It was something that should never have happened in a town like Midland City, Alabama.
On January 29, 2013, a 65-year-old Vietnam War veteran named Jimmy Lee Dykes approached a school bus as it was dropping off students after school. Dykes boarded the bus and ordered the driver, 66-year-old Charles Albert Poland Junior, to choose two boys to be taken hostage. Poland actually knew Dykes and hadn't thought anything about his boarding the bus until he made his bizarre demand. Along with some zip-ties that Poland was expected to tie up the two hostages, Dykes also had a gun which he then used to threaten the driver's life. Poland managed to partially block the bus aisle to protect the students on the bus. After a brief argument, Jimmy Lee Dykes shot and killed the driver.
Dykes then grabbed five-year-old Ethan Gilman, apparently at random, and carried him off the bus. The other students had to pass by the bus driver's corpse to exit the bus and one of them, a fifteen-year-old boy, managed to call 911. As for Dykes, he carried Ethan Gilman to a 6 foot by 8 foot underground bunker that was located on his property. Dykes had rigged the bunker with explosives and supplies with only a narrow pipe for ventilation. He then phoned 911 and told police that he had taken a hostage.
What followed was one of the most harrowing hostage crises in recent U.S. history as police negotiated with Dykes for Ethan's safe release. Following the instructions Dykes had provided for communicating with him, police used the ventilation pipe to relay messages.
Over the next six days, hostage negotiators attempted to keep Dykes from detonating the explosives believed to be in the bunker as well as providing food, a coloring book and crayons for Ethan, as well as his medication (Ethan suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and borderline autism). They also had to deal with many of Dykes' bizarre demands, including his request for a local female reporter to be allowed into the bunker so he could commit suicide on live television.
Finally, after nearly six days, the FBI Hostage Rescue Team managed to breach the roof of the bunker with explosive charges due to their belief that Dykes was about to kill his hostage. Dykes exchanged fire with agents before being shot to death and Ethan was taken to hospital for observation. While he was physically unharmed, police later discovered several improvised charges in the bunker suggesting that Dykes had been planning a suicidal "last stand."
Recognizing the psychological impact that protracted crisis situations can have, Molly Amman and Mark MacKizer of the FBI's Critical Incident Response Group prepared an in-depth analysis of the Midland City incident and its aftermath. Their analysis, which was recently published in the Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, outlines how the hostage crisis unfolded including transcripts of the conversations between Dyke and the negotiators as well as the original 911 call.
In that call, Dyke was recorded as saying that "I shot the school bus driver because he did not do, he did not do what I needed him to do." He then went on to say that, "Don’t worry, the kid’ll be fine. I’m sorry I had to shoot that bus driver, but he would not do it. I asked him please, don’t, don’t, nobody would be harmed. But he has, he just wouldn’t do it. I told him there wouldn’t be any harm to anybody. And there will not be any harm to the kid. But I’ve got, I’ve got to speak. I’m gonna say something. And I, but I’ve had enough of this talking here. But they can talk to me through the PVC pipe. And then we’ll go from there. Okay—I will not be talking on the phone anymore."
Over the next few hours, media and police managed to gather further information about Jimmy Lee Dykes and his hostage. They also examined the note that Dykes had left next to the bus driver's body. In that note, Dykes provided his instructions for the driver which said, in part:
"You will choose two smart, well mannered, good kids, age 6 –10, preferably boys with no physical/mental/medical problems. You will connect them at the wrists with this tie, bring them forward, they & I will leave the bus. You will immediately drive down the road and call the law. No harm will come to the kids. When the story is finished, they will go free and then I will die. Do exactly as I say, please do not make any wrong moves, I do not want to shoot you. I do not want to traumatize the kids any more than absolutely necessary. Now get this done as soon as possible. My cell ph. # is 904 – 412-3127. My name is Jim Dykes. Take a deep breath; you can do this. Again, do not mess this up and no one will be harmed. P.S. Thanks Chuck, I’m extremely sorry, but I have to do this. Please do not make me do something I don’t want to do!! Don’t ask me anything, don’t tell me anything. Just do it quickly."
Surprisingly, Dykes had no real history of violence but his actions to date, including the bus driver's murder, made his threat to commit suicide, and possibly taking his hostage with him, all the more plausible. Working on-site, the members of the Hostage Rescue Team weighed all of the statements Dykes insisted on making, all within the context of "telling a story." While refusing to allow a the reporter down into the bunker was a calculated risk, investigators knew that he could not be provided with another hostage. Instead, they asked for more details about what he was planning and his reasons for what he was doing. According to Dykes, he wanted the reporter present so she could hold his hand while he committed suicide.
During the course of the crisis, the Hostage Crisis team implemented threat assessment and management strategies to analyze what was driving Jimmy Lee Dykes. They even brought in one of Dykes' estranged daughters to try negotiating with her father though he remained unreceptive to any attempt at a peaceful resolution. Through their analysis of Dykes, the FBI team determined that he was a lifelong loner who viewed himself as a victim of injustice. They also concluded that Dykes was a "violent promise keeper" who had a history of promising violence to anyone who refused to meet his demands, something that he clearly demonstrated with his own his actions up to that point.
He showed considerable grandiosity and narcissism as well as a total inability to accept blame for his own actions. For example, he continued to view the bus driver as being responsible for his own death since he had refused to do what Dykes had told him to do. Dykes also had considerable anger issues and his temper often flared up while dealing with the hostage negotiators. While he tended to Ethan's physical needs, there was no sign of any concern for his emotional well-being. As far as he was concerned, Ethan was only a means to an end and any harm that came to him would be the fault of the police for failing to give in to his demands.
Though the FBI team and the other emergency crews on the scene tried to resolve the hostage crisis as peacefully as they could, Dykes' own determination to commit suicide in the most bloody and violent way he could made this impossible in the end.
Even after the hostage crisis was resolved and Dykes was killed, the emotional aftermath was rocky for Ethan, his family, the students on the bus who had witnessed Charles Poland's murder, and the family members of everyone affected. Just weeks after Dykes' death, the bunker where he made his last stand was demolished by city officials to prevent it from becoming a shrine by survivalists.
In concluding their article on the Midland City hostage crisis, Amman and MacKizer outlined what worked best in handling Dykes' demands. By gathering reliable information and using it as part of the threat management process, they managed to keep Dykes from carrying out his threats and bring the hostage crisis to an effective end. The lessons learned in the six-day standoff may well prove useful in future hostage incidents.
Amman, M., & MacKizer, M. (2017, April 27). A Crisis Threat Assessment: The Boy in the Bunker. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tam0000081