Investigators who made the incredible discovery of two kidnapped boys in a tiny apartment 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 — one for four days, the other for four years?
“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.”
In back-to-back news conferences Saturday, parents of the now-15-year-old Hornbeck and 13-year-old Ben Ownby told of an outpouring of hugs, kisses and “I love yous” following the discovery in this St. Louis suburb Friday that they described as nothing short of a miracle.
The sons smiled often by their parents’ sides 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.
‘Figured them for father and son’
Neighbors in the two-story, brick apartment complex said Devlin, a burly, 300-pound man with wire-rimmed glasses and a beard, 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.
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, who lives across the street, said he saw no evidence that the boy was scared or trying to get away. He even saw Devlin and the teen pitch a tent outside in the complex, which sits near railroad tracks and Interstate 44 in a working-class section of well-to-do Kirkwood.
“I didn’t see or hear anything odd or unusual from the apartment,” Butler said. “I just figured them for father and son.”
Signs of a short temper
Last fall, Butler said he found a cell phone outside, called a number on it and the teen came outside to retrieve it.
“Thanks a lot for the phone,” he recalled the boy saying.
Harry Reichard, 33, who lives in the apartment directly above Devlin’s basement apartment, said he would hear arguing and banging noises at all hours coming from the apartment.
Others said Devlin said little and stayed to himself — unless you took the parking spot he preferred. Last fall, when Rob Bushelle pulled into the unassigned spot, Devlin pulled next to him and became irate, threatening to call police.
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.
At the Bopp Chapel funeral parlor, where Devlin worked a twice-a-week shift answering phones, he was described as a punctual but quiet worker who never discussed his private life.
“I can’t tell you the feeling here,” said funeral director Chris Roth. “Complete excitement for the boys being found to shock that it was him.”
Echoes of Elizabeth Smart case
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Devlin’s relatives also were shocked by the case and said they had no idea the boy was with him.
At Imo’s Pizzeria, where Devlin was a manager, an employee who did not want to be identified told the newspaper that a boy called the restaurant Friday afternoon looking for Devlin, who was being questioned by the FBI at the time. The worker noticed on the caller ID that the call came from Devlin’s home. The boy told him, “I’m Shawn Wilcox. My father is a friend of Mike Devlin.”
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.
Control through fear
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, both 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, an upper middle class suburban town, noticed a truck matching the description while serving an unrelated warrant at a nearby apartment.
‘Still feel like I’m in a dream’
When FBI agents walked into a suburban St. Louis apartment a day later, 13-year-old Ben Ownby asked them, “Are you going to take me home?”, and another teenager in the modest dwelling identified himself as Shawn 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. Having their son back, they said at a news conference, 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,” said his mother, Pam Akers.
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.”’
At the news conference in an elementary school adorned with balloons and welcome-home signs, the shaggy-haired Hornbeck smiled sheepishly, his mother’s arm draped around him.
At the other news conference, Ben Ownby grinned broadly as his mother recalled that soon after his return home, Ownby immediately 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.”