A pizzeria manager pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges of kidnapping a 13-year-old boy who was found four days later in the man’s apartment with another boy who had been missing for more than four years.
But moments later the chief prosecutor in the case said Michael Devlin, 41, had actually confessed to kidnapping Ben Ownby.
"Basically, when Mr. Devlin was taken into custody he did confess that he had kidnapped Ben Ownby," Franklin County prosecutor Robert Parks told reporters after the arraignment.
He did not elaborate and Devlin's attorneys refused to comment.
Devlin is charged with abducting Ben after the boy stepped off a school bus earlier this month.
Devlin, also a part-time funeral home employee, remained in the Franklin County Jail during the arraignment, appearing through a video hookup. He is jailed on $1 million bond.
Devlin’s defense attorneys told reporters they wanted the case moved from Franklin County.
“There’s no way we can get a fair trial in this county with the amount of attention it’s gotten,” defense attorney Michael Kielty said.
Found in Devlin's apartment
On Wednesday, Devlin was also charged with kidnapping 15-year-old Shawn Hornbeck, who had been missing since October 2002.
Both boys were found at Devlin’s apartment in the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood.
“Shawn was abducted against his will,” Washington County, Mo., prosecutor John Rupp said. “Period. End of story.”
Sheriff Kevin Schroeder would not say whether Shawn was held captive at the apartment for the entire time.
Shawn’s parents told Oprah Winfrey in a show airing Thursday that their son hasn’t told them directly but they believe he was sexually abused during the more than four years he was missing.
“OK, I’m going to go there and ask you, what do you think happened? Do you think he was sexually abused?” Winfrey asked Craig and Pam Akers.
Both nodded and said, “Yes.”
Devlin also is under investigation in the 1991 disappearance of another Missouri boy who still has not been found, The Associated Press has learned.
Devlin is the “most viable lead” in the case of Charles Arlin Henderson, who was 11 when he disappeared in 1991 and has never been found, Lincoln County sheriff’s deputies said.
Rupp said in a statement that Devlin was charged with kidnapping and armed criminal action. The statement does not name Shawn, but uses the initials SDH.
While it is MSNBC.com’s and The Associated Press’ policy not to identify alleged victims of sexual abuse in most cases, Shawn’s case has been widely publicized and his name is well-known. Also, the family has gone public, conducting several national interviews.
A probable cause statement released by Rupp said Devlin “abducted SDH utilizing force for the purpose of terrorizing the victim. After securing SDH, Michael Devlin flourished a handgun in order to gain compliance of the minor child. Michael Devlin then transported him out of the county and concealed his whereabouts for four years and three months.”
Rupp and Schroeder would not discuss evidence in the case beyond the probable cause statement.
'Give Shawn some time'
Schroeder called Shawn “very strong” and “very articulate,” but said investigators are being careful not to push him too hard because of his age.
“Give Shawn some time and proceed through this thing slowly,” Schroeder said. “He’s been away from his family four-and-a-half years. We’ve got to give him some time to rejoin that family unit.
“This is something so bizarre that the normal individual cannot grasp what this then-11-year-old boy went through.”
Charles Arlin Henderson, known as Arlin, was, like the other two boys, about 100 pounds and from a rural town about an hour from St. Louis.
“If you were to take a photo of Arlin Henderson and you place it next to Shawn’s picture, there is a striking resemblance,” Lincoln County sheriff’s Lt. Rick Harrell said.
Investigators began re-examining the 1991 case after Devlin’s arrest. Detective Chris Bartlett said a witness saw a man snapping photos of Arlin before the Moscow Mills boy vanished.
Arlin’s uncle, James McWilliams, said the boy came home from school a few months before he disappeared and told his mother a “tall, thin man” had been taking pictures of him.
Asked whether the man’s description fit that of Devlin, who stands about 6-foot-4 and weighs around 300 pounds, Bartlett said: “It matched the description enough that we have to pursue him as the most viable lead.”
“We’ve got other indications that cause us to be concerned with this,” he added.
Lincoln County deputies have sent their leads to the Franklin County task force that spearheaded the hunt for Ben.
Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke said his office and the FBI were investigating whether Devlin might have been involved in other abductions. FBI spokesman Pete Krusing would not discuss whether the agency was investigating a link between Devlin and the 1991 case.