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Kidnapped: Shawn Hornbeck

This episode was originally broadcast on Sept. 24, 2008. It was updated on Sept. 5, 2009.

On Oct. 6, 2002, 11-year-old Shawn Hornbeck wanted to ride his bike to a friend's house - something his parents say he had done many times before. But this bike ride would end very differently than all others: when Shawn turned down a gravel road, he had no idea he was heading straight into the grip of a dangerous kidnapper.

Kidnapped and held for four and a half years, Shawn tells his amazing story of survival to correspondent Troy Roberts.

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Hours after Shawn disappeared, sheriff's deputies, police and volunteers were combing the rough terrain around his hometown of Richwoods, Mo.

But aside from dogs detecting Shawn's scent, nothing else turned up - not even his bike.

As days turned to weeks, Shawn's mother Pam and stepfather Craig Akers put on a brave face for reporters, but privately they were falling apart.

"Nighttime was about the only time where we really did have the opportunity to talk honestly about things and share our emotions and that was probably the roughest times - you're sitting there alone and, just trying to figure out what happened to your son," Craig remembers.

Pam and Craig couldn't help but feel guilty for letting Shawn go out alone that day. And Pam says at times she does blame herself. "I do feel that I failed on the part of protecting him. And keeping him safe and keeping him at home."

"I feel the same way," Craig adds. "I'd just go over in my mind all the different things we could have done that day."

But Shawn had taken that ride dozens of times before.

Shawn and his two older sisters, Jackie and Jennifer, had grown up in the quiet Midwestern town, just 60 miles from St. Louis.

When he was 6, Shawn had walked his mother down the aisle when she married Craig.

And even though Shawn wasn't Craig's biological son, they shared a special bond. "He was always known as my shadow. He grew up sitting on my lap in front of the keyboard. We spent pretty much every minute of every day together," Craig remembers.

When the official search for their son was scaled back, the Akers kept looking. "We cashed in my 401(k). Every penny that we had ever saved went into the search for Shawn," Craig says.

They formed the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation, and set up an e-mail tip line.

Working for the county prosecutor, retired St. Louis Detective Don Cooksey investigated over 400 leads. "I searched strip mines; I searched caves, river ways, abandoned farms, abandoned trailers, cemeteries. Lakes, I've drained lakes," he remembers. "About a year into the investigation, maybe a year and a half, I didn't think we'd ever find him alive."

One year gave way to two, then three, and four.

What the Akers didn't know was that less than an hour from home, Shawn was being held captive by a man police would later call a monster.

Shawn was living his days in terror. "I'm not gonna lie, there was times when it seemed like I was better off dead than living through that," he tells Roberts.

Shawn was subjected to unimaginable daily physical and sexual abuse. "From day one, he had the gun, he had the power. I was powerless. There's nothing I could physically do," he explains.

Asked if the days seemed to blend in with each other, Shawn says, "Yeah, there was times that I thought it was July and it was snowing outside. I just, I didn't keep track of time or day. It was just another day. It was just another day to add to my life."

Then, on a cold winter's morning in January 2007, Pam and Craig woke up to a TV news report about an abduction in a nearby town. "It really kind of struck me as eerily similar," Craig says.

"The hair color, the size, the age," Pam adds.

Was it just an eerie coincidence or something more?

By January 2007, Shawn had been living under the control of his sadistic tormentor for four and a half years. He says the only thing that kept him going during that time was his faith in his family. "That's just what held me on is because our family's so close," Shawn says. "I had more doubts in myself than I did them."

"It's just there was sometimes when it wasn't looking so bright, but then I just knew that they were still out there, so I should just hold on," he adds.

But as bad as it had been for Shawn, a new terrifying reality hit him when his captor decided to kidnap another boy, 13-year-old Ben Ownby.

Asked if he thought his days were numbered at that point, Shawn tells Roberts, "The days got slimmer. 'Cause it's a replacement. When you get a new car, what do you do with the old one? You usually get rid of it, right?"

Shawn's "replacement" disappeared on Jan. 8, 2007, after getting off the school bus in Beaufort, Mo.

By 4 p.m., Ben's parents, Don and Doris, were panicking.

Excerpts of Don Ownby's 911 Call

Fifteen-year-old neighbor Mitch Hults remembered seeing Ben get off the bus at 3:30, but he also remembered seeing something odd a few moments later. "He said there was this strange pickup. And then it peeled out real fast. I thought right away, I need to call the sheriff," Don recalls.

Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke immediately contacted the FBI and dispatched deputies to search for Ben. Then, Mitch was brought in for questioning.

"He just starts going down the line, 'Well, you know, I remember seeing a Nissan on the tailgate in dark letters. Uh, a camper top with an elongated window down the side with the knobs on the side. It had a two-inch trailer hitch on the back. Rust or dirt over the fender.' And the FBI agents kinda looking at him, you know, 'right!' because you never get a description like that, even from an adult," Toelke remembers.

The agents didn't believe Mitch at first because he gave them so much detail. But Mitch, it turned out, was a truck fanatic, recalling every minute detail of the vehicle. Ironically, the only detail Mitch didn't remember was the license plate.

Police took casts of the tire treads and an APB for the white truck was broadcast across the state.

Meanwhile, just 45 minutes away in Kirkwood, Mo., a description of the truck caught the eye of Imo's pizzeria owner Mike Prosperi. By coincidence, his long-time manager, 41-year-old Mike Devlin, had a white truck that matched that description.

Prosperi says he did see Devlin on the day Ben disappeared. "I saw Mike and he did not look well at all, he was pale."

Devlin had gone home sick that day - something that was highly unusual for the man he'd known since high school.

The next day, on a hunch, Prosperi decided to drive by Devlin's apartment. Right away, he noticed something suspicious on Devlin's truck. "I noticed that there was the red road dust like that you can get from driving on a gravel road out in the country, you can't get it in the city here. If he was as ill as he looked, I was wondering how he would have gotten that road dust," Prosperi explains.

When Devlin called in sick for the next two days, Prosperi contacted police. Their first question to him was whether Devlin had been at work on that Monday. Prosperi told them Devlin had left at 12:50 p.m.

The next day, FBI agent Lynn Willett and her partner arrived at Imo's pizzeria to check out Devlin and his truck.

The first thing Willett noticed when she entered Imo's was that Devlin wouldn't catch her eye, which made her suspicious. "And he was facing towards us and he wouldn't look up at us," she remembers.

They stepped out to the back parking lot, and Devlin consented to having his truck searched. Willett says Devlin's demeanor at the time was calm and normal.

Willett began making casual conversation with Devlin, inviting him to sit in the backseat of an unmarked car. That's when she began what she calls a "circular interviewing" technique, asking simple questions over and over.

Willett says she was looking for deviations in Devlin's behavior pattern.

The agent was trying to determine if Devlin had abducted Ben, but almost immediately, she noticed that Devlin kept coming back to one subject - a godson named "Shawn."

"And every time we would start to talk about Shawn I could see his pulse increase on the carotid on his neck," Willett remembers. "Probably about an hour into the interview the hair on the back of my neck stood up and I realized he's talking about Shawn Hornbeck."

That's when Willett played her trump card: she told Devlin they had forensic evidence - casts of tire treads - that would be as accurate as fingerprints linking him to Ben's kidnapping. "And it was at that point that he lowered his head. And he said that he was a bad person. And he told us 'Shawn's not my godson. Shawn is Shawn Hornbeck,'" she remembers.

Willett says Devlin also acknowledged he had kidnapped Ben.

With Devlin in the car, Willett and her partner drove over to his apartment, followed by police backup. "And I told him we were going to walk up to the front door together. I asked him to unlock the front door. He opened the door probably about four or five inches…and I could see a young man sitting on a couch."

"I told him he was safe. We're the police and you're going to go home," Willett says.

"It was my time. Everybody has their times when they feel like all the weight on their shoulders were lifted. And I guess that was my time. Because I knew when they came in the door it was either something very good or very bad. I got lucky and it was something very good," Shawn tells Roberts.

Shawn was stunned. Agent Willett and her partner had just stepped into Devlin's apartment.

Willett says she didn't recognize Shawn. "I saw a young man sitting on a couch. It looked like they were playing a video game and he was kind of frozen just looking at us. Like in shock."

But before Shawn could move, it was Ben who rushed toward Willett. "And I could just feel him pushing with all his might. He was willing himself out that door. You know, and that's probably the hardest moment for me. You know, as a parent you just want to grab them up and run. As a law enforcement officer, I have a crime scene here."

Resisting her impulse to hug him, Willett handed Ben over to another agent, and turned her attention to the young man she didn't recognize.

"When I told Lynn that my name was Shawn Hornbeck, I could see the surprise in her face too and I just - my world was going in circles. I didn't know what was right, what was left, or up and down. It was a whole new feeling, you know. I was confused. I felt light-headed, it was such a rush," says Shawn, who had been waiting for this moment for four and a half years. "I felt like I didn't have that monkey on my back anymore. It was a new feeling for me to say who I really was."

Willett arrested Devlin and confiscated rifles and a handgun in his apartment. Then, the FBI called Ben's parents with the incredible news.

Meanwhile, the county prosecutor called the Akers on their cell phone. "I had gotten so nervous that I couldn't talk and I handed Craig the phone and he was driving," Pam remembers.

"He said 'We're 95 percent sure that we found Shawn. And he's alive,' and I mean, that was just instant tears," Craig adds.

FBI agents escorted a stunned Shawn and Ben to the Franklin County Sheriff's Department. "My heart was racing. So many thoughts were going through my head. I didn't know what was going to happen. I wanted to see my parents so bad," Shawn remembers.

"I remember walking in and he was sitting in the chair. His head was down. And he looked up. And when he looked up, I knew. I knew immediately that that was him. And that was just the most wonderful feeling that you could have," Pam says. "He immediately stood up. We must have hugged for 30 minutes without even letting each other go. And you know just telling him I'm just so glad he's home and that I loved him. And just missed him so much. I don't think I'll ever forget that."

"All three of us hugged at the same time. There wasn't any first, you know. We got a good clean side of each other for about 10 minutes and then it was like the waterworks were just on. There was no off button on it. It was like a water main broke," Shawn says. "It was great. There's nothing like a mother's and father's love. It's just a whole new feeling. It's something I didn't feel in a long time, so it just knocked me off my feet."

In an adjoining room, Ben was reunited with his parents. "I grabbed him and just held on to him. For a long time," Doris remembers. "Finally, I told him, I said 'I gotta let you go and let your daddy have you for a little bit.'"

Meanwhile, news that Willett's team had found not one, but both missing boys, was spreading like wildfire through the law enforcement community.

For detective Don Cooksey, it was a day he never thought he'd see. "I'm not going to lie to you, I sat down and cried like a baby. Some of the best news I've ever heard."

Authorities learned that both boys had been sexually assaulted repeatedly. Devlin, the 6'4", 300 lb. loner with no previous record, was charged with sexual assault, kidnapping and attempted murder.

Back in Richwoods, Shawn began slowly readjusting to life at home with his family. In several briefings with the FBI, he gave them details of his captivity, including that he had witnessed Ben's abduction.

Shawn told his parents that during the first month after he was kidnapped, his life was pure agony. He was held captive in Devlin's apartment, bound and gagged.

"He was tied to a futon during all the time that the defendant was at work or gone," Craig says. "Duct tape was placed over his mouth so he couldn't scream out. He was only released from the futon when the defendant came home from work."

This month of torture would only be the beginning of Shawn's ordeal: after a month of captivity, around Halloween 2002, Devlin told Shawn he was going to take him home.

But instead, Devlin took Shawn to a remote logging road. "Shawn, at that point, became uneasy and asked what was going on. And the defendant stopped the truck, got out of the truck, got Shawn out of the truck," Craig says. "They went around to the back of the truck and the defendant then attempted to strangle Shawn with the intent of killing him. Shawn began pleading for his life and told the defendant he would do whatever he wanted him to do as long as he didn't kill him."

Devlin agreed not to kill Shawn, but in return he was forced to make what his parents call a "deal with the devil." "He could never try to contact anyone, never try to run. And that if he did, he would be killed," Craig explains.

He became "Shawn Devlin," and for the next four and a half years, the invisible chains of a deal forced on him that day would keep Shawn tied to his tormentor.

One month into his captivity, Devlin's control over Shawn was complete and total. Devlin was so confident in his power that he would leave Shawn alone in his tiny one-bedroom apartment, while he went to work at Imo's pizzeria, ran errands, and visited family who had no idea that Shawn existed.

Shawn says he passed the majority of his time sleeping. "'Cause when you sleep it seems like time goes by fast. And it's just an escape."

Devlin's hold on Shawn was so complete that seven months after he was abducted, Devlin even allowed Shawn to make a friend, 13-year-old neighbor Tony Douglas.

"Tony was my first friend and we were friends for a long time," Shawn says.

Tony's family - mom Rita Lederle, sister Melissa, and sister-in-law Kelly - say Shawn told them Devlin was his father and that his mother had been killed by a drunk driver. It was all part of a script Devlin had written for him.

Asked what Shawn said about school, Kelly says, "Well, at first he told me that he was home schooled, and then he told me by his grandmother as well. Then that he was in private school. And we just never questioned it."

"We probably should have though," Melissa adds.

The Douglas' say they had no reason not to believe him. By all appearances, Devlin was a good father. If anything, they say, too good. "I could tell you that he spoiled him rotten. If he wanted a bike, if he wanted a new game system, a new videogame, anything, he got it," Kelly says.

Over the next four years, Shawn and the Douglas family were inseparable. They took him to balloon races, malls, restaurants. They spent holidays together, and even had sleepovers. Not once during that time did Shawn reveal his identity.

"I'm sure he was scared," Melissa says. "But I would have hoped that as close as he was to the family, he would have trust that he could have said something to us. And I think that's what bothers me the most."

And they're bothered because there were at least two occasions when Shawn could have asked them for help. In 2006, Shawn and Tony were stopped by local police for riding their bikes after curfew, and escorted back to the apartment complex.

Rita says Shawn said nothing to the officers.

Kelly also remembers one day when they were watching TV and a news report about Shawn flashed on the screen. "And he was sitting right there in the wicker chair. Still remember it. Same face, you know? He didn't frown, he didn't do anything."

When Kelly asked him if that was him, she says Shawn "laughed and he said 'no' and then he said 'whatever' - just the typical teenager-type talk."

So why didn't Shawn speak up? Why didn't he run? It's the question on everyone's mind.

"Nobody has the right to judge anybody. And people see it in their power to judge me. They don't know what I went through. They weren't there. They didn't have to suffer mine or my parent's pain," Shawn says.

"You asked me not to ask Shawn about why he did not identify himself and allow himself to be rescued. Why?" Roberts asks Shawn's parents.

"'Cause at this point I don't think he's ready to talk about it," Pam replies.

"It's not worth putting Shawn through any more guilt so that I can satisfy my curiosity and you can satisfy your curiosity," Craig adds.

"We know from people who have had this experience, such as Patty Heart and Elizabeth Smart, that they're told that if they run, they will be killed or their family will be killed," says Dr. Marylene Cloitre, a New York University psychologist and trauma specialist.

She calls it "control by terror."

Terror which, in Shawn's case, was reinforced with frequent physical and sexual violence. "Whether Shawn went to a pizza parlor, to a friend's house, the message was still in his head," Dr. Cloitre explains.

Dr. Marylene Cloitre on the Psychological Impact on Victims

And because Shawn was just a child when he was kidnapped, Cloitre says he would have been especially vulnerable to coercion. "Many people feel damaged and they wonder whether they'll be seen as damaged. Sort of 'damaged goods' and be accepted again."

But, although his parents didn't realize it at the time, Shawn did try to contact them twice during his captivity - by sending e-mails to their Web site. "There was a posting from someone who called themselves 'Shawn Devlin.' And it was just a one sentence - 'How long are you planning to look for your son?'" Craig remembers.

But the Akers didn't realize "Shawn Devlin" was in fact their son, and didn't respond to the e-mails.

"I can't look at my parents and tell them that it's their fault and I hate them, etc. To me, it was Devlin's fault," Shawn says.

But on the advice of his attorneys, Devlin pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.

Nine months after Shawn's rescue, the world was about to learn the truth of what he suffered at the hands of Devlin, the man who kidnapped, tortured and held him for four and a half years.

Asked what sentence would satisfy her, Pam says, "To make sure he spends the rest of his life behind bars. To make sure he never gets out, to make sure there's absolutely no possibility of parole. And to make sure he has no communication whatsoever with children."

Devlin was charged with 80 counts of sexual assault, kidnapping and attempted murder.

Pam says it was "horrible" seeing Devlin. "To be in that courtroom and to see him walk in, I was just furious. I was angry. You know, every ounce of me wanted just to get to him."

But in a surprise move, Devlin changed his plea to guilty, avoiding a trial, after prosecutors revealed they had found videotapes and photos of him abusing Shawn in the apartment.

"That was a big thing off my shoulders. I really didn't want to get up there and testify," Shawn says.

Before Devlin was sentenced, Pam and Craig shared with the judge the pain of losing their son for so many years, and pleaded for a lengthy sentence.

Devlin declined to speak, and was sentenced on multiple counts to 72 life terms, and an additional 170 years in prison for his crimes. "The only thing I will say, Mr. Devlin, is that you heaped unimaginable heartache on a lot of people in this case, not the least of which was the children involved," the judge told him. "You will have plenty of time to think about this while you spend the rest of your life in the penitentiary."

With the legal proceedings behind him, Shawn can begin a new life. "I've lived two lives. I had to start over again from when I was kidnapped. 'Cause it was a different life. That life is gone, so I'm picking up this life again. And I've got what I wanted most in life, was to be back with my family," he says.

Shawn, now 17, is getting back to his childhood passion, motocross, catching up with his old friends, and going to school for the first time since fifth grade. "It was different getting back into the swing of school. But I caught onto it quick," he says.

Remarkably, in just a year and a half, Shawn has caught up to his peers. He'll graduate from high school next spring.

As for any lingering resentment, Shawn says he's too busy now thinking about the good things in life.

"You know what? You're not the person I expected to meet…I was expecting to meet a young man who was very angry. Who was raging inside. No one would blame you," Roberts remarks.

"I've never really been an angry person," Shawn says.

Asked how he puts this ordeal behind without being angry, Shawn says, "Well, at every end of a dark tunnel there's always a bright light, you know?"

Hear more from Shawn Horbeck

Ben Ownby is starting fresh too. He started high school last fall. He says he has no anxiety about high school. "I just have to figure out how to get around. It's a maze."

Shawn and his parents say that therapy is helping them come to terms with an experience they will carry with them forever. "It's always gonna be with me. I mean, that's something that I've learned. That's something I've come to cope with," Shawn says.

"From what I understand, from your parents, there's some things that you haven't shared with them. Is that to protect them?" Roberts.

"In some ways, yeah. Then in other ways, I'm just not ready," Shawn admits.

For now, Shawn and his parents are just enjoying life together as a family.

"It's kind of a new normalcy for us. And we're just so fortunate to be in this position. So fortunate to have our son back," Craig says.

For Pam and Craig, there's only one way to explain Shawn's astonishing rescue and return.

Asked if her son is the Missouri miracle, Pam says, "I believe so. I do believe miracles happen and I do believe that it was a miracle that brought Shawn home."

The FBI says an investigation found no link between Michael Devlin and any other kidnapping or abuse cases.

The Shawn Hornbeck Foundation is working to help find other missing and abducted children.

Produced by Katherine Davis, Clare Friedland, Mead Stone, and Chris O'Connell

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