In plain sight, but missing

Times Staff Writer

Like father, like son, figured Michael Devlin's neighbors when they saw the bulky 41-year-old and the black-haired 15-year-old boy who lived with him.

Devlin, a manager at a pizza parlor who worked nights answering phones at a funeral home, kept to himself. The youth everyone assumed was Devlin's son was just as private, fleeing into the small apartment when neighbors even smiled at him. He rode his bike around this comfortable suburb even during school hours -- he did not attend school -- and occasionally took Devlin's white pickup for a spin.

No one suspected the sinister connection now alleged: that Devlin kidnapped Shawn Hornbeck more than four years ago. Devlin, who grew up in the area, was being held Saturday on one count of kidnapping. Bail was set at $1 million.

A day after police found Shawn and a 13-year-old boy missing since Monday in Devlin's apartment, residents struggled to understand how Shawn could have been a captive who lived in plain sight.

And, they recalled, he appeared to have as much freedom as a teenager could have.

He sported multiple piercings and carried a skateboard. Neighbors said he had a friend who regularly came over, tossed a football around with him and occasionally spent the night. A girl recently began to visit, and she and Shawn were seen holding hands.

Though the door to Apartment D was almost always closed, neighbors occasionally spotted Shawn sitting on the couch inside, playing Nintendo.

Still, there was much that they did not know.

Many neighbors were unaware of Shawn's name before Friday. Shawn's "father" seemed to speak to his neighbors only to scold them for parking in his designated spot, the closest one to the door of his ground-floor apartment. Devlin pulled up in his pickup with Shawn one night in August and started yelling at a neighbor who had taken his spot. Devlin called the police, who spoke with him before issuing a citation to other residents.

Neighbor Cynthia Dixon, 54, spoke for many in trying to understand Shawn's situation. "He didn't look depressed or anything," she said. "He could have come to any grown-up and said, 'This guy has taken me.' "

In an interview Saturday on "Good Morning America Weekend Edition," Hornbeck's stepfather said Shawn was unable to flee. "He's been held against his will, and since that time he's been threatened with his life," said Craig Akers. "He thought that ... it would be the end of his life if he tried to tell anyone or do anything."

Shawn accompanied his mother and stepfather to an emotional morning news conference in a school auditorium near the small town southwest of St. Louis where he vanished in fall 2002. The stage was festooned with yellow and blue balloons and signs saying "Welcome back" and "We've all missed you, Shawn."

The gangly teen looked far different from the 90-pound, 4-foot-8 11-year-old who disappeared four years ago. He did not speak, and reporters were told not to direct questions to him. Dressed in a dark-blue hooded sweatshirt, Shawn tightly hugged his mother, Pam Akers, as the news conference began.

"I want to give other families out there hope that their child can come home, also," she said, her voice shaking. "I feel like I'm in a dream, only this time it's a good dream, it's not my nightmare that I've lived for four years."

She sobbed briefly, then added: "We've got a lot of catching up to do."

On Oct. 6, 2002, Shawn was last seen riding his green mountain bike from his home to a friend's house in the dense woods around Richwoods, Mo. Police received a 911 call that someone had spotted a boy tied up in a pickup truck, but authorities could not find him. Some speculated Shawn had been hit by a car and killed. His mother and stepfather did not give up looking for him. They formed a foundation in his name to help search for him and other missing children.

The search for Shawn captivated the region for weeks, and residents compared it to the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart, the Salt Lake City teen whose disappearance a few months earlier became a national sensation. After she was found being openly held by a religious zealot in 2003, people questioned why she did not flee.

The circumstances under which the two missing children were found caused some to recall the California case of Steven Stayner. In 1972, at age 7, Steven was kidnapped in Merced on his way home from school. When he was 14, his abductor, Kenneth Parnell, kidnapped another boy, 5-year-old Timmy White. Steven later escaped, taking Timmy with him.

When William "Ben" Ownby vanished Monday after getting off a school bus near his home in tiny Beaufort, about 60 miles west of St. Louis, it galvanized the community. A classmate had seen a white Nissan pickup with a camper shell as Ben was leaving the bus, and police scoured the region for the vehicle.

Just such a pickup was the reason Mario Emanuel, 29, always gave Devlin a wide berth. Emanuel, his wife and their two young children live across from Devlin's apartment in a working-class notch of this generally affluent suburb.

Emanuel runs a business installing satellite dishes, and occasionally his contractors park in the tenants' spots in the alley behind the buildings. Devlin would honk his horn if he drove by and spotted unauthorized cars there.

"If you're not parked in his parking spot, there's no trouble with that man," Emanuel said. "He will not look at you, he'll go straight into his apartment."

In August, neighbor Rob Bushelle, 29, pulled his car into Devlin's spot about 10 p.m. Suddenly, Devlin's white pickup drove up right next to him, with Shawn in the passenger seat. Bushelle said Devlin screamed at him and Shawn ran inside. Across the way, Emanuel and his family had been barbecuing outside but went indoors, sensing trouble.

Devlin called the Kirkwood police, who separated the men and spoke with them individually. Bushelle watched Devlin go from raging to calm the moment the officers appeared. "He was so smooth that when he slept, sheep were counting him," Bushelle said.

Devlin finished talking to the officers and pointed them to the Emanuel apartment. Emanuel said they questioned him and later called his landlord and gave his wife a citation for allegedly running the satellite installation business from home without a license. Kirkwood police confirmed that Devlin had called and that a citation had been issued to a neighbor.

"I thought he was racist," said Emanuel, who is Latino, of Devlin, who is white. Now, he said, he knows that Devlin is just "bad."

It was Friday night that the neighbors learned the shocking allegations involving Devlin. Police had served an unrelated warrant in the area and spotted a white pickup matching the one described in the Ben Ownby case.

Devlin's family released a statement through lawyers Saturday saying they were glad Ben and Shawn had each been reunited with their families. The statement said: "Just as we are relieved that both Ben and Shawn are now safe, we hope that Michael will be safe as the facts of his case are revealed."

Employees at the pizzeria where Devlin worked for 15 years say management has directed them not to talk publicly. The funeral home where he worked two nights a week for the last year issued a statement saying he was not well-known there.

At another jubilant Saturday morning news conference, Ben's parents said they did not want to talk about Devlin.

"Now that we've got our son back," Don Ownby said, "we're not going to think about [Devlin]."

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

Times staff writer Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.

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