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Officers credit luck with finding missing boys

The apartment building in Kirkwood where the boys were found Friday (UPI photo/Bill Greenblatt)
The apartment building in Kirkwood where the boys were found Friday (UPI photo/Bill Greenblatt)


St. Louis, MO – Police officer Gary Wagster spent all night watching Michael Devlin's apartment.

He suspected Devlin might be holding a 13-year-old boy captive inside and worried what the 300 pound man might do to the boy.

"Did I sleep? No," Wagster said.

Wagster's suspicions ultimately ended one of the nation's strangest kidnapping cases. He saved not just Ben Ownby, but also reunited 15-year-old Shawn Hornbeck with his family more than four years after he vanished.

Wagster got involved Thursday when he and his partner noticed that Devlin's truck matched the description of one seen speeding from the site of Ownby's disappearance last Monday.

A neighbor said the truck belonged to Devlin, and the officers saw him leave his apartment to empty his trash into a trash bin. They questioned Devlin in the parking lot, and he was initially friendly and cooperative.

Devlin's demeanor quickly changed when the officers started asking him specific questions, Wagster said. He became agitated and defensive.

"It was a total 180 degrees from where he was," Wagster said. With red flags raised, Wagster reported the find to FBI agents and Franklin County sheriff's deputies who were leading the hunt for Ownby.

When agents arrived Thursday evening, Devlin wouldn't let them into his apartment, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation, who refused to be identified because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

By the time Devlin, a pizza parlor manager, left for work Friday morning, local police had staked out his apartment and the FBI agents were investigating him.

Devlin was arrested and jailed on $1 million bond. He was awaiting arraignment on one charge of kidnapping but more charges are likely, authorities said.

When agents entered Devlin's modest-two-bedroom apartment in this St. Louis suburb, they found Ownby and Hornbeck. Ownby, 13, had been snatched four days earlier on his way home from school.

Authorities at first didn't recognize Hornbeck, who disappeared at age 11 while on a bike ride but was now a gangly 15-year-old with floppy hair and a pierced lip. He told them his identity when agents entered the apartment.

Authorities won't say how Devlin kept the boys confined in his home or what they believe to be his motive. Hornbeck seemed to have had every chance to escape during his captivity. He was left alone for hours to ride his bike, play video games and walk past missing-child posters showing his own age-progressed image.

Terri Weaver, an associate psychology professor at Saint Louis University, an expert on post traumatic stress disorder, said children in such situations kick into survival mode, "doing what needs to be done to keep yourself going day-to-day."

The case is reminiscent of the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping. The Salt Lake City teen was taken for nine months by a religious zealot and passed up several chances to escape.

Stephen Golding, a forensic psychologist who examined the suspect in the Smart case, said captors often establish control over their victims through fear.

"People are led to believe, through someone taking advantage of their vulnerabilities, that leaving is not an option, that things will get worse for them or will get worse for others," Golding said.

It was unclear Sunday whether Devlin had a lawyer. Jail officials would not comment, and the county public defender's office was closed.

The families of both boys have refused to comment beyond a pair of news conferences they held Saturday, during which the boys were told not to talk to reporters. Lawyers for the families did not answer phone calls to their offices Sunday.

Devlin was raised in Webster Groves and got a job at the pizza parlor when he was in high school. He never left the restaurant over the years. He has no apparent criminal past, except for a pair of traffic fines, officials said.

His family released a statement Saturday praising law enforcement agencies for returning Ownby and Hornbeck to their families. Devlin's relatives said they prayed for Ownby's safe return when they learned last week he was kidnapped, and said "the past few days have been incredibly difficult.

"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."