DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) — Six years ago, the Wiregrass community breathed a sigh of relief when five-year-old Ethan Gilman was rescued after being held hostage for almost a week in an underground bunker by an armed gunman.

Today, Ethan is enjoying life as Ethan Turner, a normal, rambunctious fifth grader at Abbeville Elementary School. Thanks to former Henry County Department of Human Resources Supervisor/Houston County Department of Human Resources Program Supervisor Judy Walding, Ethan was adopted by the Rev. Brandon Turner and his wife, Nicci, in 2016.

Walding met Ethan for the first time when he was an infant. At that time, she had no idea their paths would cross again a few years later.

"When Ethan was around 18 months old, he was placed in the system with the Henry County Department of Human Resources, and at that time I was a supervisor," Walding said. "Ethan was placed in foster care. However, while in foster care, Ethan came to know the Turners. The Turners assisted in the Foster Care Respite Care Program, which is a program that provides temporary relief for foster parents on the weekends."

Even when Ethan was an infant, the Turners envisioned adopting him.

"Our plan was if his mom didn't get him back, we would see about adopting him," said Brandon Turner. "We just fell in love with him."

Before the bunker crisis, Ethan stayed in the foster care system for roughly a year before his biological mother showed the Alabama Department of Human Resources she had made improvements with substance abuse issues.

After being back in his mother's care a little over two years, Ethan's world would soon be turned upside down. On Jan. 29, 2013, an armed man made his way onto Ethan's school bus in Midland City; killed the driver, Charles Poland; and took Ethan to a highly fortified underground bunker. The standoff ended several days later with Ethan being safely rescued during an FBI raid of the bunker. His captor died during the rescue.

The Turners and Walding watched and read as local media outlets told the story of a five-year-old little boy's hostage experience. At first neither knew Ethan was the same boy who touched their hearts just a few years ago.

"I was lying in bed recovering from a wreck, and I remember asking my husband Brandon, 'do you think it's our Ethan?'," said Nicci. "All we could do was pray. We prayed that the Lord would have his hand on that child. But, when we saw a photo of Ethan, we noticed the similarities in our Ethan, and the Ethan on television, and our hearts literally broke. We just continued to pray that the Lord's will be done."

Walding was also speechless as the name Ethan was mentioned by all the media outlets.

"As I heard the news, I just had to know if that was the same Ethan we had in our system previously, but before I could get it verified, his mother called wanting a copy of his birth certificate, and she verified it was Ethan," Walding said. "Once I heard that, it made me sick. I knew that child had been through so much already, and now he was being held hostage. That child lived a nightmare. He actually went through more than many adults will ever go through. But, thank the Lord, he was safely rescued."

A short time later, the Dale County Department of Human Resources got involved again and Ethan had different living arrangements, according to Walding. Ethan's grandmother cared for him before she passed away, and he eventually went to live with his 18-year-old brother for a period of time.

According to Walding, his brother was unable to care for Ethan.

"The child was missing stability," Walding said. "Plus, 18 is really young to care for a child full-time."

Walding believes Ethan's rocky path from infancy until 2015 is an example of divine providence.

"Everyone told me I didn't want to transfer from Henry County Department of Human Resources to the Houston County Department of Human Resources, but something deep down, told me I did," Walding said. "So, eventually I did transfer, and that's when I found out Ethan was back in the system. Unfortunately, he was placed in a facility in Birmingham to assist with his behavioral issues. But Ethan did not have behavioral issues. He was just a little boy who had been through a lot. The only thing that child needed was love and stability."

Walding knew she had to do something. Being in a facility like that was not what Ethan needed, she said. He needed a family he could depend on.

That family was the Turners.

"After I located Ethan in the facility, I contacted the Turners," Walding said. "It was just a few weeks before Christmas 2015. I informed the Turners where Ethan was, and I asked if they would like for Ethan to come for a visit. I told them he had nowhere to go for Christmas. Without any hesitation, they informed me Ethan had somewhere to spend Christmas — with them."

Once Ethan arrived at the Turners' home in November 2015, he never left. He has been a permanent member of the family.

"I informed the facility Ethan would not be coming back, and within no time the Turners were serving as Ethan's foster parents until their probation period of 90 days was up. After that period was up, the Turners adopted Ethan."

The Turners knew Ethan had been through enormous upheaval, but they were undeterred.

"When Ethan came to us, he was on a lot of medication three times a day," Nicci Turner said. "Now he takes two pills once in the morning. Yes, at first we had a few issues with him in school, but that was just Ethan needing to get settled in. He had been through a lot. Within a short period of time, he had adjusted and was just like any other child. He is just like any other 11-year-old boy. He is happy. He is thriving in school, and enjoying life with his nine other adopted siblings. But most importantly, Ethan is a loving child, and he is a child who is loved. That's what we want all of our children to know — they are loved."

The Turners said Ethan experiences the same ups and downs as other children in elementary school.

"He is like any other child. He may struggle with a subject, but he tackles that issue just like any other typical boy," Nicci said. "He usually makes As and Bs. Ethan doesn't care much for athletics, but he loves building things from the ground up, and he loves to draw. I really believe one day his talent in building and drawing will take him places."

The Turners believe there is purpose in everything, including Ethan's experience

"There is a reason why Ethan went through what he went through," Nicci said. "I hate he went through all of that, but Ethan's story should show everyone the Lord had his hand on Ethan, and protected Ethan from everything that could have brought him harm. Ethan doesn't talk about what happened six years ago a lot, but when he does, we listen. He does all the talking. Our main objective is to make sure Ethan knows that he is loved, and he is a blessing to us."

Walding believes her career move to the Houston County Department of Human Resources was divinely inspired to make sure someone would once again find Ethan and place him in a stable home.

"The Lord put me at the Houston County Department of Human Resources for a reason," Walding said. "That reason was for me to find Ethan in the system once again. If we had not placed Ethan with the Turners, Ethan would not be the loving and thriving child he is today. It really is amazing for a child who has been through so much to find love, happiness and stability. Not only did he find love, but he gives love. We can truly say we have witnessed the Lord's work."

Ethan remembers some facts about that horrific event six years ago.

"I remember some stuff about what happened, but not a lot," Ethan said. "I remember right before I was rescued, I had just opened a toy. I remember the bus driver Mr. Poland. He was very nice to all of us. That day, he tried to drive off, but he couldn't."

Ethan has a message to all who prayed for his safe release six years ago.

"I am OK," Ethan said. "I am happy. I enjoy playing with my brothers and sisters. I like to ride my bike. I like to jump on the trampoline and really enjoy playing with Legos and K'nex. I hope I get some for my birthday."

Ethan was excited about his 12th birthday, which he celebrated Wednesday with his family and friends.

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Information from: The Dothan Eagle, http://www.dothaneagle.com

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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