This story was published on Jan. 12, 2017.
It was called the “Missouri Miracle.” For once, a screaming headline was an understatement.
On January 12, 2007, FBI agents and police officers entered a small apartment in Kirkwood to cap their search for Ben Ownby, a boy who had been snatched four days before from a rural school bus stop in Franklin County. Sitting quietly on a sofa was a second boy, a teenager.
He was Shawn Hornbeck, who had disappeared more than four years earlier from his own rural neighborhood in Washington County. He was still listed as a missing person, and almost everyone but his family had given up hope of finding him alive.
The man who kidnapped them both was Michael J. “Devo” Devlin, 41, a portly social misfit and pizza-restaurant manager in Kirkwood who grew up in neighboring Webster Groves. He lived in a cluttered one-bedroom apartment in the 400 block of South Holmes Avenue, near the Union Pacific rail line.
On the day of the second kidnapping, another boy’s good memory of seeing a beat-up white pickup near the scene led investigators to Devlin, then to his apartment — and to the miracle double discovery.
Gary Toelke, then the Franklin County sheriff, made the announcement outside his office in Union as cold rain fell: “We have some good news for you and probably some unbelievable news. We located Ben this afternoon in the city of Kirkwood and we also located Shawn Hornbeck, who was at the same residence.”
A short time earlier, Devlin had confessed to investigators, saying, “I’m a bad person.”
74 life sentences
On that day — Jan. 12, 2007 — the news flashed worldwide, quickly inspiring the enduring headline. Grateful families were reunited. The boy with the good memory, Mitchell Hults of Franklin County, was rewarded with a bounty that included a new pickup, even though at 15 he wasn’t quite of driving age.
That fall, Devlin pleaded guilty in four courthouses of multiple counts of kidnapping and sexual assault, and was sentenced to 74 life sentences in Missouri prison and 170 years of federal time. He remains in a protective-custody wing of the state Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, in northwestern Missouri.
Shawn was 11 and riding his bike alone on Oct. 6, 2002, when Devlin, who had been patrolling quiet roads for months in search of a young victim, spotted him. Devlin, driving his white pickup, knocked Shawn off his bike and drove off with him.
Devlin kept Shawn tied up for a month in his Kirkwood apartment. At one point, he tried to strangle the boy but stopped after Shawn promised he would never tell anyone.
For the next four years, with Shawn believing his family would be harmed if he fled, the two lived alternately as father and son or just family friends.
Devlin eventually let Shawn hang out with buddies, get a cellphone and go on dates. He didn’t go to school. Shawn said nothing, and nobody in Kirkwood noticed he was the missing boy from Richwoods, 50 miles away. Inside the apartment was a child’s hell of sexual abuse.
His parents created the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation to help search for missing children. On Oct. 6, 2006, the fourth anniversary of their son’s disappearance, they circulated a computer-generated photo of what an older Shawn might look like.
Devlin would later tell FBI agents that he began looking for another boy because Shawn was “getting too old.” That led him on Jan. 8, 2007, to Beaufort, in western Franklin County, where he kidnapped Ben Ownby from the bus stop. Shawn was with him in the pickup.
Mitchell, a truck enthusiast who happened to be nearby, got a good look at the 1991 Nissan, giving Toelke and the FBI a solid lead.
Three days later, two Kirkwood police officers answered a call at Devlin’s apartment building for an unrelated complaint. Preparing to leave, Officer Gary Wagster asked his partner, Chris Nelson, “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”
It was a pickup of the sort on the bulletins, down to Mitchell’s description of dirt and rust. Devlin appeared, taking out his trash. The officers knew him from the Imo’s restaurant where he worked, around the corner from the police station. They asked questions; Devlin would not let them search his apartment.
Police zeroed in. Officers kept watch on the apartment and Devlin, whom investigators confronted the next morning at Imo’s. Finally confessing to Ben’s kidnapping, he stunned his questioners by saying he also had Shawn.
Toelke was in his office at the Franklin County Jail as officers down the hall began talking about the stunning possibility.
“At first, I thought it was some kind of sick police joke,” Toelke later recalled. “Then Roland [Corvington of the FBI] came in and said it’s true. The command post erupted.”
“People talk about life-changing events,” he continued. “That’s what it was.”