MIDLAND CITY, Alabama (Reuters) - Mourners in the small town of Midland City, Alabama, gathered on Sunday to bury a school bus driver slain during the abduction of a child taken captive and held for a sixth day by a gunman in an underground bunker.
Police say Jimmy Lee Dykes fatally shot bus driver Charles Albert Poland Jr. on Tuesday, then abducted the 5-year-old boy from the bus and has been holding him inside his home-made shelter.
The FBI and other authorities have been trying to persuade Dykes, 65, a Vietnam War veteran and retired trucker, to surrender.
On Sunday, law enforcement officials and ambulance crews could be seen coming and going from the scene at Dykes’ trailer home, where he dug the underground bunker in his backyard.
Poland, 66, was killed as he tried to protect the more than 20 other children on the bus during their ride home from school.
Authorities at the Alabama Department of Public Safety had no new developments to report on Sunday, said Trooper Kevin Cook, and “we are maintaining continuous, open lines of communication with Mr. Dykes.”
Mourners gathered at his funeral Sunday afternoon at the Ozark Civic Center, about 12 miles from Midland City, where Donny Bynum, superintendent of Dale County schools, praised Poland’s devotion to the children on his bus.
“He gave the ultimate sacrifice for them,” Bynum said. “He was their hero. And now Mr. Poland is an angel. He’s watching over (the abducted boy), his family, and those that are working tirelessly to bring one of Mr. Poland’s children home.”
Bynum also read letters from some of the school children, who also called Poland a hero.
“Since you were the nicest person I’ve met, I’ll be the same way,” wrote one girl. “I hope you are happy knowing you protected and saved many others.”
Another student wrote: “I really don’t know how something so bad can happen to a good man. To me, he is a hero. And he is in a better place.”
A sign posted in Midland City on Saturday read, “RIP Mr. Poland. Once a warrior always a warrior.”
The taking of a school child by an armed man comes against the backdrop of heightened concern about gun violence in America since the December shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school.
Dale County Sheriff Wally Olson on Saturday thanked Dykes for “taking care of our child” and for allowing medicine, toys and potato chips to be brought for the kindergartner.
Dykes assured authorities he had blankets and electric heaters in the bunker to protect the boy from cold overnight temperatures, Olson said.
Authorities also thanked Dykes for maintaining an open line of communication with them.
According to neighbors, Dykes moved into the area about two years ago and often was seen patrolling the property at night with a gun and a flashlight, although he kept to himself, several neighbors told reporters.
He had been scheduled to appear for a bench trial on Wednesday after his arrest last month on a menacing charge involving one of his neighbors.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Will Dunham and Eric Walsh