Image: Shawn Hornbeck
Tom Gannam  /  AP file
Shawn Hornbeck, 15, watches as his parents, Craig and Pam Akers, talk to the media Saturday in Richwoods, Mo. Hornbeck, who was missing since October 2002, was recovered Friday with another missing boy, Ben Ownby.
updated 1/15/2007 6:41:11 AM ET 2007-01-15T11:41:11

For more than four years, Shawn Hornbeck seemed to have had every chance to escape, left alone for hours to ride his bike, play video games and walk past missing-child posters showing his own age-progressed image.

But mental health experts say this troubling case is hardly so simple, and that Hornbeck was likely kept mentally shackled by terror and domination from the man accused of kidnapping him, 41-year-old Michael Devlin.

“I think it’s a real mistake to judge this child. Whatever he did to this point to stay alive is to his credit,” said Terri Weaver, an associate psychology professor at Saint Louis University.

Weaver, an expert on post traumatic stress disorder, said children in such situations kick into survival mode, “doing what needs to be done to keep yourself going day-to-day.”

Devlin, a 300-pound pizza parlor manager, is accused of abducting Hornbeck four years ago when the slight boy, taken as he was riding his bike, was just 11. Now a gangly 15-year-old with floppy hair and a pierced lip, he was found by surprise Friday when police acting on a tip went to Devlin’s modest-two-bedroom apartment in this St. Louis suburb to rescue 13-year-old Ben Ownby, who had been snatched four days earlier on his way home from school.

Piecing together details, Internet profiles
Now investigators are piecing together the details of Hornbeck’s captivity and Ownby’s abduction, trying to discover how the boys could have been kept captive in an apartment where neighbors often heard banging, shouting and arguing.

Internet profiles posted as far back as two years ago that were created using pictures of Hornbeck emerged over the weekend when a blog mentioned them. A Kirkwood detective said Sunday that he had heard about the profiles but didn’t know what role they might be playing in the investigation.

A Yahoo user homepage belonging to “xxdevildevlinxx” was created in April 2004 and shows a partial picture of a boy, strongly resembling recent photos of Hornbeck, with an eyebrow piercing. On Saturday, the boy had a lip ring and three ear piercings.

Another Yahoo profile using the same picture is registered to an “mdevlin” in Kirkwood, Mo.

A separate profile was taken out under the name Shawn Devlin in November 2005, according to the Yahoo page. It contains a full picture of a young boy similar to pictures of Hornbeck; the page says the user lives in Kirkwood, Mo.

A Web site called the True Crime Blog mentioned the pages this weekend.

Residents in Hornbeck’s hometown of Richwoods were shocked the boy could have so much contact with the outside world but remain at his captor’s side — refusing to flee even as Devlin worked two jobs that forced him to leave Hornbeck and, later, Ownby, alone.

Weaver said repeated contact with outsiders can actually reinforce an abducted child’s sense of helplessness.

“Over time, your safety has been threatened. You are a child. You may have been traumatized in other ways. You may feel helpless to reach out to other people,” she said.

Control established through fear
The case is reminiscent of the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping. The Salt Lake City teen was taken for nine months by a religious zealot and passed up several chances to escape.

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.

Neighbors describe Devlin as a loner with a quick temper. He obsessed over a reserved parking space at his apartment complex.

Rob Bushelle, who lives in Devlin’s complex, said he made that mistake last fall. Devlin arrived in his white pickup with an adolescent boy in his passenger seat, whom Bushelle now recognizes as Hornbeck. Devlin became furious and began shouting at Bushelle, demanding he move. Bushelle refused, and Devlin called police.

While Devlin spoke with officers, Hornbeck got out of Devlin’s truck and walked into the building, Bushelle said.

Devlin's childhood
Devlin was raised in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves. His family released a statement Saturday praising law enforcement agencies for returning Ownby and Hornbeck to their families. Devlin’s relatives said they prayed for Ownby’s safe return when they learned last week he was kidnapped, and said “the past few days have been incredibly difficult.

“Just as we are relieved that both Ben and Shawn are now safe, we hope that Michael will be safe as the facts of his case are revealed.”

Devlin’s childhood neighbors told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Devlin was adopted and one of six children.

Sarah Sullivan described him as a quiet child in an otherwise outgoing family. He was always big for his age and avoided sports. He had a hot temper and spent a lot of time in his room, she said.

Devlin got a job at Imo’s Pizza when he was in high school. He never left the pizza parlor over the years. He has no apparent criminal past, except for a pair of traffic fines, officials said.

“He’s smarter than most people, so he liked to be a smart aleck,” co-worker Gus Nanos told the newspaper.

“In his calmer moments, he would be an incredibly nice and thoughtful person,” Nanos said.

Co-workers noticed that Devlin became more withdrawn in 2002, the year Hornbeck was abducted. That was also the year Devlin, a diabetic, had a toe amputated.

“He went from being such a teaser to a much quieter person. I felt like he had been humbled by all of his health problems,” Nanos said.

Devlin was being held Sunday in the Franklin County jail in lieu of $1 million bail and is charged with first-degree kidnapping.

It was unclear Sunday whether Devlin had a lawyer. Jail officials would not comment, and the county public defender’s office was closed.

Truck spotted
Police say Devlin drove his pickup to Beaufort, Mo., Monday and kidnapped Ownby. A witness spotted his truck and its description was broadcast in an Amber Alert.

Kirkwood police officers Gary Wagster and Chris Nelson spotted the truck Thursday night outside Devlin’s apartment.

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Wagster asked Nelson, according to the Post-Dispatch.

A neighbor said the truck belonged to Devlin, and the officers saw him leave his apartment to empty his trash into a trash bin. They questioned Devlin in the parking lot, and he was friendly and cooperative.

Devlin’s demeanor quickly changed when the officers started asking him specific questions, Wagster said. He became agitated and defensive.

“It was a total 180 degrees from where he was,” Wagster said.

The Kirkwood officers remained outside the apartment all night, and watched as Devlin left the apartment in the morning.

FBI agents and Franklin County sheriff’s deputies arrested Devlin at his job the next day, Wagster said.

A law enforcement official familiar with the investigation said that FBI agents went to Imo’s Pizza, where Devlin was a manager, and that the suspect revealed details giving agents probable cause to arrest him and search his apartment. They then found the boys, said the source, who refused to be identified because he was unauthorized to speak publicly about the case.

The families of both boys have refused to comment beyond a pair of news conferences they held Saturday, during which the boys were told not to talk to reporters. Lawyers for the families did not answer phone calls to their offices Sunday.

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