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COVER STORY: The Kidnapped Missouri Boys

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HUY RICHARD MARCH/ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH; J. B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

When FBI agents set out in search of Ben Ownby, a 13-year-old Beaufort, Mo., boy kidnapped on Jan. 8, they were hoping to find him alive. They never expected to find not just Ownby, but Shawn Hornbeck, 15, who’d been missing since 2002.

On Jan. 12, federal agents – acting on a tip from one of Ben’s schoolmates, who reported seeing a white truck near Ben’s home the day he disappeared – raided a ground-floor apartment in Kirkwood, a St. Louis suburb, and found both Ben and Shawn inside. They also arrested their apparent abductor, Michael Devlin, 41, at the Kirkwood pizza parlor where he worked as a manager.

On Thursday, Devlin – an imposing figure at 6’4″ and 300 lbs. – pleaded not guilty to kidnapping charges from the Franklin County jail where he is being held.

The rescues of the two boys were miraculous – but they also raised perplexing questions. How did Devlin, who passed Shawn off as his son and allowed him to take frequent unsupervised trips, manage to keep him in his custody for so long? And why didn’t Shawn take advantage of his many encounters with people and announce himself to be the boy on the missing posters still up in the area?

It was on a Sunday afternoon in October 2002 that 11-year-old Shawn hopped on his lime-green mountain bike and rode off to visit a friend. He never got there. Shawn’s stepfather Craig quit his job as VP of a technology firm and, with Shawn’s mother, Pam, set up a foundation, enlisted 1,600 volunteers and appeared on the Montel Williams Show.

“Craig put 100 percent of his time into looking for Shawn,” says family friend Chris Diamond. “They never let up.”

For all that time, it now appears, Shawn was 50 miles away, hidden in plain sight. His alleged captor, Devlin, worked at Imo’s Pizza for more than 20 years. “He was a gentle guy, completely under the radar,” says Imo’s owner Mike Prosperi.

His neighbors, though, say Devlin had a nasty temper. “Everyone had a conflict with him,” says Krista Jones, who lived across from him. “I just thought he was a weirdo.”

“It kind of blows your mind,” says Ben Ownby (back home with his family on Jan. 14) of having so many people searching for him. “I guess they care.”
Those who saw Shawn around the apartment complex assumed he was Devlin’s son; some who noticed he never went to school figured he’d dropped out. “We just thought he was a kid whose dad didn’t care when he came home,” says Eguana Boykin, who lives in the complex. “We never saw any bruises or abuse.”

So why didn’t Shawn make an attempt to escape? Police say it’s because Devlin threatened to kill Shawn and his family if he tried to run.

Then on Jan. 8, Devlin apparently struck again: Ben Ownby, a straight-A student at his Beaufort grade school, disappeared after getting off his school bus at around 3:35 p.m.

Fortunately, police had a lead. Ben’s neighbor Mitchell Hults, 15, told authorities he saw an unfamiliar white truck with a camper shell parked near the Ownbys’ home that afternoon. Three days later police spotted a truck matching Mitchell’s description in Devlin’s apartment complex. The FBI raided the apartment the next day after Devlin left for work. “Are you going to take me home?” Ben asked the agents.

For Shawn Hornbeck’s parents, having Shawn home again was both a dream and a shock. Some 30 pounds heavier and 5 inches taller than when they last saw him, and with several new body piercings, Shawn “is having a difficult time with all the commotion around the house,” says family friend Kim Evans. “He’s used to a quiet, rather solitary existence, and it’s challenging for him right now.” On his first night home, he spent hours talking with his two older sisters; he also told his parents he’s eager to go back to school.

Ben, too, is ready to resume his old life. On his first day back, he asked for a snack of fried chicken and finished it in his bedroom. Early the next morning, “I checked on him,” says Doris, “and I was so happy to see him there.”

Devlin is also being investigated as the “most viable lead” in the case of another missing boy from Missouri, 11-year-old Arlin Henderson, who disappeared in 1991.

For the complete story, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.