- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2007

KIRKWOOD, Mo. — For more than four years, Shawn Hornbeck seemed to have had every chance to escape, left alone for hours to ride his bike, play video games and walk past missing-child posters showing his own age-progressed image.

But mental health professionals say this troubling case is hardly so simple, and that Shawn was likely kept mentally shackled by terror and domination from the man accused of kidnapping him, 41-year-old Michael Devlin.

“I think it’s a real mistake to judge this child. Whatever he did to this point to stay alive is to his credit,” said Terri Weaver, an associate psychology professor at Saint Louis University, adding that children in such situations kick into survival mode, “doing what needs to be done to keep yourself going day to day.”

Mr. Devlin, a 300-pound pizza parlor manager, is accused of abducting Shawn four years ago when the slight boy, taken as he was riding his bike, was just 11. Now a gangly 15-year-old with floppy hair and a pierced lip, he was found by surprise Friday when police acting on a tip went to Mr. Dev-lin’s modest two-bedroom apartment in this St. Louis suburb to rescue 13-year-old Ben Ownby, who had been snatched four days earlier on his way home from school.

Now investigators are piecing together the details of Shawn’s captivity and Ben’s abduction, trying to discover how the man kept the boys captive in an apartment where neighbors often heard banging, shouting and arguing.

Residents in Shawn’s hometown of Richwoods were shocked the boy could have so much contact with the outside world but remain at his captor’s side refusing to flee even as Mr. Devlin worked two jobs that forced him to leave Shawn, and later Ben, alone.

Miss Weaver said repeated contact with outsiders can actually reinforce an abducted child’s sense of helplessness.

“Over time, your safety has been threatened. You are a child. You may have been traumatized in other ways. You may feel helpless to reach out to other people,” she said.

The case is reminiscent of the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping. The Salt Lake City teen was taken for nine months 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,” Mr. Golding said.

Neighbors describe Mr. Dev-lin as a loner with a quick temper who obsessed over a reserved parking space at his apartment complex.

Rob Bushelle, who lives in Mr. Devlin’s complex, said he made that mistake last fall. Mr. Devlin arrived in his white pickup with an adolescent boy in his passenger seat, whom Mr. Bushelle now recognizes as Shawn. Mr. Devlin became furious and began shouting at Mr. Bushelle, demanding he move. Mr. Bushelle refused, and Mr. Devlin called police.

While Mr. Devlin spoke with officers, Shawn got out of Mr. Devlin’s truck and walked into the building, Mr. Bushelle said.

Mr. Devlin was raised in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves. His family released a statement Saturday praising law-enforcement agencies for returning the two boys to their families. Mr. Devlin’s relatives said they prayed for Ben’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.”

Mr. Devlin’s childhood neighbors told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he was adopted and one of six children.

Sarah Sullivan described him as a quiet child in an otherwise outgoing family. He was always big for his age and avoided sports. He had a hot temper and spent a lot of time in his room, she said.

Mr. Devlin got a job at Imo’s Pizza when he was in high school. He never left the pizza parlor over the years. He has no apparent criminal past, except for a pair of traffic fines, officials said.

“He’s smarter than most people, so he liked to be a smart aleck,” co-worker Gus Nanos told the newspaper. But “in his calmer moments, he would be an incredibly nice and thoughtful person.”

Co-workers noticed that Mr. Devlin became more withdrawn in 2002, the year Shawn was abducted. That was also the year Mr. Devlin, a diabetic, had a toe amputated.

“He went from being such a teaser to a much quieter person. I felt like he had been humbled by all of his health problems,” Mr. Nanos said.

The families of both boys have refused to comment beyond a pair of press conferences they held Saturday, during which the boys were told not to talk to reporters.

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