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It was a shocking discovery that prompted an emotional response from even the veteran police officers who made it. Looking for a boy who had been kidnapped four days earlier, they found another boy who had been missing for four years. But the miraculous recovery of the missing teen immediately raised as many questions as it answered.
On January 12, 2007, the investigation into the disappearance of a 13-year-old Missouri boy who was last seen four days before getting off the school bus, resulted in the discovery of Shawn Hornbeck, 15, in an apartment near St. Louis.
Police serving an arrest warrant in an apartment complex for another person spotted a white pickup truck that matched the description of one being sought in the disappearance of Ben Ownby, who was last seen near his home in Beaufort, Missouri, about 60 miles southwest of St. Louis.
Why Didn't He Escape?
When police served a search warrant on the apartment of Michael Devlin, listed as the owner of the pickup truck, they found Ben Ownby along with Hornbeck, who disappeared in October 2002 while riding his bike in Richwoods, Missouri, about 50 miles southwest of St. Louis.
Immediately questions were raised as to how Devlin was able to hold Shawn Hornbeck in an apartment for four years without him being able to get away, although he had several opportunities to escape.
Neighbors reported seeing young Hornbeck hanging around outside of his apartment complex, unsupervised. He would also ride along the neighborhood streets on his skateboard or bike, alone or with a friend from the complex. When he was nearing the age to get a driver's license, neighbors saw Devlin giving him driving lessons. Most assumed that they were father and son.
Hornbeck also had contact with the police four times during his captivity. One time he spoke to the police after he and his girlfriend discovered that his bike had been stolen while parked outside of a shopping mall.
He also had access to a computer and posted on the website dedicated to Hornbeck that his parents put up. He asked in his post how long they would keep looking for their son and he signed it with the name Shawn Devlin.
Why didn't he run away? Why didn't he reach out for help?
Deal With the Devil
When Michael Devlin pleaded guilty in four different courtrooms to charges related to kidnapping and assaulting the two boys, the answers to those questions were revealed.
Shortly after Devlin kidnapped Hornbeck, back in 2002, he planned to kill the boy after repeatedly sexually assaulting him. He took Shawn back to Washington County in his pickup truck, he pulled him from the truck and began to strangle him.
"I attempted to kill (Shawn) and he talked me out of it," Devlin said. He stopped choking the boy and sexually assaulted him again. In what prosecutors called a "deal with the devil," Shawn told Devlin at that time that he would do whatever Devlin wanted him to do to stay alive.
"We know now the details that made him not run away," said Shawn's stepfather, Craig Akers.
Over the years, Devlin used many methods to control Shawn. The details of the abuse Shawn endured are so horrific and graphic that it was not released by most media outlets, although the reports were readily available. Devlin admitted to making pornographic photographs and videotapes of Shawn and taking him across state lines to engage in sex acts.
To continue to control Shawn, Devlin took him with him when he abducted Ben Ownby in January 2007, telling Shawn that because he was in the truck he was an accomplice to the crime.
Shawn Protected Ben Ownby
Authorities said Shawn was a hero, who tried to protect Ben Ownby from the torture that he had to endure. Devlin told Shawn that he planned to kill Ownby after keeping him a short time.
"I think that Shawn Hornbeck is really a hero," Ethan Corlija, one of Devlin's attorneys, told reporters. "He really threw himself on the sword many times so Ben would not have to go through any undue torture."
Devlin entered guilty pleas to dozens of charges in four different courts. At last count, he received 74 life sentences to run consecutively, which will keep him in prison the rest of his life.
"We're just so glad this is the outcome, that the monster is caged and will remain caged," said Craig Akers.