What drove Michael Devlin to kidnap two boys?

What drove Michael Devlin to kidnap two boys?

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Michael Devlin struggled to lock away the thoughts. He knew they were monstrous. He knew they were wrong, these compulsions that burdened him. But the Kirkwood pizza shop manager was losing the battle now.

It was still a couple of years before Devlin would kidnap his first victim — a boy riding his bike in rural Missouri. And it would be several more years before authorities descended on his tiny apartment in Kirkwood and discovered two boys, both alive, one missing for four years and the other four days.

At this moment, in his early 30s, he was on a Lake Michigan vacation with his parents. He had spotted a boy about 10 years old. And all the defenses built up over the years — the largely successful efforts to distract himself and steer away from temptation — crumbled. He thought about kidnapping that boy. The only thing stopping him was the fishing boat strapped to his vehicle. Too easy to get caught.

On the drive back to Kirkwood, however, he went hundreds of miles out of his way, meandering along rural back roads, on the prowl. It was the start of an unrelenting two-year search for a victim.

"The fuse was lit," said Kathleen Canning, an FBI criminal profiler who interviewed Devlin at length.

■ ■ ■

How Devlin ended up going down his dark path has been a long-held mystery.

He revealed little to authorities before pleading guilty and receiving 74 life sentences in 2007. But Devlin has opened up since arriving behind the solid-steel cell door where he spends 22 hours a day at a maximum-security state prison in Cameron, Mo.

He gave an 11-hour interview in 2008 to agents from the FBI's behavioral analysis unit, including Canning. Last year, he spoke for four hours with a Maryland Heights police investigator who studies sex offenders.

These previously undisclosed interviews are the only known times that Devlin has tried to help authorities understand what caused him to commit his crimes.

The investigators, who described the interviews to the Post-Dispatch last week, said they wanted to get inside Devlin's head to learn what compelled him and uncover details that could help train law enforcement or devise new ways of looking at crimes by others. Such post-conviction interviews have emerged as an important tool.

"It allows us to better understand the patterns of offending and to stop it — or at least better react to it," Canning said.

■ ■ ■

When the FBI visited Devlin in March 2008, the agents expected a tough interview.

Canning and Melissa Thomas, FBI profilers from the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in Quantico, Va., spent weeks preparing. They worked through scenarios. They sketched out ways to keep the conversation going. They invited Lynn Willett, an FBI agent from the St. Louis office, to join them as a familiar face for Devlin — she was one of the agents who first confronted him about his crimes.

When Devlin walked into the prison's small conference room in shackles, a white T-shirt and orange prison pants, the agents quickly explained why they were there. He interrupted.

"What took you guys so long?" they recalled him saying.

Devlin wanted to talk. And, fueled by Dr Pepper, he stopped talking only for the agents to load fresh videotapes.

"He knew he was an anomaly, someone we would find interesting," Canning said.

They did find Devlin interesting, but not remotely sympathetic. He seemed introspective about what drove him to commit his crimes, but his curiosity was clinical, emotionless, they said. He talked about growing up in Webster Groves and his fear of disappointing his parents. He talked about how he struggled for years to control his attraction to young boys. He insisted he never kidnapped or assaulted any other boys. And he offered no rationalizations for what he did.

When Maryland Heights police Capt. William Carson spoke to Devlin in May 2010, he asked Devlin how he would describe his sexual orientation. Devlin responded with one word: Sick.

Both the FBI and police investigators said they were inclined to believe Devlin.

"I think he was being very honest," Canning said.

"I do, too," Thomas said.

■ ■ ■

Devlin told the FBI agents he had no issues with his adoption by his parents as an infant. He described a mostly happy childhood, one free of sexual or physical abuse. He told Carson the same thing two years later. This is one area where investigators doubted Devlin's story. They know most sex offenders suffered some kind of abuse as children.

Devlin did recognize that he had always struggled with feelings. He told them how as a young boy he witnessed a child getting run over by a school bus and yet felt nothing.

About age 13 he realized he was attracted to young boys, investigators said. He could not explain why, telling Carson that his attraction was as instinctual as for someone attracted to women: "It's just the way you are." Devlin acknowledged one unsuccessful attempt to molest a younger boy when he was still a teenager. But he then described the years he spent attempting to ignore his desires. This is different from most offenders, who tend to commit their first crimes as teenagers and continue for decades, until caught.

"He was smart enough to understand that he could not legally act on his compulsions," Canning said. "He had to divert his compulsions."

He did that with obsessive behaviors, anything to keep his mind busy. He ate, ballooning to well over 300 pounds. He cleaned his apartment repeatedly. He played video games for hours and hours. And he worked. Devlin, who was 41 years old when he was arrested in 2007, spent his entire working life at the Imo's pizza shop in downtown Kirkwood.

"Imo's was a very positive thing in his life," Canning said.

Devlin also tried to avoid temptation, Thomas said. He stayed away from the children of family and friends. He preferred to work in the back of the pizza shop, away from the students who visited after school. He developed a reputation as someone who didn't like children. He did not go online to look at pornography, a detail that surprised investigators.

"He was able to manage those compulsions to a point — until he couldn't manage it anymore," Thomas said.

■ ■ ■

The breaking point came on that trip to Lake Michigan.

Devlin gave up resisting his impulses, he told investigators. His attempts at romantic relationships with adult men had not blunted his feelings. He knew he didn't have the 'social confidence," in his words, to groom a child to molest, as some offenders do. He decided to kidnap one. But he was scared of getting caught. For at least two years he drove around rural Missouri looking for the right child at the right moment. He was cautious. He told investigators he came close to abducting several children, but each time something was not right. He recalled that he nearly took a child who came to the door trick-or-treating on Halloween.

"It was about opportunity and availability," Carson said. "He was constantly looking for the opportunity."

The right moment came on Oct. 6, 2002, as he drove along an empty road in Richwoods, Mo. He spotted 11-year-old Shawn Hornbeck on his bike. No one else was around. Devlin used his truck to knock the boy off his bike.

Canning recalled asking Devlin what it was about that moment that made him act.

Devlin's response: It just was.

"As a parent, it sent chills through my body," Canning said. "And as a law enforcement agent, how do you defend against that?"

■ ■ ■

Devlin said he did not have a plan for what to do after the abduction. He kept the boy tied up in his apartment for a month. He decided to kill the boy, taking him to a rural spot in Washington County where he began to strangle him. The boy begged for his life, striking a bargain to keep quiet if he could live. His abductor agreed.

"He felt like he had control over Shawn," Canning said.

Devlin said he always knew that the boy did not want to be with him.

"He did not have an illusion in his mind that this was anything but forcible and wrong," Carson said.

They lived together in Kirkwood for four years using various cover stories — that they were father and son, or Devlin was a friend of the boy's father. Later, a list of the many missed opportunities by local authorities and residents emerged. This point seemed to still upset the FBI agents.

"Many people in the community decided to not pay attention," Canning said.

■ ■ ■

After four years, Devlin decided he wanted another boy. Again, he was cautious. He spent several months following school buses, looking for the right opportunity. He spotted a boy getting off a bus in Beaufort, in Franklin County. He soon returned to the tiny town and kidnapped William "Ben" Ownby, then 13.

Devlin might have gotten away again, but a friend of Ben's noticed Devlin's truck and provided a partial description to authorities. Devlin's boss at Imo's called police when the details were reported by the media.

After four days, both boys were rescued. Devlin was in jail.

The FBI agents believe Devlin would have continued his abductions if he had not been caught, although he did not seem to have a long-term plan for what to do with his captives.

"Every day that went by that he didn't get caught — things went his way — it just continued," Thomas said.

"If it were up to him," Canning said, "he would've kept it up."

■ ■ ■

The FBI agents questioned Devlin about other victims. A task force had failed to find any connections to other missing-child cases. Devlin denied hurting any other children. He told the agents he would have admitted to other crimes if he were responsible just so he could get the death penalty. He was depressed. He wanted to die. He had stopped taking his diabetes medication. He said he did not want to be in protective custody. (Just last month, Devlin suffered minor wounds when another prisoner stabbed him repeatedly with a homemade "ice pick" fashioned from typewriter parts.)

Last year, talking with Carson, Devlin again denied having other victims.

Now Devlin's story is studied and dissected by law enforcement and child safety experts across the nation, an attempt to draw some lessons from such criminal acts. At the very least, the survival of Devlin's two victims, dubbed the Missouri Miracle, has changed how investigators think about child abduction cases — that they should expect a bad ending.

In 2007, Canning and Thomas were part of a national FBI team that rushes to the scene when a child is abducted. They were both in Kirkwood when the boys were missing and Devlin was just a pizza store manager. They recalled the practical but pessimistic atmosphere in the police command center as the days passed. And they also remember seeing the two boys once they were rescued, how there was not a dry eye in the place, no matter how hardened or weary the investigator.

"Bottom line in this case is that it gave hope that there are victims out there that are alive," Thomas said.

This case, in the end, was about hope.

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