Shawn Hornbeck

On October 6, 2002, Pam Akers's entire world was changed. While riding to a friend's house, Pam's son, Shawn Hornbeck, disappeared. At first, the family thought Shawn was simply late, but after 45 minutes, Pam says she had a gut feeling that something terrible had happened. Immediately, Pam and her husband, Craig, jumped in the car and scoured their neighborhood for a sign of their son.

"[We] went to different places where he might've been, went to where we thought he was supposed to have been earlier in the day," Craig says. "They said that they hadn't seen him. [So] we came back home and got out the phone list and start making phone calls."
Pam and Craig Akers talk about living without their son for four years.

For four long years, Pam and Craig continued the search for Shawn. They even started a website in the hope someone may have information leading to his return. "We've always believed that there was absolutely hope that he was out there and that we would find him. That's what got us up every day," Craig says.

"I couldn't give up hope on him, and I knew the Lord knew where he was at, and if He wanted him brought back to me, that's the way it was going to happen," Pam says.

On January 12, 2007, after suffering through years of uncertainty and persistent searching, Pam and Craig got a phone call that finally put an end to their nightmare. Craig and Pam were driving when the prosecuting attorney called with news about their son. But, before the attorney would tell them what was happening, he asked that Craig and Pam pull over to the side of the road. "It was like, 'OK, why is he having us pull over?' You know, what news does he have for us that we have to pull over for?" Pam says. Fearful she was about to be told her son was dead, Pam braced herself for the news, then heard the unbelievable. "I heard Craig say, 'He's alive.'"
Shawn Hornbeck

After years of uncertainty, Pam and Craig were finally reunited with Shawn. Although her son had changed since she last saw him, Pam says she knew him right away. "As soon as I got in that door and he stood up, I said, 'Oh my God, it's my son!'...And we knew right then," Pam says. She says her first words to Shawn were, "I love you" and "You're home."

Shawn says he has grown up a lot since he was 11. "I feel like I've matured a lot over the years. I feel like I'm looking at life like an adult," Shawn says.

Pam says she's noticed a lot of differences as well. "It's definitely not the little boy that I had at 11. There's going to be a lot of adjustments. ... We just won't let him out of our sight, and he's just not understanding that yet. I can tell that there is a lot on his mind. I can tell that I think he will eventually talk to us, that he wants to, but there's still distance between us."
Craig Akers, Shawn Hornbeck and Pam Akers

Since returning home, Shawn has not opened up about what happened to him. On the advice of a child advocate, Pam says they have not asked Shawn any questions—but, she hopes at some point he will open up about his horrific ordeal. Craig and Pam say they think Shawn was likely sexually abused, though they have no proof. "When this stuff comes out, we need professionals there that know how to deal with that specific circumstance, whenever we find out what that circumstance is. The last thing we want to do is put him through any more mental anguish," Craig says.

"I have no doubt that mentally he's not the same boy that he was. Physically, we don't see any signs of anything, but that's four and a half years—it's really hard to say," Craig says.

Pam says she does want to know "as much as I can bear" about the years Shawn was away from her, but acknowledges that there might be things Shawn doesn't want to share. "[Shawn] has said he doesn't want to see the sadness in his mother's eyes any more, and his father. He wants to give them some peace, and he just wants to see them smile more," says Shawn's aunt, Sheri.
Pam Akers

Media stations have reported that Shawn may have been allotted a certain number of freedoms during his alleged abduction—including Internet and phone access—which raised questions about why he didn't try to escape. Pam says she believes Shawn must have felt threatened in some way. "I honestly and truly in my heart feel that in some way or another he had to have felt either he was going to be threatened or his sisters or myself or his dad. I honestly believe if the alleged person would have said, 'You can leave at any time. There will be no recourse,' everything would be fine and Shawn would have come home in a heartbeat," she says.

When Oprah asked Shawn privately why he never called his parents, Shawn said he was "terrified."

While Shawn remains quiet about a lot of specifics, he does admit that during his alleged kidnapping he spent his days sleeping, watching TV and playing video games. He also played with friends. When questioned about his family, Shawn says he told people a made-up story concocted by his alleged kidnapper. Though Shawn does not elaborate on the story, he did admit that he told people he was home schooled, even though he didn't go the entire four years.
Shawn Hornbeck

As Shawn adjusts back into his family life, he says he isn't really comfortable being on camera. He agreed to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show in the hope that his story could provide a sense of hope for other families with missing children.

After being away from his loved ones for so long, Shawn says that being reunited with his family brought him an instant sense of comfort. "It's great to be back home, seeing familiar faces, new ones. It's just been great for all of us," Shawn says. He says that the first time he saw his parents after he was found "was surprising." "They've changed, but I could recognize them in 20 more years instantly," Shawn says.

When Shawn returned home, he found that his mother had kept his bedroom exactly as it had been when he went missing—down to his clothes in the drawers. While some things stayed the same, most everything else was changed dramatically. One of Shawn's sisters got married and his baby nephew grew into a toddler.
Craig Akers

It has been widely reported that Shawn posted a message on the website his parents set up to try to find him. Shawn acknowledges that he did post a message. In it he asked, How long are you going to look for your son? "I was hoping it might give some kind of hint," Shawn says.

Craig remembers reading the message— which was posted under the name "Shawn Devlin"— but at the time, he says, he didn't think anything about it. "You get so many of these messages. I mean, on a daily basis you get so many weird, out-there messages," Craig says. "We've dealt with children coming onto the website, to the chat room, and saying they're Shawn."
Police Officers Gary Wagster and Chris Nelson

Authorities allegedly found Shawn at the home of Michael Devlin after tips in the abduction of another boy—13-year-old Ben Ownby—led them to Devlin's apartment complex.

When Ben was allegedly kidnapped on January 8, 2007, just outside St. Louis, Missouri, 15-year-old Mitchell Hults told police he saw a white pickup truck in the vicinity. "I never [saw] that vehicle [before]—never—because every vehicle that comes down here I notice, and that truck I didn't. It didn't dawn on me that Ben would get in that truck," Mitchell says.

Days later, police Officers Gary Wagster and Chris Nelson— who were at an apartment complex on an unrelated call—noticed a white truck that matched the witness's description. The officers called their station and ran a background check on the vehicle. Once they confirmed the owner's name, they started looking for the alleged owner, Michael Devlin.

As Gary and Chris walked around the building, they noticed a man they suspected was Devlin taking out his garbage. Gary says Devlin, whom he recognized as an employee of a local pizza restaurant called Imo's, acknowledged that the truck was his. During their conversation, police say Devlin started becoming more and more defensive. "For a guy that's laid back, he got real defensive, started clinching his fists, darting his eyes, evasive when I was asking him questions," Gary says.

As they continued their conversation, Chris says they became more suspicious and he had a gut feeling something was wrong. The officers contacted the FBI, and when authorities searched Devlin's apartment, they found Ben and Shawn.
Craig Akers, Shawn Hornbeck and Pam Akers

Shawn and his parents say that while it was awful that Ben was kidnapped, if not for Ben, Shawn might not have been reunited with his family. Pam believes that if they didn't find the boys when they did, Shawn may never have come home. "I'm afraid that my worst nightmare would have come true at that time," Pam says.

"[I feel] thankful that he held in there for those couple of days, and I'm sorry for what he went through, because I told myself a long time ago I never want any other kid to go through what I went through," Shawn says. "But I am thankful for him for holding in there, and I'm happy that he's back with his family."
Craig Akers and Shawn Hornbeck

During his horrifying ordeal, Shawn says that he "crossed himself" every night and prayed that he would be reunited with his parents. He says he knew they would be holding out hope for his return, and that hope kept him going. "There was a time when I was thinking about giving up, but then I just thought of what they [were] doing and searching for me and looking for me. And then I knew they [weren't] giving up so I figured I shouldn't," Shawn says.

Shawn says now that he's home with his family, he is looking forward to trying to get things back to normal. "He just wants to be treated like everybody else and like a normal kid. He doesn't want any attention. He doesn't want anything special. He just wants to be Shawn and do what a normal 15-year-old is supposed to be doing with his family and his parents," Craig says. One of the things Shawn is most looking forward to is returning to school.

As for his ordeal, Shawn says he will be ready to talk about it someday. When asked if he thinks he will ever have a normal life again, Shawn says, "At some point, yes. We're hoping soon, though."
Don and Doris Ownby

Ben Ownby is a straight-A student and Boy Scout who always lets his parents know where he is. So when Ben was late coming home from school on January 8, 2007, his parents knew immediately that something was terribly wrong.

Doris and Don Ownby began frantically searching for their son and called to see if friends and neighbors had seen him. Don reached out to Mitchell, a 15-year-old neighbor, who told him about the crucial clue of the case. "He relayed the story about this white pickup being sideways in the road and driving erratically, and then from there I called the sheriff's department," Don says.

During the days Ben was missing, Doris says she felt an indescribable "ache" in her heart. Still, she believed she would see her son again. "We just would do everything we could to find him," she says.

Then, four days after his disappearance, police spotted the white pickup truck and Doris and Don were finally reunited with their son. "I just didn't want to quit hugging him," Doris says.

Doris and Don are still reluctant to let their 13-year-old out of their sight. They say Ben will return to school after he speaks with counselors, but they haven't yet thought about whether they will let him ride the bus again.

The family says they will let Ben take his time in telling them what happened in those four days. "I sat down with him the other day and told him that he could talk to us about it any time he wanted to at his own time," Doris says. "We just want him to feel comfortable first."
Dr. Clint Van Zandt

Dr. Clint Van Zandt is a former FBI profiler, an MSNBC analyst and the author of the book Facing Down Evil. He is also the victim of a child snatching that he was lucky enough to quickly escape from when he was 7 years old. As a victim and a law enforcement officer, Clint says he understands why people in Shawn and Ben's situation wouldn't call home.

Clint warns people not to buy into the "psychobabble" they might hear on television. "The bottom line is if you're 11 or 13 and you've got a potentially 6-foot-4, 300-pound do what you have to do to survive sometimes," Clint says.

During Ben and Shawn's healing process, Clint says it's imperative not to ask one simple question. "What we don't want to do is say, 'Why?' Why didn't you call? Why didn't you pick up the phone?" Clint says. "Because he was traumatized. Because he was frightened. Because he was in a survival mode. There are emotional handcuffs. There are psychological prisons we can be in without bars."

Clint also says to give these boys time. "We need to give these two kids some slack and let them have time to find themselves," Clint says. "Let them create new memories."
Dr. Clint Van Zandt

Clint says it's important to maintain open communication with your children should tragedy ever strike. Because of his own feelings of shame and responsibility, he didn't tell his mother about his own abduction until two years ago. "I thought I would get in trouble," Clint says. "I left that guy on the street to do that to another child."

If there's anything parents need to teach our children, Clint says, it's that they can tell them anything. "They can come to us and share anything ... we're kind of a sounding board for them," Clint says. "We'll listen, but we won't criticize."

It's also important to let traumatized children know that whatever happened isn't their fault, Clint says. "It's like a woman who's a rape victim or who's been in an abusive relationship," Clint says. "That's not her fault. That's not their fault."

Get Clint's advice for children and parents on how to stay safe.
Michael Devlin

Michael Devlin, the 41-year-old alleged kidnapper of the two Missouri boys, pleaded not guilty to kidnapping charges filed in connection with Shawn and Ben. He has yet to enter a plea to the remaining 71 charges against him, including 69 counts of forcible sodomy.

When asked for comment, Devlin's attorney issued the following statement:

"The facts of this case will be revealed at the appropriate time and place. Until then, we ask that Mr. Devlin's constitutional rights be respected. We urge fair-minded individuals to renounce premature conclusions of guilt and refrain from any misrepresentation of the facts. Michael Devlin understands the gravity of these accusations against him. Together we desire to ... allow the judicial process to run its course."
FROM: Exclusive: Miracle in Missouri
Published on January 18, 2007


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