction units — helped law-enforcement authorities build a mock-up of the bunker that was used to plan the FBI assault. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the rescue effort, spoke on condition of anonymity.
“This was a classic, textbook situation," said Clint Van Zandt, a former FBI negotiator who worked with the hostage rescue team repeatedly before retiring in 1995.
Building a replica of Dykes’ bunker, practicing an assault, negotiating Dykes into a sense of security and even sneaking a camera into the shelter are all part of the agency’s tools, said Van Zandt. He saw nothing unusual in the agency’s tactics or the methods it used in ending the standoff.
“I don’t want to say this was routine, but this is what negotiators and team members train to do all the time," added Van Zandt, president of Van Zandt Associates, Inc., a Virginia-based company that profiles and assesses threats for corporate clients.
“To me, there was nothing unique in this other than it played out in front of the world."
FBI and other officials said the team exchanged gunfire with Dykes and killed him before rescuing the little boy, whom law enforcement officials have only identified by his first name, Ethan.
Dykes’ body was removed from the bunker Wednesday night after law enforcement officers had swept the 100-acre property for more explosive devices, said Dale County Coroner Woodrow Hilboldt. He said the body was taken to a state forensics laboratory in Montgomery for an autopsy.
FBI Special Agent Paul Bresson said in an email late Wednesday that evidence-review teams were sifting through the crime scene, a process that could take two to three more days.
Military tactics and clandestine hostage-rescue methods were far from the minds of regular folks in Midland City on Wednesday, Ethan’s sixth birthday, as they tried desperately to return to normal life while giving thanks for the heart-wrenching event’s joyous outcome.
“We need a day or two to get our minds around what happened," said an aunt, Debra Cook.
The boy, who has Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, was said to be acting like a normal kid despite his nearly weeklong captivity after a man police identified as Dykes took him off a school bus Jan. 29 and fatally shot the driver.
Officials hope to eventually throw a party to celebrate Ethan’s birthday and to honor the memory of the slain driver, Charles Albert Poland Jr.
Hundreds of miles away, a woman who knows all too well what Ethan may have gone through expressed her own thanks for the boy’s safety.
Katie Beers, who was kidnapped as a 9-year-old in 1992 and kept in an underground bunker in suburban New York for 17 days before her captor surrendered to police and showed them where she was hidden, said she was “ecstatic" that Ethan was rescued safely.
Beers, who now lives in Pennsylvania, said it was likely that not only Ethan, but his family, would need counseling. “He’s so young that hopefully he won’t remember a lot," she said.
“But (the) family is also going to need counseling so they know how to deal with Ethan and help him through the ordeal."