It was a harrowing life-and-death decision, one that FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen Richardson felt he had no choice but to make.
After a tense six-day standoff, Richardson ordered an FBI hostage rescue team to storm an underground bunker in a small rural Alabama community where a mentally unstable Jimmy Lee Dykes, armed with weapons and bombs, held a five-year-old boy captive after having shot and killed a school bus driver and then abducted the child.
It was a Hobson’s choice. If he didn’t act, he was sure the boy would be killed. If he did, he risked the boy’s life and that of the FBI rescue team members.
“I knew that unless immediate action was taken, a child fatality would be an inevitable result. I gave the order to execute the rescue plan. That’s when time seemed to stop for me. I heard a commotion and ensuing gunfire. I looked at the tactical commander and said, ‘You have got to tell me the child is safe,’” recalled Richardson. “It was maybe 30 to 45 seconds, and I heard a child’s cry over the radio. It was a huge surge of relief for all.
These final moments on the afternoon of Feb. 5, 2013 marked the successful culmination of a gut-wrenching ordeal for Richardson, his FBI team, and local and state law enforcement officials who had converged on Midland City, Ala. after the murder of bus driver Charles Poland and the abduction of a young boy identified only as Ethan.
The child was physically unharmed and whisked to safety after the swift FBI assault on the bunker. The rescue team miraculously emerged unscathed even as Dykes, who died from multiple gunshot wounds, opened fire and detonated a bomb planted not far from the bunker that he had so meticulously constructed.
As the on-scene commander, Richardson oversaw a huge FBI team that included crisis negotiators, tactical units, bomb experts, investigators, behavioral scientists, legal advisers, media relations staff and surveillance units, plus state and local law enforcement officers. He had staff working with family members of the child and the abductor, and was in constant communications with top officials at FBI headquarters in Washington.
“Stephen Richardson had the responsibility to pull together a crisis-response team and bring the right brainpower and firepower to resolve this crisis,” said Ronald Hosko, an assistant FBI director. “He understood the risks faced by the victim, the hostage-taker and the rescuers. He understood it could go very badly, but he was unblinking in taking on the challenge.”
Steve Ibison, a special agent in charge of the FBI Tampa, Fla. Division, said Richardson “provided calm leadership during a very stressful situation.”
“He made sure experts were brought to the table. He was able to articulate his position up and down the chain of command and he was willing to accept responsibility to make very hard decisions,” said Ibison, who was at the command center with Richardson.
Richardson said after he confirmed the boy was safely rescued, his next big worry was for the members of the rescue team, “heroes who literally jumped into a black hole to save a child as they faced a dangerous and unpredictable man who fired shots at them and set off a bomb not far from the bunker.”
“During the rescue operation, there was a lot of praying and you could have heard a pin drop in the command post. It seemed like an eternity before we heard all team members were accounted for and the hostage-taker was no longer a threat,” said Richardson. “These elite rescue team members are highly trained individuals who accept the inherent dangers and tremendous responsibility, but that doesn’t alleviate the heavy heart and burden felt by all of us when informing a loved one that a hero has paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
Richardson, who heads the FBI’s office in Mobile, Ala., said crisis negotiators regularly talked with Dykes on the phone during the ordeal, communicating with him through a ventilation pipe that he had installed, and were allowed to send food, medicine and toys into the bunker for the boy.
But Richardson said it became clear as the days passed that Dykes was becoming increasingly agitated, his psychological state was deteriorating and the boy was in imminent danger.
As the standoff dragged on, the hostage rescue team practiced for a possible assault. Trench and tunnel experts offered advice. Surveillance drones patrolled the skies. Fire and ambulance crews stood ready. Behavioral scientists studied Dykes’ statements and demands.
“There were a lot of moving parts, but we all had one goal in mind: Get that little guy out of the hole safely,” said Richardson. “You could feel that everyone there shared a little bit of the life and death responsibility.”
Among the many FBI team members playing critical roles were Kevin Cornelius, the hostage rescue team commander; Vincent Dalfonzo, the lead negotiator; Molly Amman, the lead behavioral psychologist; Thomas Class, the deputy on-scene commander; Paul Bresson and Jason Pack of public affairs; and FBI agents Kelvin King, Douglas Astralaga, William L. Beersdorf and Timothy Green from the Mobile, Ala. field office.
“We had unprecedented teamwork and cooperation,” Richardson said. “We developed a plan and executed it perfectly.”