The Federal Bureau of Investigation agents that led efforts to rescue a 5-year-old Midland City boy after he was kidnapped from a school bus and held hostage by an armed killer are among the 31 finalists for one of the highest honors given to civilian federal employees.
The Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal recognizes federal employees for significant contributions in the fields of homeland security and law enforcement, including border and transportation security, civil rights, counterterrorism, emergency response, fraud prevention and intelligence.
FBI Special Agent in Charge for the Mobile District, Stephen Richardson, and his team - Kevin Cornelius, the hostage rescue team commander; Vincent Dalfonzo, lead negotiator; Molly Amman, lead behavioral psychologist; Thomas Class, deputy on-scene commander; Paul Bresson and Jason Pack of public affairs; and FBI agents Kelvin King, Douglas Astralaga, William Beersdorf and Timothy Green - were nominated for their work in rescuing Ethan Gillman after he was taken off a school bus by an armed man later identified as Jimmy Lee Dykes. Dykes shot and killed the bus driver Charles Poland before taking Ethan to an underground bunker,
In a profile for the award, Richardson said the decision to enter the bunker after the six-day standoff was literally a life-and-death decision.
"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,' " Richardson said. "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."
As 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."
Richardson described his team as "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," Richardson said. "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.
"There were a lot of moving parts, but we all had one goal in mind: Get that little guy out of the hole safely," Richardson said. "You could feel that everyone there shared a little bit of the life and death responsibility. We had unprecedented teamwork and cooperation. We developed a plan and executed it perfectly."
Richardson and the other finalists were honored May 7 at ceremonies held in Washington, D.C. as part of Public Service Recognition Week. Medal recipients will be announced Oct. 3 with awards given in the categories of science and environment, homeland security and law enforcement, national security, international affairs, citizen services and management excellence.