There was nobody in Jimmy Lee Dykes’s life to take the edge off his anger.
He had long ago lost touch with an ex-wife and two daughters. His older girl recalled his fondness of firearms and a hatred of authorities; how he smelled of spearmint, coffee and cigarettes; how he beat her mother.
Mr. Dykes, a Vietnam veteran, worked as a land surveyor and a truck driver. He was fired from his last hauling job after a dispute with his boss and at age 65 ended up living on the edge of a peanut field in a town of 2,400 in southeastern Alabama, growing vegetables and collecting grievances.
Metal cattle gates opened to his acre-and-a-half property, located at the crest of a rutted, red-dirt road. He landscaped with cinder block and laid out a pond and garden. Mostly, though, his land resembled a scrub-covered parking lot for his maroon-and-silver Econoline van, a 40-foot shipping container and, up on blocks, his home, a scruffy trailer left over from a federal disaster-relief program.
In jeans and a T-shirt, with lightning-strike white hair, Mr. Dykes roamed his property shooting grasshoppers with a pellet gun. He talked about putting out bowls of antifreeze to poison neighborhood dogs that soiled his property.
In early 2012, Mr. Dykes drove his next-door neighbor, Michael Creel, to the Wal-Mart and spent the ride fuming over a new gun law. On the return trip, Mr. Dykes mused about taking people hostage in a church some Sunday until a reporter broadcast his views against the law.
Mr. Creel told Mr. Dykes nobody would listen to a man holding hostages. The two men drove home in stony silence.
A sheriff’s deputy once intervened in a spat over Mr. Dykes’ claim to pecans that fell on the roadside from another man’s tree. For Mr. Dykes, the confrontation was one more complaint against a world that had done him wrong and was too stupid to know it. “All the boys at the top, they s— on all of the people at the bottom,” Mr. Dykes told the deputy.
In 2012, Mr. Dykes hired Mr. Creel to help dig an underground bunker. The men spent weeks clawing through dense red clay. They lined the walls with joists and wood panels. Mr. Dykes worked from dawn to dusk on what he told Mr. Creel was a storm shelter. He talked about surviving hurricanes in Florida.
When they were done, Mr. Dykes asked Mr. Creel to climb inside. “Scream real loud,” Mr. Dykes said. “I want to see if I can hear you.” Then he walked away. Mr. Creel figured his neighbor wanted to see if yelling would bring help should a tree fall and block the hatch on top of the bunker. He found it odd that Mr. Dykes seemed pleased voices couldn’t penetrate the thick earth.
Over the years, Mr. Dykes had been arrested for drugs, drunken driving, assault and larceny. He was due in court on Jan. 30, 2013, to face a misdemeanor charge: He had built a speed bump to slow a neighbor’s sports car, an obstacle that led to a confrontation and allegations Mr. Dykes brandished a firearm.
On the afternoon of Monday, Jan. 28, school bus driver Chuck Poland turned off the highway at Destiny Church, a windowless prefabricated metal building with a small steeple. He steered his orange bus 350 yards up the rutted red dirt of Private Road 1539 to drop off the children who lived at the top of the rise.
Then he backed into a driveway that Mr. Dykes had recently cleared in a cluster of laurel oak.
Mr. Dykes approached the bus door, and Mr. Poland thanked him for making room to turn around. “I figured you’d appreciate that,” Mr. Dykes said.
“Hey, do you like broccoli and carrots?” he continued.
“I like broccoli,” the driver said.
“All right,” Mr. Dykes said, “I’ll catch you tomorrow then.”
As a young man, Mr. Poland had served as an Army helicopter mechanic. Now 66 years old, the stocky, bearded grandfather took pride in keeping his bus well-maintained and his young passengers in line.
At night, he watched footage from the bus security camera and noted the students who got out of hand. He would warn them the first time, and turn them in if they transgressed again.
Riding back to the highway that day, the children chattered about the unusual visit from the stranger. Mr. Poland explained the kind act: “He dug all of this out while we was on Christmas break to fix this turnaround for us.”
Mr. Dykes didn’t show up for his court date. Instead, he boarded the school bus, grabbed a boy and carried him to his bunker.
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