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Life getting back to normal for freed 5-year-old Alabama hostage

February 05, 2013|By David Zucchino
  • FBI agents and sheriff's deputies secure the scene where Ethan, 5, was held captive for nearly a week. The kidnapper lived in the white trailer and held the boy in an underground bunker.
FBI agents and sheriff's deputies secure the scene where Ethan, 5,… (Jason Pack / FBI )

The Alabama boy held captive for nearly a week by an angry and volatile kidnapper seemed to be enjoying his newfound freedom Tuesday, according to relatives and the county sheriff in tiny Midland City, Ala.

After FBI agents rescued him from a bunker, the 5-year-old known only as Ethan spent his first full day running around, playing with a toy dinosaur, snacking on a sandwich and watching "SpongeBob SquarePants" on television.

"He’s just a bundle of joy," Dare County Sheriff Wally Olson told reporters.

PHOTOS: Boy released from bunker

As preparations were underway to celebrate Ethan’s 6th birthday Wednesday — and to honor the school bus driver shot to death while trying to protect the children — more details emerged of the FBI's storming of the bunker. The kidnapper, 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes, was killed during the Monday afternoon rescue.

Authorities saw Dykes grow increasingly agitated as they watched him via a camera they had lowered into the bunker, according to accounts by several news agencies, quoting unidentified law enforcement officials. The reports also said that the hostage team had practiced on a replica bunker built nearby, and that authorities distracted and disoriented Dykes by setting off two loud, bright  "flash-bang" grenades.

Officials have not said how Dykes died. The Associated Press, quoting law enforcement officials, said he was shot and killed by the rescue team. His body remained in the bunker Tuesday as police processed the crime scene and searched for improvised explosives, officials said.

Authorities did not publicly acknowledge the use of the camera or reveal how it might have been inserted, apparently wanting to keep their methods secret for future use.  Media reports said Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta had authorized the use of specialized equipment. Officials did not say whether the equipment was used.

Ethan was reunited with his family Monday at a hospital in nearby Dothan, Ala., where he got a hug from his mother and a teddy bear from police, Olson said.

The boy’s mother issued a statement through the FBI, thanking law enforcement, friends and residents of Midland City.

"For the first time in almost a week, I woke up this morning to the most beautiful sight ... my sweet boy," the mother said. "I can’t describe how incredible it is to hold him again." 

The mother, whose name was not released, added: "Ethan is safe and back in my arms — and I owe it all to some of the most compassionate people on Earth." 

She asked for her family’s privacy to be respected:  "Give us a little time — time to heal, time to put this nightmare behind us, time to move forward."

The boy’s great-aunt, Debra Cook, told a TV interviewer: "He has gone through a terrible ordeal, and I don’t know if he will ever get over it. I just want him to be all right."  

The FBI and local police said the decision to storm the bunker came after negotiations with Dykes deteriorated Monday. They said Dykes, a Navy veteran who had threatened neighbors with a gun, beaten a dog to death and railed against the government, began behaving erratically.

Authorities communicated with Dykes through a 4-inch ventilation pipe he had installed in the bunker. They used the pipe to supply Ethan, who has Asperger's syndrome, with medication, food and toys.

At one point Monday, agents saw Dykes with a gun and, fearing that Ethan was in "imminent danger," decided to act, said FBI Special Agent Stephen E. Richardson of the agency’s office in Mobile, Ala.

The rescue ended a hostage standoff that began when Dykes boarded a school bus Jan. 29 and killed the driver, Charles Poland Jr., 66,  before abducting Ethan, according to police.

Dykes’ motives may never be known, but authorities have hinted that he carried out the shooting and kidnapping to draw attention to his rants about the government.

"Based on our discussion with Mr. Dykes, he feels like he has a story that’s important to him, although it’s very complex," Olson told reporters Monday before agents stormed the bunker and whisked Ethan to safety.

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