Before Jimmy Lee Dykes dug a bunker, before he kidnapped 5-year-old Ethan and shot his bus driver dead, he liked to bet on dog races, according to his friend and former neighbor, George Arnold.
Dykes, who was 65 when he died, kept records of the races, boxes of them, sure that one day, if he studied them hard enough he would find a pattern in the results and get rich, Arnold said.
Still, he never seemed to be able to get ahead, and he remained poor, so poor that he lived in his truck for two years and later in a van with windows covered in tin foil. Dykes believed the pattern was there, but it never panned out because the government foiled him at every turn, according to Arnold.
“He thought the government was working with the mafia to control the dogs,” Arnold said. “Like if you bet $10,000 on a dog and it was about to win, they would hit a microchip they put in them to shock them and slow them down so you couldn’t get your money.”
The portrait of a deeply paranoid Dykes continued to emerge Tuesday, the day after an FBI tactical team stormed Dykes’ bunker and shot him dead, rescuing the little boy he’d held hostage for a week. The boy’s family says that he is recovering well, and educators are working to help the other children on the bus return to life as normal.
Strange as he was, Dyke’s actions seem to have stunned many in the tight-knit community of Midland City. A certain distrust for the government isn’t so strange, according to some residents. Plus, people knew him.
Dykes’ sister, said the mayor, Virgil Skipper, worked as an occasional seamstress for his wife. And he knew Dykes, if only by face.
The last census put the population at 2,300, less if you ask the city clerk. In a city that small, just about everybody knows everybody else, or at least their family.
Dykes’ sister and the kidnapped boy’s grandmother used to live in the same small public housing project, a spit of a dozen duplexes lining the highway as you head out of town, according to Arnold.
For a while, Dykes lived there too, though that was before Ethan was born, Arnold said.
More precisely, Dykes lived in a truck in front of the house, in a gray 1978 Ford.
“I’ll never forget that truck,” Arnold said. “She was scared of him. She wouldn’t let him in the house except to shower. So he slept in there.”
For two years, that’s where he lived, according to Arnold. During the winter, Dykes would build a small fire in a can inside the cab of the truck to keep warm. He’d pick up pecans fallen from the trees that cast shade over the housing project during the summer and sell them, Arnold said. “He’d take $20 and make it last a week.”
That was about a decade ago, Arnold said, and even back then, Dykes was filled with rage against the federal government. And blacks, and Jews, he said. If the government did come for him, “he always said he wouldn’t get taken alive,” Arnold said.
Arnold said that Dykes refused to sign up for disability or Social Security. “I didn’t even know him to have a phone,” Arnold said. “He thought they could use it to track him.”
Despite the bile he spewed toward the government, Arnold said, the two got along fine, and his wife even formed a close bond with Dykes.
The three of them used to play Monopoly together. Dykes won, every time, Arnold said.
“He was out there, but he was smart. Anything you wanted to know or talk about,” Arnold said. He said that when Dykes wasn’t poring over the sheet of plywood that he used to track racing results, he was reading.
Arnold said that he never felt afraid of him, even though he used to carry a pistol in his waistband.
Mostly Dykes just smoked cigarillos and drank coffee, constantly, Arnold said. The gun and a handful of marijuana plants he’d planted in his sister’s yard were what finally got him kicked off the project property, Arnold said. The gun was seized, but no charges were filed, he said.
Midland City Police did not immediately return a call for comment.
The Midland City Police told him he had to leave, and leave he did, never to come back to the apartments.
Arnold said Dykes moved to Florida for a few years, but eventually moved back, digging a bunker next to the van where he slept on a property off of a dirt road.
He started having run-ins with his neighbors.
Lillie Smith, whose grandchildren live near the property, said neighborhood children called him “the scoop man,” because he would patrol his property at all hours of the night with a small shovel and gun.
One neighbor said that he beat her dog to death with a lead pipe. Another reported Dykes to police after he allegedly pulled a gun and began shooting. Dykes believed the man had driven on his property, the neighbor said.
As residents spoke about Dykes and his demise, many struggled to come to terms with their small town was not immune to the seemingly inexplicable violence that has made headlines elsewhere in the country.
“It made us all realize that it’s closer to us than we think,” said Melissa Knight, an area teacher. She said that she’s kept her kids close, and perhaps hugged them a little tighter than usual, but she won’t let the crisis dominate her thoughts or instill a spirit of fear.
Anthony Duncan, whose son, Cameron, is in the same class as Ethan at Midland City Elementary School, said that his boys were on the same bus but had just gotten off a few stops before Dykes got on and killed the driver.
He said that, as parent he could imagine the kind of pain Ethan’s mother was in during the seven days he was held hostage. “I don’t care. If they have my son, I’m going in there to get my child. They would have to put me under the jail,” he said.
Verna Sitton, a clerk at a town gas station that functions as a sort of town square, said that the talk of the town has been whether Dykes deserved to die or not for his crimes. In remains unclear if he took his own life, was shot by FBI agents, or both. In her opinion, he did deserve to die. “I’m glad they shot him. He didn’t have to kill (the bus driver),” she said. “He could have just shot him in the arm or the leg, but he killed him.”
Many others echoed her sentiment, but not Don Gautier, a Marine Corps veteran who said that he drove more than four hours from coastal Mississippi in the hopes that he might be able to talk to Dykes and talk him down. He said he made a beaded necklace for Ethan, which he gave to a Dale County Sheriff’s deputy. The beads ‘ letters spelled out J-E-S-U-S.
Gautier said that he’s faced his own demons since he left the military, but God helped him to persevere. “Jesus has compassion for everybody,” he said.