Missouri families revel in safe return of sons

/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Two boys kidnapped four years apart and found in the same suburban St. Louis apartment smiled shyly but said nothing to media at two hug-filled news conferences Saturday, a day after they were rescued.

The boys’ parents clung to them and focused on their joy at the shocking outcome, saying little about the 41-year-old man charged in the case or how the teens were treated.

The boys — 15-year-old Shawn Hornbeck, abducted more than four years ago, and 13-year-old Ben Ownby, taken after getting off his school bus Monday afternoon — smiled shyly and appeared at ease.

“Shawn is a miracle here,” his mother, Pam Akers, said Saturday at an elementary school in his hometown of Richwoods. “We’re glad to have him home. 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.”

Hornbeck’s stepfather, Craig Akers, said he and his wife were in disbelief when they were reunited with the boy.

“There was that split second of shock,” he said. “Once I saw the face, I said, ’Oh my God, that’s my son.”’

“We’re just so thankful for everything everyone has done,” he said. “We’re very fortunate to have had some of the best support anyone could have asked for.”

Hornbeck did not speak, but he smiled often, his mother’s arm draped around him, and seemed at ease. He was much bigger than pictures of the missing 11-year-old, his hair darker and longer.

The rescue unfolded when a routine search warrant led police to investigate a Kirkwood, Mo., apartment dweller, Michael Devlin, 41, an Imo’s Pizza manager and part-time funeral home worker. He was charged with first-degree kidnapping and held in the Franklin County Jail on $1 million bond.

‘Some probably unbelievable news’
An elated Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke, who headed the search for Ben, began a news conference Friday by telling reporters, “We have some good news and we have some probably unbelievable news.”

The key to finding the boys was a beat-up white pickup truck spotted by a schoolmate of Ben’s who got off the bus at the same time. The friend saw the pickup speeding away about the time Ben vanished from the gravel road near his home.

“Without that, we might not be here today,” Akers said on Saturday.

On Thursday night, Kirkwood city police officers were serving a warrant on an apartment complex when they noticed a white truck matching the description. They contacted the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department and determined where the owner of the truck was, then searched Devlin’s home Friday and found the boys.

There were no immediate details about what police found inside the apartment, or how the boys might have been detained. Toelke said authorities were still trying to learn the motive behind the abductions. Franklin County Prosecutor Robert Parks said more charges are likely.

“There are a lot of things we don’t know right now,” Toelke said.

After being reunited with their families, both boys were taken to SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis for evaluation. Hospital spokesman Bob Davidson said both were in good spirits.

‘It’s a thrilling night’
“The boys were smiling and appeared very pleased to be with their families,” Davidson said. “Obviously the families were incredibly tickled to have the boys back. It’s a thrilling night.”

Ben’s uncle, Loyd Bailie, told The Associated Press he was escorted to the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department with Ben’s parents. He said Ben was delighted when he saw his parents.

“His eyes lit up like silver dollars,” Bailie said.

Everyone broke into tears and Ben’s parents embraced him as tightly as they could, Bailie said.

Ben seemed in good health, but was hungry. Sheriff’s deputies brought in sandwiches and a honey bun and Ben instantly devoured the sweet, Bailie said.

In Kirkwood, law enforcement officials congregated outside the modest brick apartment where Devlin lived. Temporary lights and trailers were set up in the apartment complex courtyard as a cold, driving rain fell.

A neighbor, Rick Butler, 43, said the FBI came to his door Thursday night and showed a picture of Ben, asking if he had seen him. He said he had not. But he had seen a boy he now believes was Hornbeck.

He said he saw no evidence that the boy now believed to be Hornbeck was scared or trying to get away. He had seen Devlin and the teen pitch a tent in the courtyard. On another occasion, he found the boy’s cell phone and returned it to him.

“I didn’t see or hear anything odd or unusual from the apartment,” Butler said. “I just figured them for father and son.”

Similarities in the disappearances
The two disappearances had similarities. Both boys seemed to vanish without a trace, both from quiet rural areas. Richwoods, Shawn’s hometown, is about 50 miles southwest of St. Louis, in Washington County. Beaufort, Ben’s hometown, is about 60 miles from the city, and about 40 miles north of Richwoods.

Kidnapping suspect Michael Devlin, 41, center, arrives at the Franklin County Sheriff's Department in Union, Mo., Friday, Jan. 12, 2007. Devlin was arrested after a 13-year-old boy who has been missing since Monday and a 15-year-old boy who has been missing since 2002 where found in Devlin's home in Kirkwood, Mo., Friday. (AP Photo/Post-Dispatch, Huy Richard Mach) ** MANDATORY CREDIT, MAGS OUT, NO SALES, TV OUT, ST. LOUIS METRO OUT **Huy Richard Mach / ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

Shawn disappeared from his rural home when he was 11. He went for a bike ride and never returned. His parents, dozens of volunteers and sniffer dogs searched for weeks. The couple set up a Web site and listened to anyone who offered a tip.

In the years since, Shawn’s parents, Pam and Craig Akers, devoted themselves to missing child cases. They were reunited with their son in Union, the Franklin County seat and where the sheriff’s department is.

Akers, Shawn’s stepfather, quit his job as a software designer to devote his time to a foundation bearing his son’s name. They depleted their savings, borrowed against their retirement and talked to psychics. The financial strain forced both of them back to work.

On the anniversary of the disappearance in October, Pam Akers said, “It’s been four years. But for me, it’s just been one long continuous day.”

Toelke said authorities were still investigating the motive behind the abductions. Franklin County Prosecutor Robert Parks said more charges are likely.