MIDLAND CITY, Alabama (Reuters) - Authorities released a photograph on Friday of the man accused of fatally shooting an Alabama school bus driver and then holding a 5-year-old boy hostage in an underground bunker since Tuesday.
The man, pictured with a white beard and gray hair in what appeared to be a driver’s license photo released by the Dale County sheriff, was identified as Jimmy Lee Dykes, a retired trucker and Vietnam veteran.
Heavily armed law enforcement officials have ringed Dykes’ property since soon after the hostage drama began. Sporadic negotiations with the suspect have taken place through a PVC pipe connected to the subterranean bunker.
Officials say a gunman on Tuesday demanded that a student be let off a bus carrying more than 20 children home from school. When the driver, Charles Albert Poland, 66, refused, the suspect shot him several times and fled the scene with a kindergarten student, police said.
Officials have said the boy seized from the bus is believed to be unharmed.
The hostage-taking occurred as a national debate rages over gun violence, especially in schools, after a gunman killed 20 students and six staff members at a Connecticut elementary school in December.
At a news conference on Friday, before the photo of Dykes was distributed to the news media, Sheriff Wally Olson said information about the case was only to be made public “as long as it’s not detrimental to the investigation.”
He did not elaborate, but the few official updates on the situation have been short on details.
“Please continue to be patient with us,” Olson said. “Continue to pray for a safe conclusion to this incident.”
“What we’re doing right now is trying to bring everybody together in the unity of the faith to pray for one little boy in a bunker across the highway,” said Michael Senn, a local pastor.
Homemade signs seen around the town identify the boy as “Ethan.” A school official said his 6th birthday is next week.
Messages such as “Please release Ethan” and “Pray 4 Ethan” were tacked up outside the town hall, where a candlelight vigil on Thursday night drew about 100 people.
“The town is quite tore up about this,” Midland City Mayor Virgil Skipper said in a telephone interview on Friday. “It’s just brought people closer together.”
Skipper said the child’s family was holding up well.
“They’re under a lot of stress,” he said. “But they’re handling it the best they can.”
Dykes had been due to appear for a bench trial on Wednesday after his arrest last month on a menacing charge involving one of his neighbors, court records showed.
Additional reporting and writing by Colleen Jenkins and Tom Brown; Editing by Peter Cooney