Shawn Hornbeck, Pam Akers
Tom Gannam  /  AP
Pam Akers grasps the hand of her son Shawn Hornbeck, 15, during a new conference Saturday in Richwoods, Mo. Shawn, who was missing since Oct. 2002, was recovered Friday with another missing boy, Ben Ownby.
updated 1/14/2007 8:30:47 PM ET 2007-01-15T01:30:47

The safe return of two kidnapped boys — one missing for four days, the other for four years — is being heralded as nothing short of a miracle by their families.

Parents of the now-15-year-old Shawn Hornbeck and 13-year-old Ben Ownby on Saturday told of their tearful reunions, hugs and the almost unbelievable discovery of the boys in a tiny apartment in a St. Louis suburb on Friday.

The sons smiled often by their parents’ sides at separate news conferences, but were told not to answer questions. Police said they could not discuss details of their investigation of 41-year-old Michael Devlin, who was jailed on $1 million bond on a kidnapping charge and could face more charges before an arraignment later this week.

Mystery swirls around abductions
To those who track child abductions, the mystery surrounding the boys’ discovery stood out.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, about 58,000 children are the victims of non-family abductions. The vast majority of those children are returned safely.

An average of 115 cases, however, involve children taken by non-family members for long periods, put up for ransom or killed by their abductors. Of that number, about 60 come home safely, said center spokeswoman Joann Donnellan.

But what makes the boys’ case rare, Donnellan said, is the fact that a single abductor took multiple children. The case was made rarer still by the length of Hornbeck’s captivity, Donnellan said.

Investigators who made the incredible discovery turned Saturday from euphoria to some troubling questions.

What could have motivated the suspect? How did he treat the boys? And how was he able to keep them hidden in plain sight just an hour’s drive from their hometowns?

Video: A uniquely joyful family reunion “It’s hard to believe that somebody could be that brazen,” said Craig Akers, whose stepson Shawn Hornbeck was abducted in 2002 at age 11. “This has been going on four years, and he’s been right under our nose the whole time.”

Neighbors said Devlin hardly appeared to be keeping secrets. He had lifelong ties to this middle-class suburb of 26,000, family in the area and apparently no criminal record beyond a pair of traffic fines. He was often seen coming and going from his jobs at a pizza parlor and a funeral home, and nothing seemed odd about a teenager seen hanging around his place.

Neighbors didn't notice anything unusual
The landlord at the apartment, Bill Romer, said he was in the apartment once to fix a plumbing problem and saw the teen, apparently Hornbeck, sleeping.

“As far as I knew, that was his son living with him,” Romer said. “The kid’s bedroom didn’t even have curtains on the windows.”

Rick Butler, 43, said he hadn’t seen anything odd or unusual from the apartment.

Image: Kidnapping suspect Michael Devlin
Huy Richard Mach  /  St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Police escort kidnapping suspect Michael Devlin in Union, Mo., on Friday.

“I just figured them for father and son,” he said.

Harry Reichard, 33, who lives in the apartment directly above Devlin’s, said he would hear arguing and banging noises at all hours coming from the apartment.

Alma Rodriguez often saw the teenager riding his bike in the parking lot behind the complex. Her husband, Mario, sometimes saw him throwing a football with another boy. Hornbeck did not attend school during his time in captivity, his stepfather said.

Craig Akers said Shawn had seen benches plastered with his missing-person poster. The boy even told his stepfather that a picture intended to show how he might have aged since his kidnapping was an “insult.”

The case recalls the improbable survival of Elizabeth Smart, the Salt Lake City teen taken for nine months by a religious zealot. After her return, many questioned why she didn’t flee her captors, despite many apparent chances at freedom.

Fear used as a weapon
Stephen Golding, a forensic psychologist who examined the suspect in the Smart case, said captors often establish control over their victims through fear.

“People are led to believe, through someone taking advantage of their vulnerabilities, that leaving is not an option, that things will get worse for them or will get worse for others,” Golding said.

Both boys were abducted from rural areas of eastern Missouri about an hour from metro St. Louis. Hornbeck disappeared Oct. 6, 2002, while riding his bike in Richwoods in Washington County. Ownby was taken soon after getting off a school bus Monday afternoon in the Franklin County town of Beaufort, a beat-up white pickup seen by a schoolmate the only real clue.

On Thursday night, police in Kirkwood noticed a truck matching the description while serving an unrelated warrant at a nearby apartment.

‘It was quite euphoric’
When FBI agents walked into Devlin’s apartment a day later, Ownby asked them, “Are you going to take me home?”, and another teenager in the modest dwelling identified himself as Hornbeck — reported missing 4½ years ago.

“Obviously it was quite euphoric,” FBI Special Agent Roland Corvington said Saturday.

Hornbeck’s parents dealt with their grief over the years by devoting themselves to bringing missing people home. They said having their son back was evidence for parents of other missing children to never give up hope.

“I still feel like I’m in a dream, only this time it’s a good dream, not the nightmare I’ve had four-and-a-half years,” his mother, Pam Akers, said at one news conference, draping her arm around her son.

At the other, Ben Ownby grinned as his mother recalled that soon after his return home, Ownby went to the computer to play video games.

“We’re just ecstatic,” Doris Ownby said. “Don’t want to let him go out of our sight.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Who is Michael Devlin?


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