MIDLAND CITY, Ala. — By all accounts, a 5-year-old in Alabama endured an unforgettable horror: Held for a week in a closet-size bunker underground, a captive of a volatile killer, his only comforts a Hot Wheels car and other treats passed to him by officers.
Yet after being whisked to safety by federal agents in a raid that left his kidnapper dead, the boy appeared to be acting like a normal kid: He was running around, playing with a toy dinosaur and other action figures, eating a turkey sandwich and watching “SpongeBob SquarePants,” relatives and Dale County Sheriff Wally Olson said.
“We know he’s OK physically, but we don’t know how he is mentally,” Betty Jean Ransbottom, the boy’s grandmother, said Tuesday. She added that she feared the ordeal would stay with the child, who turns 6 on Wednesday, the rest of his life.
Meanwhile, authorities grateful for a happy ending embarked on a careful investigation. Agents swept the 100-acre property for explosives for a second day as part of an investigation so painstaking that authorities had not yet removed the body of the abductor, 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes, officials said.
FBI officials have offered few details publicly about the standoff and the raid that ended it. For days, officers passed food, medicine and other items into the bunker, which was similar to a tornado shelter and apparently had running water, heat and cable television.
Ransbottom said the family also had not been told much about what happened because of the ongoing investigation. An FBI agent had been staying with the family, and relatives learned of the child’s rescue after another agent at the scene called the agent who was with them.
The family was relieved and grateful for all the support in a community where ribbons, fliers and vigils all symbolized the prayers for the safe return of the boy, whom law enforcement officials have identified by his first name, Ethan.
The boy’s mother, in a statement released by the FBI, expressed her thanks for all the hard work of so many officers to bring her son home. The woman declined to be identified, the statement said.
“For the first time in almost a week, I woke up this morning to the most beautiful sight ... my sweet boy,” she said. “I can’t describe how incredible it is to hold him again.”
On Monday, authorities said Dykes had a gun and appeared increasingly agitated, though it’s unclear exactly how his behavior changed. Negotiations — the details of which have not been made public — were deteriorating. Agents stormed the bunker, whisking the boy to safety and leaving Dykes dead.
Neighbors said they heard what sounded like explosions and gunshots, though the FBI and local authorities would not confirm if shots were fired or explosives detonated.
A law enforcement official in Midland City, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Dykes was killed by law enforcement agents. The official requested anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the investigation.
However, Dale County Coroner Woodrow Hilboldt said Tuesday that he had not been able to confirm exactly how Dykes died because the man’s body remained in the bunker. An autopsy was to be conducted in Montgomery once the body is taken away.
It also wasn’t clear how authorities knew Dykes was armed, or what kind of surveillance they used to track his behavior and movement.
At the request of law enforcement authorities, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had approved the provision of certain equipment that could be employed to assist in the hostage situation, according to a U.S. official who requested anonymity to discuss a pending law enforcement matter. It is not clear whether the equipment was actually used.
In Midland City, a town of about 2,400 nestled among peanut and cotton fields, residents were relieved that the boy was safely rescued from Dykes, a man neighbors described as an unstable menace who beat a dog to death and threatened to shoot trespassers.
Children and teachers were trying to get back to normal, though some children who were on the bus where Dykes killed the driver have not yet returned to school, said Donny Bynum, superintendent of Midland City schools. Counselors and clergy are at the school to help any distraught students.
Officials hope to eventually throw a party to celebrate the boy’s 6th birthday and to honor the memory of Charles Albert Poland Jr., the slain bus driver. No date has been set, Bynum said.
Midland City Elementary School principal Phillip Parker said he stands at the entrance to the school every day as the children arrive. The boy is a friendly, energetic child who comes up, shakes his hand and then continues on into the school as if he’s in a hurry, Parker said.
Officials said there was no indication that Dykes had harmed the boy. State Sen. Harri Anne Smith represents Midland City and bonded with the boy’s mother during the ordeal. Smith said the mother was encouraged the day the boy was abducted because Dykes asked officers to bring fried chicken — Ethan’s favorite food.
“That was good news for her that Mr. Dykes was being kind to him,” Smith said.
The boy gave his mother a big hug at the hospital, where officers gave the boy a teddy bear, Olson said.
“He’s just a bundle of joy,” Olson said.
For now, the boy’s family just wants things to go back to normal — for all the reporters to go home, for him to be like any other kid.
“He has gone through a terrible ordeal, and I don’t know if he will ever get over it,” said Debra Cook, the boy’s great-aunt. “I just want him to be all right.”
Associated Press writer Phillip Rawls in Montgomery, Ala., and Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.