By Richard Jerome
Updated July 23, 2007 12:00 PM

On July 17, Shawn Hornbeck turns 16. For some kids that might mean a blowout with friends—and nothing remotely resembling a parent nearby. But as for Shawn, he plans a quiet 16th at home in Richwoods, Mo., surrounded by family, eating his dad’s spaghetti—and savoring every minute. After all, he has some lost time to make up: the four years, three months and six days he spent with Michael Devlin, the pizza-parlor manager accused of abducting, sexually abusing and attempting to murder him. This will be Shawn’s first birthday since FBI agents rescued him and 13-year-old Ben Ownby from Devlin’s Kirkwood, Mo., apartment on Jan. 12. As his father, Craig Akers, puts it, “We still can’t believe something this incredible has happened. You can’t give up hope, no matter what.”

Of course, once you get past the miracle of it all, the fact remains that his son is going through a delicate period of adjustment. “Our biggest priority now is his mental well-being and education,” says Akers, who declines to discuss specific emotional problems Shawn may or may not be experiencing. He does volunteer that Shawn meets regularly with a team of therapists and, while being homeschooled, receives private tutoring. With that help, “he’s in good spirits, making up ground,” says his father, who runs a computer network for a freight logistics company. “He was in fourth grade when he was abducted and still at that level when he came back, but already he’s learning at a seventh- and eighth-grade level. Our goal is to get him up to speed so he can graduate with the kids he started school with. Other than that, he plays baseball and basketball and does normal activities 15-year-olds do. We’ve let him spend the night a couple of times with friends. It’s not easy for us, but you have to find a happy medium. We’re very thorough about monitoring who he’s with.”

To the public, much about Shawn’s case remains mysterious—above all what happened to him during his captivity. With Devlin facing trials in four jurisdictions on at least 89 different counts, Akers and his wife, Pam, remain mum about whatever details Shawn has provided. One seeming twist was that Devlin evidently allowed him to bike around town, make friends, use the Internet and have a cell phone. That invited curiosity about why the boy didn’t try to escape, or at least call his parents or police. The family bristles at the question, believing it casts blame on their son. Psychologists, meanwhile, say abductors, even those less imposing than the 6’4″, 240-lb. Devlin, commonly manipulate or terrorize children that way—say, by threatening to kill them or their family.

In any event, Shawn’s parents have made a concerted effort to shield their son from all reminders of his time with Devlin, banning all TV news for fear he’ll see a report on his case. Calls from Tony Douglas, 15, Shawn’s best pal during captivity, go unanswered, though whether Craig and Pam are behind it isn’t clear. “They were inseparable for four years—Tony’s lost without Shawn,” says Kelly Douglas, Tony’s aunt.

If the Akerses have tried to shelter Shawn, they’re also dealing with a surprising by-product of his ordeal: He’s something of a rock star. After his rescue, Shawn’s shaggy-haired, pierced-lipped image splashed across every news medium, with the result that he gets a healthy share of fan mail from adolescent girls. “Let’s just say Shawn has no shortage of teenage fans,” says family lawyer Scott Sherman. (A Shawn Hornbeck imposter has even cropped up on the Internet, trawling for dates.)

Indeed, the strange and compelling case has brought the whole Akers family (including Shawn’s older sisters Jackie and Jennie) a vaguely lurid fame. Periodically hounded by paparazzi, Craig recalls eluding them one night, “on a wild ride through the streets of Chicago. Most people leave you alone, but you hear whispers and feel the stares. Then there’s folks that want to say hi and get a hug.”

Shortly after Shawn’s disappearance, the Akers clan started up a nonprofit Shawn Hornbeck Foundation, devoted to finding lost children. Operating out of their basement, they take calls from parents of missing children, disseminate information and pictures of the kids, and also visit schools and youth groups throughout the Midwest giving safety talks warning of so-called “stranger danger.” The foundation has a 24-member certified search and rescue team, including a trained canine corps. When 18-year-old Kelsey Smith was kidnapped and murdered in June, Craig, Pam and several volunteers drove to Kansas City, set up search operations and comforted the Smiths. Shawn “is a big part of the foundation,” says director Sherri Martin. “Behind the scenes, but here in every way.” (For now, at least, while he works through his trauma, Shawn’s being present is largely symbolic, though he does fold brochures.)

At present, attorney Sherman is prepping the teenager to testify against Devlin, whose trials will likely begin early next year. “Shawn can’t wait for the day he testifies,” says his dad. “As draining and traumatic as it might be, he’s looking forward to getting justice.”