After This Boy Was Abducted Near His Home, He Made A Last-Gasp Deal With His Captor

Shawn Hornbeck had been held captive for a month when his abductor decided to dispose of him. The older man drove the boy to an isolated area of woods in Washington County, Missouri and dragged Hornbeck out of the pickup truck. The man clasped his hands around the child’s throat. Then he started choking the life out of Hornbeck.

Hornbeck – a dark-haired boy with a bright smile and a distinctive hoop earring in his left ear – had been just 11 years old when he was abducted. At that time, he had been living with his mother and his stepfather, Pam and Craig Akers, in Richwoods, where he attended a nearby elementary school.

Then, on October 6, 2002, Hornbeck was out riding his bicycle near his home when a driver knocked him over. The individual responsible subsequently bundled the boy into his truck and drove him to Kirkwood, a suburb of St. Louis – some 60 miles away. “You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” the man told Hornbeck, according to an account of the kidnapping published in the Missouri Daily Journal in 2013.

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Following Hornbeck’s abduction, emergency services, police investigators and volunteers mounted a vast search operation for the 11-year-old. Meanwhile, Pam and Craig Akers publicized the case by appearing on TV. However, on The Montel Williams Show, a psychic called Sylvia Browne echoed their worst fears. According to her, their son was dead.

In fact, Hornbeck had been abducted by a 36-year-old pizza parlor manager called Michael Devlin. Raised in Webster Groves, Montana, Devlin was one of four adopted brothers; he also had two sisters. And after kidnapping Hornbeck, Devlin kept the boy tied to a futon at his Kirkwood apartment, frequently sexually abusing him. After Hornbeck had been with Devlin for a month or so, however, he decided to get rid of his captive.

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So Devlin took Hornbeck to a secluded spot in the woods and started choking him; he fully intended to kill the boy. Hornbeck pleaded with his captor, however. In exchange for his life, he promised to unconditionally surrender to Devlin and do whatever he wanted. And he would never compromise their arrangement, either – a pact that some might call “a deal with the devil.”

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Devlin decided to let Hornbeck live – but for a price. Hornbeck would tell 48 Hours Mystery in 2008, “I’ve gone through some stuff that’ll send psychiatrists insane. It’s on a level [that most people have] never had to experience… [there are] a lot of gory, nasty details that a lot of people really can’t handle.” He added, “There wasn’t a day when I didn’t think he was just gonna kill me. There were times when it seemed like I was better off dead.”

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And in Devlin’s captivity, weeks turned into months and then years. Hornbeck lost track of time entirely, in fact. But Devlin eventually trusted him enough to let him socialize with a buddy, have a girlfriend, visit the mall and go skateboarding unsupervised. He even gave the boy driving lessons. What’s more, neighbors simply assumed that Hornbeck was Devlin’s son. But with so many opportunities to escape, why didn’t Hornbeck just run?

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According to Dr. Robert Pynoos, co-director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, Hornbeck’s compliance was probably maintained by continuous threats which reinforced the initial trauma of the abduction. “Unless you understand the child’s experience of that threat and the ways in which it is renewed,” Pynoos told Newsweek in 2007, “you can’t understand the actions of that child.”

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Indeed, Dr. Terri Weaver, a psychology professor at St. Louis University, has suggested that Devlin may have instilled such a “paralyzing sense of fear” in Hornbeck that he experienced his abductor as “omnipresent.” “When a young child is taken from his family and isolated and perhaps threatened,” she told Newsweek, “and those threats are backed up by violence, all that plays a tremendous role in silencing the child.”

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Furthermore, Hornbeck may also have been suffering from “Stockholm syndrome” – an infamous psychological condition where a captive feels an emotional attachment to their captor. The syndrome can occur if a captor infantilizes his captive by meeting his basic needs for food and love. Under those conditions, the captive may begin to experience a kind of gratitude that can then develop into a bond.

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However, on January 8, 2007, Devlin abducted a second child: 13-year-old Ben Ownby. Hornbeck, who accompanied Devlin in his truck, witnessed the abduction and became nervous. “The days got slimmer,” he told 48 Hours Mystery in 2008. “’Cause it’s a replacement. When you get a new car, what do you do with the old one? You usually get rid of it, right?”

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But four days later, police happened to be in Devlin’s neighborhood on an unrelated warrant-serving mission. They noticed that the white truck in his building’s parking lot matched the description of a vehicle seen around at the time and place of Ownby’s abduction. As a consequence, FBI Special Agent Lynn Willett was dispatched to investigate.

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According to Willet, who spoke to People in 2017, she suspected Devlin from the moment that she saw him in the pizza parlor. “He glanced up once and then he didn’t look at all,” she said. “That’s my first clue. My Spidey-senses were up almost immediately.” However, the breakthrough did not come until later that evening, when Willet and Devlin were talking in the back of his truck.

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Willet continued to People, “Our focus was on Ben. [Devlin and I] were sitting in the back seat. He was turned to look at me and I was turned to look at him. Looking at the side of his neck, I could see the pulse quicken, I could see a physiological change when we would talk about the abduction.” Eventually, after hours of talking, Devlin cracked, and he duly led Willet to the kidnapped boys.

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After that, Devlin was placed in custody, while the boys were reunited with their families. It was then revealed that Hornbeck had tried to protect Ownby. “I think that Shawn Hornbeck is really a hero,” Ethan Corlija, one of Devlin’s own attorneys, told The Washington Post in 2007. “He really threw himself on the sword many times so that Ben would not have to go through any undue torture.”

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Meanwhile, Devlin himself stood trial for a litany of charges in four jurisdictions. His crimes included forcible sodomy, kidnapping, armed criminal action and the making of child pornography. He pleaded guilty to all counts and received a string of life sentences totaling 1,850 years. Another 170 years was later added. Devlin is currently incarcerated at Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, MO, and will never walk free.

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Meanwhile, both of Devlin’s victims appear to have made a recovery. According to People, Ownby continues to live and study in St. Louis. “[He] is doing really well,” a retired sheriff told the magazine in 2017. “He’s into video production and has shown me some of his work.”

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And according to a 2013 interview published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Hornbeck continues to live in Richwoods with his parents. After catching up on his missed education, he found a full-time job at a metal factory. He also maintains a philosophical outlook about his abduction experience.

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“I just feel like [the abduction is] always going to be part of my life,” Hornbeck said. “Maybe it’s part of my mission, to reach out and offer hope.” Indeed, Hornbeck, who is now in his mid-20s, is still a young man with much to offer the world. He also has two tattoos on his arms: one says, “faith,” while the other says “respect.”

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