Down a long gravel road, in a one-story house by a Missouri highway, visitors learn what a miracle feels like – it feels like an albino ferret named Ghost. “She’s kind of smelly,” says young Ben Ownby – who just a week earlier had been abducted on that same gravel road and vanished for four hellish days – before plopping his squirmy pet on a guest’s lap. “I saved up the money to get her: $140.” As Ben, 13, rounds up one of his five cats, his father, Don, explains how all the holiday decorations still up in the house – the chaos of the past week didn’t leave any time to take them down – will now come in handy. “Christmas,” he says, “might go on a while longer.”
The gift of Ben’s safe return would be remarkable all on its own, but his rescue yielded a second miracle: the discovery of Shawn Hornbeck, 15, missing since 2002. On Jan. 12 FBI agents – acting on a tip provided by one of Ben’s schoolmates, who reported seeing a white truck near Ben’s home in Beaufort, Mo., the day he disappeared – raided a ground-floor apartment in Kirkwood, a St. Louis suburb, and found both Ben and Shawn inside. The FBI also arrested their apparent abductor, Michael Devlin, 41, at the Kirkwood pizza parlor where he worked as a manager. Finding two missing teenagers in one place, especially when one has been missing for as long as Shawn Hornbeck, “is certainly very rare,” says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, citing the return of Elizabeth Smart in 2003 as one of the very few examples of a child being found alive after so long. “The most powerful thing about this case is that it provides real hope for other searching families.”
But the rescues 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? Didn’t neighbors find it suspicious that Shawn never went to school? And why didn’t Shawn take advantage of his many encounters with people – he was even stopped by police for breaking curfew – and announce himself to be the boy on the missing posters still up in the area, including one on a bench near Devlin’s home?
For now, prosecutors – who didn’t say whether any sexual abuse occurred – are expected to charge Devlin only with kidnapping. “There are some shocking facts about this case that have yet to come out,” says Devlin’s lawyer Ethan Corlija. So far, investigators have not pushed Ben or Shawn for too many details about their abductions. “We haven’t gotten into anything about that,” says Washington County Sheriff Kevin Schroeder, whose department has been on the case since 2002. “We think it’s more important that he have time to reconnect with his family.” Friends and relatives, too, were careful to give them time to readjust. “I just told my kids, ‘Do not ask,’ ” says Connie Feth, whose son Tyler is Ben’s best friend. “When he’s ready to talk, he’ll talk. He needs to be a kid now.”
For Shawn Hornbeck’s parents, Pam and Craig Akers – who went through their life savings trying to find him – 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, who lives near the Akerses in Richwoods, Mo. “He’s used to a quiet, rather solitary existence, and it’s challenging for him right now.”
It was on a Sunday afternoon in October 2002 that 11-year-old Shawn – “a normal kid who liked movies and video games,” says close family friend Chris Diamond – hopped on his lime-green mountain bike and rode off to visit a friend. He never got there. Shawn’s stepfather Craig (his biological father died when Shawn was a child) 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 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 – an imposing figure at 6’4″ and 300 lbs. – was raised in Webster Groves, a St. Louis suburb near Kirkwood, and worked at Imo’s Pizza for more than 20 years (he also answered phones at a funeral parlor a couple of nights a week). His only brush with the law: two minor traffic violations in the late ’80s. “He was a gentle guy, completely under the radar,” says Imo’s owner Mike Prosperi, who has known him for 25 years and says he was a reliable worker who got along well with police officers who often ate at the parlor.
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.” Harry Reichard, who lived directly above him, says Devlin once tussled with his roommate. “He literally got right up in his face,” says Reichard. “Devlin was about intimidation.” 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. “Sometimes when Mike was working, [Shawn] would have the door open, and he’d be playing video games and talking on the phone,” says Jones. “We saw Devlin teaching him how to drive.” Shawn could often be seen tossing a football with a friend, or riding his bike or skateboard around. If anything, some neighbors felt that Shawn, who seemed to come and go as he pleased, had too much freedom. “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.”
Even in captivity Shawn had access to most of the trappings of teenage life. He had a cell phone and a computer and appeared to have profiles on Yahoo! and MindViz (police haven’t said whether they believe Shawn or Devlin created the profiles). He even apparently posted a message to his family’s Web site, signing it Shawn Devlin of Kirkwood, Mo. “How long are you planing [sic] to look for your son?” the message read. Shawn had a best friend, Tony, with whom he broke curfew (police drove Shawn back to Devlin’s apartment) and recently was seen holding hands with someone neighbors assumed was his girlfriend.
Devlin apparently felt comfortable enough with the ruse to call the police himself, once because of a dispute over his parking spot. “I hadn’t been [in his spot] for two minutes when Devlin pulls up next to me and starts screaming,” says neighbor Rob Bushelle. “Shawn got out of the truck and gave me a roll-of-his-eyes kind of look, like ‘Well, buddy, my dad is going to kick your ass.’ ” This October Shawn even worked as a volunteer at the St. Louis Cardinals’ World Series parade. Shawn “seemed to be enjoying the day,” says a fellow volunteer. “It would have been incredibly easy for him to go up to one of the number of police who were there and say, ‘Hey, here I am!’ ”
So why didn’t he? Police say it’s because Devlin threatened to kill Shawn and his family if he tried to run. “A threat to your life leads to helplessness and horror,” says Terri Weaver, an associate psychology professor at Saint Louis University. Devlin’s upstairs neighbor says he often heard Devlin browbeating Shawn. “You’d hear Mike yell, ‘Can’t you do anything right?’ ” says Reichard. Shawn may also have believed that neighbors were already aware that something was wrong. “Kids think adults know everything,” says Weaver. “Shawn knew that neighbors knew he wasn’t going to school, and nobody said or did anything about it.” Ed Smart, father of Elizabeth Smart, points out that it’s possible Shawn did indeed attempt to escape. “With Elizabeth, there were times she did try to get away, was caught and brought back and threatened again. She thought, ‘It’s not only my life in jeopardy when I run, it’s my whole family.’ ”
Then on Jan. 8, Devlin apparently struck again. Ben Ownby, a straight-A student and science Olympian at his Beaufort grade school, got off his school bus at around 3:35 p.m. His cautious parents had taught him to run down the 500-ft. gravel road to his house and quickly lock the front door behind him. “He was never allowed to get in a car with anybody but us,” says Doris. “We were that careful.” But when Don Ownby returned from work just 15 minutes after the school bus, Ben wasn’t home. His parents rounded up friends and neighbors to print and distribute flyers within hours of Ben’s disappearance.
Fortunately they had a lead, and it was a good one. Ben’s neighbor Mitchell Hults, 15, who rides the same school bus, told authorities he saw an unfamiliar white truck with a camper shell parked sideways near the Ownbys’ home that afternoon. Three days later police working an unrelated case spotted a truck matching Mitchell’s description in Devlin’s apartment complex. The officers contacted the FBI, which staked out the apartment and raided it the next day after Devlin left for work. “Are you going to take me home?” Ben asked the FBI agents.
Craig Akers was driving home from work with his wife when they got a call from a prosecuting attorney. “He told me that he was 95 percent sure they had found Shawn,” Craig told reporters. “It was just unreal.” In Beaufort Don and Doris Ownby were sitting down to do a TV interview in their home when a sheriff arrived. “He said, ‘We got him,’ ” remembers Doris. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ I wasn’t sure if we got the bad guy or Ben. Once he said Ben, I screamed.” Before rushing out to get his son, Don Ownby grabbed a pack of multiflavor Dentyne gum from Ben’s room. “It’s his favorite,” he says. “I was saving it for him.”
Experts say Ben and Shawn will likely need counseling, and a gradual return to normalcy, to help them cope. “They will need a sense of routine,” says Terri Weaver. “No one can make what happened go away, but they have to integrate what happened, and it will take time.” Certainly Shawn has a lot of catching up to do. 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.” An ice storm knocked out the power in the Ownbys’ home, allowing them to avoid all television coverage of their son’s rescue and focus on getting back to normal. “We’re playing it day by day,” says Doris, who does want to throw a big party for all the friends and family who searched for Ben.
Hearing that, Ben groans. “I’ll be squeezed to death by bruises!” he says. Doris smiles at her son. “He asked me how much longer I’m going to hug him,” she says. “And I said, ‘Forever.’ ”
• By Alex Tresniowski and Pam Lambert. Eileen Finan in Beaufort, Pam Grout in Kansas, Cathy Free in Salt Lake City, Lorna Grisby in Chicago, Joanne Fowler in New York City and Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C