Revisiting the ‘Missouri Miracle’ nearly two decades after Shawn Hornbeck disappeared

True Crime

FILE – Shawn Hornbeck and his parents, Pam and Craig Akers, in 2013.

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. – An 11-year-old went missing in rural Missouri while riding his bike in 2002. Another child, 13, went missing five years later. Their discovery would become known as the “Missouri Miracle.” Some thought they would never be found alive and their abductor was hiding in plain sight.

Pam Akers watched her son, Shawn Hornbeck, leave their home in Richwoods, Missouri, about 55 miles southwest of St. Louis, on the afternoon of Oct. 6, 2002. Shawn planned to ride his bike to a friend’s house. He never arrived.

A man behind the wheel of a white pickup truck knocked young Shawn off his lime-green bike. The driver grabbed Shawn, put him in his truck, and left.

In response to the tragedy, Shawn’s parents, Pam and Craig Akers, founded the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation and the Hornbeck Search and Rescue Team to assist in searches of abducted children.

The couple appeared on “The Montel Williams Show” shortly after Shawn’s abduction to raise awareness of the case. During the show, self-proclaimed psychic Sylvia Browne told them Shawn was dead and provided details about the crime that were later proven to be falsehoods. That wouldn’t be the last time Browne fabricated details about someone’s disappearance.

What nobody knew at the time was that Shawn was still alive and had been taken to an apartment in Kirkwood, where he’d live with his kidnapper for the next four years.

On Jan. 8, 2007, Ben Ownby was taken while waiting at a bus stop in Beaufort, located in Franklin County. The kidnapper put the 13-year-old in a white Nissan pickup truck and sped away, but not before Mitchell Hults, one of Ownby’s friends, got a good look at the vehicle and provided a detailed description to authorities.

Following Ownby’s abduction, true-crime writer and internet sleuth Michelle McNamara examined the case and discovered a connection between Ownby’s kidnapping and Hornbeck’s disappearance. Just one day before the miraculous discovery, McNamara theorized Ownby was targeted because of his youthful appearance.

The following day, the FBI followed a tip on a white pick-up truck that brought them to a pizzeria in Kirkwood. One of the store managers, a man named Michael Devlin, owned the truck. Two federal agents—Lynn Willett and Tina Richter—asked permission to search the truck, which Devlin allowed.

Willett spoke at length with Devlin while they sat in the backseat of an FBI vehicle. During the conversation, Willett cajoled a confession from Devlin. Willett said Devlin told her he was “a bad person” and admitted to having both Ben and Shawn.

Willett and Richter joined other FBI agents and local police in going to Devlin’s apartment in the 400 block of S. Holmes Avenue. Devlin opened the front door to his apartment and allowed the FBI and police to go inside.

Willett and the others saw two boys playing video games in the apartment: Ben Ownby, whom they immediately recognized, and a now 15-year-old Shawn Hornbeck. That evening, then-Fraklin County Sheriff Glen Toelke made the stunning announcement – both boys had been found and were alive.

Later, Devlin admitted he kidnapped Ben because Shawn was getting too old for his liking, unwittingly confirming McNamara’s theory.

Prosecutors in Franklin, Washington, and St. Louis counties hit Devlin with dozens of charges, including kidnapping, use of a deadly weapon, molestation, and production of child pornography.

Meanwhile, for his tip and information, Mitchell Hults received a reward that included a new pickup truck.

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey just days after being reunited with Shawn, the Akerses said they believed their son was sexually abused during his captivity. In the same interview, Shawn said he spent his days sleeping and playing video games and was instructed to tell people he was being homeschooled.

Hornbeck was restrained for the first month and nearly strangled by Devlin. The young boy believed his family would be harmed if he attempted to escape or contact the police.

Shawn was also made to pose as his abductor’s son. Kirkwood and Glendale police spoke with “Shawn Devlin” on more than one occasion in the years prior to Michael Devlin’s arrest.

That October, Devlin pleaded guilty to all the charges and received 74 life sentences and an additional term of 2,020 years. He was transferred to Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron, Missouri. He won’t be eligible for parole until he’s 100.

Michael Devlin in June 2019. (Missouri Department of Corrections)

In April 2011, a fellow inmate attacked and stabbed Devlin with a homemade ice pick. That inmate, identified as Troy Fenton, wrote a letter to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and said he attacked Devlin because of the heinous nature of Devlin’s crimes.

Devlin remains at the state prison in Cameron under protective custody.

The Shawn Hornbeck Foundation ceased operations in 2013. In May of that year, the Akers family determined they didn’t have the time and resources necessary to commit to the foundation and rescue team. Other members of the organization founded the Missouri Valley Search and Rescue Team to continue the mission of helping families of missing children and adults.

Craig Akers died July 15, 2019, from bladder cancer. He was 57.

Willett retired from the FBI in 2010. She still stays in touch with her colleagues who helped solve the case.

Writer Michelle McNamara died in her sleep on April 21, 2016. She was 46.

Shawn Hornbeck married and became a father. Both he and Ben Ownby still live in the St. Louis area.

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