In an exclusive interview, 6-year-old Ethan, who was abducted at gunpoint on January 29, 2013 and held captive inside an underground bunker in Alabama for nearly a week, talks to Dr. Phil along with his mother, Jennifer. How much did Ethan witness? How might it affect his future well-being? And, how can this family move forward after such a traumatic experience?
Bus Shooting to Bunker Standoff
On January 29, 2013, then 5-year-old Ethan’s life changed in an instant when 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes stormed a stopped school bus in Midland City, Alabama, shot and killed the bus driver, Charles Poland Jr., abducted Ethan and then held him hostage in a 6-by-8-foot underground bunker for nearly one week. The FBI and local authorities worked day in and day out, trying to negotiate with Dykes through a ventilation pipe, which they also used to deliver food, toys and medication to Ethan, who has Asperger’s syndrome, among other conditions, according to his mother, Jennifer. At some point during the standoff, a camera was slipped into the bunker, allowing crews above ground to monitor the situation more closely.
Once investigators discovered the bunker was equipped with electricity, Internet and television, they asked that the media not report about the material or manpower that was being used in the recovery effort — and the media obliged.
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On Ethan’s seventh day of captivity, authorities say Dykes grew increasingly agitated and began carrying a gun as he walked around inside the bunker, forcing SWAT officials to take action. While Dykes was perched on a ladder grabbing supplies and Ethan was relatively out of harm’s way, authorities dropped two stun grenades inside the bunker and moved in. Dykes was killed in the firefight that ensued, and Ethan was rescued unharmed. The boy was rushed to a nearby hospital and reunited with his family in time to celebrate his sixth birthday.
Throughout the entire ordeal, Jennifer remained anonymous and was sequestered by the FBI. With her son now home, she admits she does not know how to talk to him about the frightening experience — so she reached out to Dr. Phil for help. What did Ethan see? And, how might it affect his mental and emotional health in the future?
Jennifer describes the day she found out her son had been kidnapped at gunpoint.
“My first concern was keeping Ethan calm so that Mr. Dykes would remain calm.”
Why does Jennifer say she forgave Dykes — even before Ethan was rescued?
Jennifer says she asked to speak to Dykes but was urged not to by authorities who were concerned about how Ethan would react if he heard his mother’s voice. “That’s why I stayed out of the reporters’ [ways] and the media,” she says. “That’s the last thing I wanted — for him to see me on TV. I didn’t want Ethan to see me and break down, and then Mr. Dykes see Ethan break down, and not knowing how he would react to that.”
When asked about the moment she found out her son had been rescued alive, Jennifer says, “It was the happiest moment of my entire life.” She says she first saw her son in the hospital, and he was in good spirits, coloring and putting stickers on everyone. “He said, ‘Hey, Mom,’ and I got down on my knees, and hugged him, and I said, ‘I sure have missed you, Bug,’” she recalls. “And he said, ‘I’ve missed you too.’ And at that moment, I didn’t want to let him go again.”
Senator Harri Anne Smith says she was in contact with Jennifer throughout the
ordeal and was amazed by her compassion toward Dykes. “The deputy was briefing her, when he said, ‘We’ve got snipers all around this bunker. We’re going to get your son back,’ and she said, ‘Sir, I understand that man is sick. Don’t hurt him,’” Sen. Smith recalls. “I had to turn around and just cry because, I mean, I’ve never seen anybody that brave and just that compassionate in a situation like that.”
Did Ethan see Dykes and Poland being shot and killed? And, how has the ordeal affected Ethan so far?
Dr. Phil’s colleagues, Dr. Charles Sophy and Dr. Frank Lawlis offer Jennifer advice on moving forward and helping Ethan cope with his frightening experience.
“He has been through the worst thing that anybody could go through, and it’s my job to make sure he goes through no more,” Jennifer says of her coping methods thus far. “I just needed him to see that I’m strong, and I want him to be too.”
“And if he needs to cry, cry with him,” Dr. Phil responds. “It’s OK for him to see you cry, and you don’t need to hide it.”
Jennifer expresses concern about Ethan’s fear of riding on a school bus.
“I think absolutely he will get on the bus,” Dr. Sophy responds. “I think it’s how you handle it, and [ask him] how did he feel, not ‘Oh, my gosh, what did that remind you of?’” He tells Jennifer to take Ethan’s lead and try to get him close to his regular routine and build that structure. “He can count on that, feel safe in that, and control it,” he says. “You don’t want to dig a memory in; you want to get a feeling out.”
“If Ethan sees himself get back on that bus, he attributes courage to himself,” Dr. Phil adds.”He’ll take pride in that; it’s a real sense of power.”
See what happens when Dr. Phil meets Ethan. And, Dr. Sophy and Dr. Phil weigh in on Ethan’s behavior — and his potential future challenges.