Alex Tresniowski
February 12, 2007 12:00 PM

He could have walked into any store and yelled out his real name. Or jumped on his bike and pedaled to safety. Or called his parents on his cell, or told his girlfriend, or even confided in the cops who stopped him for breaking curfew. We try to understand, but still we wonder: Why didn’t Shawn Hornbeck try to escape his captor?

Only Shawn can answer that, and so far the Missouri teen—rescued Jan. 12 after being missing for more than four years—has apparently not opened up about his ordeal to his parents or police. “Nobody wants to put a timetable on when he’ll be ready to talk,” says Scott Sherman, an attorney hired by Shawn’s family. “For a child to be in captivity for so long and then returned is uncharted waters.” Yet while only a fraction of children abducted by strangers and held for long periods of time are safely returned to their homes, a few do make it back, and their stories shed light on the particular psychological conditions that can create an invisible leash between a kidnapper and his victim. “I understand why Shawn didn’t say anything to the police officers,” says Todd Bequette, one such survivor. “I know what he was feeling. I’m one of the few people who really understands what Shawn Hornbeck went through.”

Bequette, now 46 and a married father of three grown children, was 13 in 1974, when his school bus dropped him off on a street corner in Omaha, near a store where his mother was waiting. “This guy pulls up and asks me if I wanted a free minibike,” says Bequette, recalling his story in even tones that occasionally betray the pain he still feels. “I said no, but he wouldn’t quit asking. He finally said he’d take me to ask my mom if it was okay. It eased my mind, so I got in.”

So began 18 months of horror. According to Bequette, his abductor, a hulking drifter named Terry Roy Holman, drove him to a motel and sexually molested him for the first of hundreds of times. “He had a gun in my face,” remembers Bequette. “He was 350 lbs. and I was a 75-lb. kid.” Bequette says that for the first week, Holman kept him tied up and drugged with Valium and sleeping pills. After that he continually beat and threatened him. “Once he emptied a .22 revolver between my legs,” says Bequette. “Every day I wondered, ‘Am I going to live or die?'” Holman drove them from town to town, seldom staying for more than a few weeks. Eventually, Bequette says, Holman used him to lure other children and made him watch while he abused them too. “The youngest was 3,” says Bequette. “If I didn’t watch, I’d get beat.”

Finally, in late 1974, Holman slipped up. “He had me call my brother and tell him I’d run away to Tennessee and that I was fine,” says Bequette. The attempt to throw investigators off his trail backfired when they eventually traced the call; in October 1975 police broke into Holman’s cottage in Clarkston, Wash., and rescued Bequette. But even as police led Holman away, all Bequette could say was, “Goodbye, Dad.”

How is it that a victim like Bequette could come to identify with the man he says sexually abused and tortured him? Experts say the initial trauma of being abducted and threatened can have a profound impact. “There are powerful unconscious mechanisms in the brain that kick in during extreme terror and fear,” says C. Robert Cloninger, M.D., director of the Sansone Center for Well-Being at Washington University in St. Louis. One such built-in defense mechanism suppresses rational thought, allowing victims to feel safe by bonding with their abductors. “Once you’ve begun to identify with your captor, you don’t have to fear them anymore, because you’re in harmony with them,” says Cloninger. “We see this in hostage situations, where the emotional brain short-circuits the rational brain.”

Kidnappers can strengthen this hold over young victims in a number of ways. One of the few details Shawn divulged is that his alleged abductor, pizza parlor manager Michael Devlin, woke him up every 45 minutes for some time, a brainwashing technique. Holman, says Bequette, similarly disoriented him by constantly sticking a gun in his face. Holman also said he would kill Bequette and his family if he tried to flee; Shawn says Devlin told him the same thing. “If a child’s anxiety about what can be done by this all-powerful person is so great, it prevents him from seeing there are options,” says Juliet Francis, a consulting psychologist for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “With Shawn, his need to survive seemed to have been much, much greater than his need to escape or to resist.”

The longer the ordeal goes on, the more convincing the kidnappers’ threats and lies become. Holman “told me that since my parents didn’t care about me, he would take care of me,” says Bequette. “He said he was the only person I had.” As the months passed, Bequette never had any reason to disbelieve his captor. “If you are constantly hearing that your parents aren’t coming for you, and then the proof is that they haven’t shown up, it becomes part of your belief,” says Francis. “They think, ‘Here I am, I’m able to have a meal, I get to go out.’ And that prevents them from thinking clearly about what’s in their best interest.” In time small gifts and freedoms can further bond a victim to his captor. Shawn was given video games; Bequette received a bike and a radio. “A child may think, ‘This guy can’t be all bad,’ and they get a sense of gratitude,” says Francis. “Even the smallest act of kindness can strengthen that chain.”

But what about the enormous freedom that Shawn was given to come and go as he pleased? Why did he keep returning to Devlin’s apartment in Kirkwood, Mo.? Why didn’t he call his parents or tell his girlfriend or alert police to who he was? “From the outside it really looks like he had a lot of opportunities to escape,” says Francis. But in fact, the more freedom he was granted, the more he may have felt attached to his abductor. “Being given a little leeway creates a stronger emotional bond,” says Francis. “It makes the invisible leash even tighter. If you look at cases of children who are severely abused by a nurturing authority figure, the child still wants to stay.”

At some point, says Bequette, he simply stopped caring about anything; he just wanted to stay alive. “I felt empty, lost and scared,” he says. “When the investigator found me, they said I was like a robot.” Bequette says that after his rescue, therapy helped a little, but “drugs helped me more.” He overcame an addiction to painkillers, joined the Navy, married Laura Hansen and had three children. Still, he has had trouble holding a job; he’s currently on leave from a position as a maintenance engineer after suffering a stroke. “He goes for weeks at a time where he can’t get out of bed,” says Laura. “He’s been a wonderful dad and he loves me, but it’s been really hard on him.” Bequette is also angry that his abductor was never formally punished for what he did. After his capture, Holman served eight years in prison for an unrelated crime; upon his release prosecutors decided not to try him for Bequette’s kidnapping in order to spare Bequette from having to testify. Holman is now serving a 30-year-to-life sentence for his involvement in a 1987 shootout with police; he could be released as early as next year. “If he showed up at my door,” says Bequette, “I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot him.”

As for the case of Shawn Hornbeck, police won’t confirm reports that Devlin forced Shawn to help kidnap a second victim, Ben Ownby, 13. Nor will they say whether they plan to hit Devlin—so far charged only with kidnapping—with sexual abuse charges before a preliminary hearing set for March 15. Shawn has yet to return to school and is instead spending time with his family and friends. His parents, Pam and Craig Akers, “are looking all over the world to put together the very best team to get Shawn the help that he needs,” says his lawyer Scott Sherman. Shawn will need “an environment of no judging and no blaming,” says Dr. Cloninger. “It will take a good working alliance with a parent or best friend.”

Todd Bequette believes that in time Shawn will want to discuss whatever horrors he endured, horrors that very few others can fathom. But right now “there’s no one he can talk to,” says Bequette. “You can talk to all the psychiatrists you want, but unless you’ve been through it, nobody knows. What happened to us is not in any book.”

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