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Parents meet media, discuss reuniting with missing boys

Ben Ownby (left) and Shawn Hornbeck, at news conferences on Saturday (UPI photos)
Ben Ownby (left) and Shawn Hornbeck, at news conferences on Saturday (UPI photos)

By Tom Weber, KWMU / AP

St. Louis, MO – The world got a good look Saturday at the two teenage boys who were found last night in a suburban St. Louis apartment. One had been missing for four days, the other for four years.

The families of Ben Ownby and Shawn Hornbeck thanked the community at separate news conferences and talked about being reunited with their sons.

KWMU's Tom Weber prepared a report for NPR's All Things Considered. To hear that report, click here.

(Weber also was interviewed by the BBC World Service for their show "Newshour" about the story, to hear that interview, click here)

The parents of Shawn Hornbeck say hope and sheer obsession with finding their son helped them endure the more than four years after the boy was abducted while riding his bike.

The family turned its grief into a crusade, telling anyone who'd listen about what happened to their son and the dangers of strangers. Their work was rewarded Friday with the improbable return of the boy, now a shaggy-haired 15-year-old, and another boy who vanished Monday.

Craig Akers, Hornbeck's stepfather, said he never gave up hope. But even in his wildest daydreams, Akers never imagined he would be the parent reunited with his child.

"I've never put myself in this place, in my mind," Akers said as he stood next to his wife, Pamela, at a news conference Saturday morning in Richwoods, a small town 50 miles southwest of St. Louis.

Between the parents was Hornbeck himself, miraculously recovered Friday after police searched the Kirkwood apartment of Michael Devlin, now charged with kidnapping and jailed on $1 million bond. Ben Ownby, a 13-year-old seventh-grader from another rural Missouri community, Beaufort, was also found at the home.

Both boys appeared healthy. Police weren't divulging details of their captivity or any other information about the investigation.

"Obviously, this is probably the best day of our lives," Craig Akers said. "It's hard to even come up with words to describe it."

For years, the couple stood on the sidelines during moments like this, watching as other families put their fears to rest when their missing children were recovered.

"I remember when I got a phone call when Elizabeth Smart was found," Akers said, referring to the 14-year-old Utah girl kidnapped in 2002 and held captive for nine months. "I remember how much that raised our hopes, how much fuel that gave us to keep going."

Elizabeth's father, Ed Smart, said expressed relief Saturday over the outcome of the Missouri case.

"There are so many parents out there that have children who are missing and everyone I talk to say (the worry) never leaves you," said Smart, who was attending Saturday's announcement of a new Utah child abduction team that will complement that state's Amber Alert system. "It's there with you every waking minute and too many times it's there when you are asleep.

"You worry about what they are going through, are they even being cared for, it's the nightmare that won't go away, until you find out, one way or another."

Hornbeck was abducted the same year as Elizabeth Smart. Long after the volunteer search parties disbanded, the Akers kept the search alive.

Along the way, they did all they could to help others in a similar situation, founding the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation to assist in the search and recovery of missing kids. Every time there was an abduction in eastern Missouri, it was a safe bet the Akers would show up to offer help.

The search and the foundation consumed the Akers. Craig quit his job as a software designer, and the couple depleted their savings and borrowed against their retirement to keep the search and foundation going. They even talked to psychics.

Eventually, the couple returned to work because of the financial strain. "They were constantly thinking of someone else. I guess that's how they got through this," said Richwoods resident Donna Miley. "Every time there would be a different (abduction) situation, you would see Pamela and Craig."

Even in the hours after their reunion with Hornbeck, the Akers were thinking of other families who weren't so lucky. Craig Akers said they wanted to appear in public to show that miracles do happen.

Many Richwoods residents showed up at the news conference to see Shawn for themselves. He walked in quietly between his mother and father, smiling often as he passed through a cluster of people trying to see the boy who they last remembered as an 11-year-old.

"It looks just like him. Around the eyes, it looks just like him," said Peggy Reichardt. The cook at Richwoods Elementary School, she fed Hornbeck twice a day before he disappeared.

Hornbeck did not speak to the media but talked quietly into his mother's ear and smiled often during the news conference. His parents said he wasn't yet prepared to speak publicly.

Craig Akers said Hornbeck hasn't been in school during his time away. He asked his parents if he could play video games and ride an ATV now that he's home.

Pointing to his stepson, Akers said the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation had just found its newest member. The boy rolled his eyes and laughed.