A gunman holed up in a bunker with a 5-year-old hostage kept law officers at bay Wednesday in an all-night, all-day standoff that began when he killed a school bus driver and dragged the boy away, authorities said.
SWAT teams took up positions around the gunman's rural property and police negotiators tried to win the kindergartener's safe release.
The gunman, identified by neighbours as Jimmy Lee Dykes, a 65-year-old retired truck driver, was known around the neighbourhood as a menacing figure who once beat a dog to death with a lead pipe, threatened to shoot children for setting foot on his property and patrolled his yard at night with a flashlight and a shotgun.
He had been scheduled to appear in court Wednesday morning to answer charges he shot at his neighbours in a dispute last month over a speed bump.
The standoff along a red dirt road began on Tuesday afternoon, after a gunman boarded a stopped school bus filled with children in the town of Midland City, population 2,300. Sheriff Wally Olson said the man shot the bus driver when he refused to hand over a 6-year-old child. The gunman then took the boy away.
"As far as we know there is no relation at all. He just wanted a child for a hostage situation," said Michael Senn, a pastor who helped comfort the traumatized children after the attack.
The bus driver, Charles Albert Poland Jr., 66, was hailed by locals as a hero who gave his life to protect 21 students.
The boy's classmates, their parents and other members of this small Bible Belt community gathered in several churches and held a candlelight vigil in the town square Wednesday evening to pray for Poland and for the boy's safety. Some in the square joined together to sing "Amazing Grace."
Authorities gave no details on the standoff, and it was unclear if Dykes made any demands from his underground bunker, which resembled a tornado shelter.
The sheriff said in a brief statement Wednesday evening that negotiators continued talking to the suspect and "at this time we have no reason to believe that the child has been harmed."