A community yesterday prepared to bury a beloved bus driver who was shot to death trying to protect the children on his bus, including a five-year-old boy allegedly taken hostage by the shooter, who reamins in a standoff with police that entered its sixth day yesterday.
Charles Albert Poland Jr, 66, who was known around the town of Newton, Alabama, as Chuck, was described by people in his hometown as a humble hero. Hundreds of people attended a viewing service for Poland on Saturday evening. His funeral was set for yesterday afternoon.
“I believe that if he had to do it all over again tomorrow, he would,” Poland’s sister-in-law, Lavern Skipper, said earlier on Saturday.
Authorities said Jim Lee Dykes boarded a stopped school bus filled with 21 children on Tuesday afternoon and demanded two boys between six and eight years old. When Poland tried to block his way, the gunman shot him several times and took a five-year-old boy — who police say remains in an underground bunker with Dykes.
Sheriff Wally Olson on Saturday said that Dykes has told them he has blankets and an electric heater in the bunker. Authorities have set up a command post at a church and have been communicating with Dykes through a ventilation pipe.
Police have not revealed how often they are in touch, what the conversations have been about or whether Dykes has made any demands.
Olson also said Dykes has allowed police to deliver coloring books, medicine and toys.
State Representative Steve Clouse said the boy has Asperger’s syndrome — a mild form of autism — and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The shooting and abduction took place in Midland City, a small town near Dothan, Alabama, in the state’s southeastern corner.
Newton is about 5km away, a small hamlet with less than 2,000 residents.
On Saturday, local residents remembered Poland as a friendly, giving person.
“He’s probably the nicest guy you’ll ever meet,” resident Lonnie Daniels said.
Daniels said Poland had been married to his wife for 43 years. Poland was from Idaho, but his wife was from Newton. The couple lived there for decades in a small mobile home and Poland enjoyed gardening.
Neighbors and friends said Poland did various acts of kindness for people in town, from fixing someone’s tractor to tilling the garden of a neighbor who had a heart attack.
“You don’t owe me anything,” Poland once told a recipient of his good deed. “You’re my neighbor.”
The victim’s son, Aaron Poland, told NBC News that he was not surprised by his father’s act to protect the kids on the bus.
“He considered them his children,” Aaron Poland said, choking back tears. “And I know that’s the reason why my dad took those shots, for his children, just like he would do for me and my sister.”
As Newton grieves, residents are praying for the safe return of the boy and wondering about the man behind the abduction.
“We’d all like to get to him and say: ‘What’s wrong with you?’” said Gerald Harden, owner of a gun shop in Newton.
Harden said he checked his records to see whether Dykes had bought a firearm there, but the records showed he had not.
In Midland City, police were mostly staying mum about their talks with Dykes, a Vietnam War veteran known to his neighbors as Jimmy. Some have described him as a menacing figure with anti-government views.
One of Dykes’ neighbors said the suspect spent two or three months building the bunker, digging into the ground and then building a wooden structure which he covered with sand and dirt.