MIDLAND CITY, Alabama (Reuters) - A gunman suspected of fatally shooting an Alabama school bus driver before holing up in an underground bunker with a young child is a Vietnam veteran with anti-government views, authorities and an organization that tracks hate groups said on Wednesday.
Law enforcement officials from multiple agencies were bivouacked near the bunker in Midland City but offered few details about a standoff with the shooter that stretched into its second day on Wednesday.
Authorities said driver Charles Albert Poland Jr., 66, was killed after the gunman boarded a bus ferrying more than 20 children home from school on Tuesday.
The suspect demanded the driver let a student off the bus, Alabama media reported. When Poland refused, the man boarded the bus and shot the driver before taking a 6-year-old kindergarten student and fleeing the scene.
The shooting and subsequent hostage drama came as a national debate rages over gun violence, especially in schools, after a gunman shot dead 20 students and six staff members at a Connecticut elementary school last month.
In Alabama on Wednesday night, the suspected gunman remained holed up with the boy in the underground bunker on his property down a dirt road. Any efforts to negotiate with the man, or to stage a hostage rescue operation, were shrouded in secrecy with authorities declining to comment.
Television images showed security force officers, clad in camouflage uniforms and brandishing assault rifles, patrolling the area.
An Alabama legislator, Representative Steve Clouse, told reporters the hostage suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD but had apparently been able to receive his medication while held captive. The Dale County Sheriff’s Department said the child was not believed to have been harmed.
Schools in the area of the Alabama shooting were closed on Wednesday and will remain shuttered for the rest of the week.
Dale County Superintendent Donny Bynum lauded Poland as “a hero ... who gave his life to protect 21 students who are now home safely with their families.”
The superintendent’s assistant said the young boy still being held by the gunman appeared to have been chosen at random.
“Emotions are high, and it’s a struggle for us all to make sense of something so senseless, but let us keep this young student, his family and Mr. Poland’s family in our thoughts and prayers,” Bynum said in a statement.
The Southern Poverty Law Center reported on its Hatewatch blog that a chief investigator with the Dale County Sheriff’s Office identified the gunman as 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes, although Reuters could not independently verify the gunman’s identity.
Investigator Tim Byrd said Dykes’ friends and neighbors described him as a “survivalist” who did not trust the government, according to the law center blog.
“He was standoffish, didn’t socialize or have any contact with anybody,” Byrd told Hatewatch.
Dykes had not been on the law center’s radar before the shooting and standoff, and there was nothing to suggest he was a member of any hate group, said senior fellow Mark Potok.
“What it looks like is that he’s some kind of anti-government radical and survivalist,” Potok told Reuters. “And exactly what that means, we don’t know.”
Court records show Dykes had been due to appear for a bench trial on Wednesday following his arrest last month on a menacing charge.
James Edward Davis, a neighbor of Dykes, told CNN the arrest stemmed from an incident on December 10 when Dykes pulled a gun on him and his young daughter. According to Davis, Dykes was upset because he believed Davis had driven onto his property. Dykes fired two gunshots as Davis sped off in his car, he said.
“This man has been an accident waiting to happen. He’s been a ticking time bomb,” Ronda Wilbur, another neighbor of Dykes, told CNN, complaining he had killed her family dog by beating it with a lead pipe and then bragged about it to her husband.
“He got increasingly more bizarre. He spent most of the last two years moving concrete blocks around and digging, constantly digging and moving dirt,” she said of Dykes.
Wilbur and other neighbors said Dykes had moved into the area about two years ago and kept mostly to himself.
Reporting by Kaija Wilkinson in Mobile, Alabama; Additional reporting and writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Tom Brown, Andrew Hay and Lisa Shumaker