MIDLAND CITY, Alabama (Reuters) - The 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 an overnight standoff with the shooter that stretched into Wednesday evening.
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.
On Wednesday, the gunman remained holed up with the boy in the underground bunker on his property down a dirt road. Dale County Coroner Woodrow Hilboldt said the man and child were barricaded in “some kind of a tornado bunker.”
The shooting comes as 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.
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.
Reuters could not independently verify the gunman’s identity. 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.
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 told CNN the arrest stemmed from an altercation he had with Dykes that ended with Dykes allegedly firing two gunshots from a pistol, as Davis sped off in his car.
“He fired the gun twice,” said Davis, adding that he had a child inside the vehicle when the shooting occurred.
Neighbors told the Dothan Eagle newspaper they also had seen Dykes walk around his yard late at night with a shotgun and flashlight. Ronda Wilbur, who lives across the street from Dykes, said he once beat her family dog with a lead pipe. The dog later died from his injuries, she said.
Reporting by Kaija Wilkinson in Mobile, Alabama; Additional reporting and writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Tom Brown and Andrew Hay