ST. LOUIS • Shawn Hornbeck has a new tattoo on each of his forearms. One says “Respect.” The other, “Faith.”
“You need ’em both,” says Hornbeck.
Hornbeck, now 21 years old, knows he will always be known as the kidnapped boy from Richwoods, Mo., who was rescued in 2007 after four years in captivity. At times like these, he embraces it.
“I just feel like it’s always going to be part of my life,” he said, matter-of-factly, in an interview Wednesday in downtown St. Louis. “Maybe it’s part of my mission, to reach out and offer hope.”
The stunning rescue this week of three women in Cleveland, who had been held captive for about 10 years in a ramshackle home near downtown Cleveland, has again thrust Hornbeck into the spotlight.
On Wednesday, he took the day off from his 40-hour-a-week job at a metal fabricating company in Pevely. Beginning at sunrise, he spent the morning talking to reporters about the Cleveland case and the renewed hope of finding missing children. National television programs wanted to hear from him. He had already appeared on two programs and had a few more planned.
“My mom hasn’t told me the whole schedule yet,” he said sheepishly.
Hornbeck’s first reaction when he heard about the Cleveland case Monday night was joy, he said.
When missing children are found, he said, it doesn’t necessarily bring back bad memories for him from his years under the control of his captor, Michael Devlin. Instead, he says, it brings good memories of the day police walked him into a room to be reunited with his parents.
“The first memory I think of every time is the first time I saw my parents,” he says. “I hope those girls felt that exact same thing.”
His advice for the women in Cleveland? “I would tell them just to take their time. Don’t rush life. It will come natural to you.”
Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight had apparently been held captive about a decade, since their teens or early 20s, police said. That’s more than twice as long as Hornbeck’s ordeal, and hard to imagine for him.
“To me, four years felt like it was an eternity,” he said. “So I ... can’t tell you how they must have felt. I haven’t gone through what they did.”
The hardest part ahead for the women will likely be reconnecting, he said.
“They’re going to be scared to go out in public for a while,” Hornbeck said. “They’ve just gotta know their family is going to be there for them, and there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Hornbeck is a well-spoken young man who still lives with his parents but has the adult responsibilities of handling a full-time job, phone bills, a car payment and car insurance. He said his job at a foundry that produces metal castings is “hot and it’s hard, but I’m a hands-on guy. I need to work with my hands or I get bored.”
Hornbeck politely answered questions about his life, but he looked uneasy and hesitant to talk without his parents nearby. He took several breaks from interviews at 10th and Market streets downtown Wednesday morning to sit in his parents’ vehicle and check his cellphone.
His life is good now, he says. And he doesn’t plan too far into the future.
“I’d like to go back to college and finish my criminal law degree,” he said. “I’m just kind of waiting for the right moment for everything to line up.”
As Hornbeck gave his third media interview in a half-hour Wednesday at a park downtown, a woman driving by on Market Street yelled out the window, “Love you, Shawn!”
He smiled and waved. He’s heard it before. “All the time,” he said. “They just pretty much say they’re glad I’m doing well and they’re happy for me.”
As the interviews ended, another woman who recognized him parked her car and rushed up to Hornbeck. The woman was Theda Wilson Thomas, whose son Christian Ferguson will have been missing 10 years on June 11.
“Can I shake your hand?” she asked Hornbeck.
She had been driving to the St. Louis Police Department to check on her son’s case when she spotted the young man she’d followed in the news.
“He was cute and now he’s handsome,” Wilson Thomas said. “I’m blown out of the water.”
She’d been buoyed by the news from Cleveland, and said she thinks it was fate that she saw Hornbeck on the day she decided to go to detectives to get new answers in Christian’s disappearance.
“I have some hope,” she says.
Christian was with his father, Dawan Ferguson, when the boy disappeared in 2003. Dawan Ferguson said a carjacker took the SUV with the boy inside. The SUV was found two hours later, but Christian wasn’t. Christian long ago was presumed dead because he suffered from a rare disorder that required medication. No arrests have been made, and searches have produced no trace of Christian.
Hornbeck’s parents, Craig and Pam Akers, had met Christian’s mother during searches for the boy years ago. On Wednesday, they hugged. “We continue to be drawn together,” Craig Akers said.
He said the families of the women in Cleveland have struggles ahead, too. They must let the women take their time reintegrating into society and not pressure them to talk about their ordeal, he said.
The most difficult part for the families might be to resist the urge to ask those questions.
“They certainly have a lot of questions about how this happened, where have you been, what all transpired. But now is not the time,” Craig Akers said. “It’s a lot to deal with, for the girls. The whole process is going to be very demanding. It’s going to tough on them. And when they’re ready to talk about it, they’re going to come to you. And they’re going to talk.”
If family members “press for answers, that’s just going to be something that’s negative,” Craig Akers said. “Bide your time.”
Pam Akers said Hornbeck had been back home a couple weeks before they had those types of conversations. He came to his parents and said he knew they had questions about what he had been through.
“You have to let them move at their pace,” Pam Akers said.