The Man with Two Lives

Mike Prosperi, Michael Devlin’s boss and friend at Imo’s Pizza, didn’t want to believe that his former manager was a vicious sexual predator. Instead he harbored the desperate hope that Devlin had only kidnapped two Missouri teens for companionship—for someone with whom he could play video games. So when told on Feb. 5 that Devlin had just been formally charged with 69 counts of forcible sodomy on Shawn Hornbeck, 15, and Ben Ownby, 13, Prosperi had a hard time accepting it. “We were hoping that it was just that he was a lonely guy,” Prosperi told PEOPLE. After a moment he added, “I haven’t been able to process this yet. I am shocked.”

The charges weren’t the only new twist in the case. At an earlier press conference, St. Louis county prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced that Devlin, 41, “acknowledged committing these acts”—an assertion that Devlin’s lawyers didn’t confirm or deny. (Each of the sodomy charges carries a potential life sentence.) Meanwhile, new information emerged suggesting that Devlin may have somehow coerced Hornbeck—who was kidnapped in 2002 from his home in Richwoods, Mo.—into assisting in the abduction and four-day detention of Ownby last month.

Above all, many find it hard to reconcile the two Michael Devlins—the one they knew and the one in the orange prison garb. According to a source close to Devlin’s family, no one noticed any red flags: “Other than that you had a 41-year-old guy who never dated or aspired to a career and who is quiet, it was a normal situation.” But according to retired FBI behavior analyst Kenneth Lanning, those leading double lives, especially sex offenders, can become quite adept at compartmentalizing their behavior. “The person may look normal: have a job, work hard, go to church,” says Lanning.

“The indicators are things the average person is not trained to recognize.”

As an infant Devlin was adopted by James Devlin, an insurance executive, and his wife, Joyce, who became a grade-school teacher. The Devlins—living in the affluent enclave of Webster Groves, Mo.—had two biological daughters and adopted four boys. They “made a loving home for all of them,” says former neighbor Susan Dames. But there were signs that Michael Devlin didn’t fit in. Overweight for most of his life, Devlin was teased by classmates. “He didn’t date or go to the prom or seem interested in girls,” says Ann Houston, another neighbor.

In high school he started work at Imo’s, where his co-workers called him “Devo” and a somewhat argumentative personality emerged. “He had an opinion on everything; he was a know-it-all kind of guy,” says Joel Wilder, who worked with Devlin for 10 years. Yet as he got older, Devlin, a video game fanatic, began to lose his few close friends. “I guess you could say I was lonely,” Devlin told the New York Post after his arrest. “All my friends started getting married and having kids.”

What Devlin managed to hide from everyone was that he too wound up living with a kid, Shawn Hornbeck. “He had two groups of people in his life: those who could never know about Shawn, and his neighbors in Kirkwood, who saw Shawn all the time,” says the family friend. “And he was sharp enough to keep those two groups separate.”

He was also apparently able to gain extraordinary control over Shawn in a short period of time. In December 2002—just two months after Shawn disappeared from his home—Devlin was diagnosed with diabetes. He had two toes amputated and spent three weeks recovering in a hospital and at his parents’ home. Back at the apartment, Shawn was apparently taking care of himself. “He never gave us any indication that he was abducted,” says Kelly Douglas, the sister-in-law of Tony Douglas, 15, who became Shawn’s best friend during this period, “and we had lots of very personal conversations.”

The facade Devlin constructed for himself and Shawn finally collapsed on Jan. 12, with his arrest. Devlin’s parents first learned about it when they saw their son in handcuffs on the news that night. Still reeling from the shock, no one in his family has yet visited Devlin, although his mother has written him a letter. As for the Hornbecks, they have assembled a team of specialists to treat their son. “I won’t say Shawn is in seclusion,” says family attorney Scott Sherman, “but he is being protected.”

In light of his purported confession, it is unclear whether Devlin will ever stand trial. Prosecutors may be hoping that he will plead guilty, sparing Shawn and Ben further ordeal and leaving friends and family to puzzle over how it all happened. “After Michael was arrested, I felt really sad,” says Mike Prosperi. “I realize now it was because the friend I knew was dead.”

Updated by Lisa Barron
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