Richwoods, MO

It's Been 16 Years Since Missing Boys Shawn Hornbeck & Ben Ownby Were Rescued From Abductor

Shawn Hornbeck and Ben OwnbyPhoto byNikki Young/Canva

The story of Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby is also known as the “Missouri Miracle”, and by the end of this story, you’ll understand why.

The Day Shawn Disappeared

It was October 6th, 2002 and at around 1:15 pm in the afternoon, Shawn headed towards his friend's house on his lime green bicycle. This friend only lived a short distance away in the small town of Richwoods, Missouri, and it was a route that Shawn was very familiar with as he had taken it many times. While en route, he was lightly struck by a man driving a white truck. The driver would later be identified as Michael Devlin, and he had planned this whole scenario out.

Devlin jumped out of the truck and rushed over to Shawn, pretending to be concerned about whether he was okay or not. Shawn told him that he was fine - but he had no idea just what kind of danger he was in. Devlin grabbed him off the ground and put him in the truck, before driving off. It all happened that fast and in the blink of an eye, Shawn was gone.

When Shawn did not return home that evening, his parents weren’t immediately concerned and thought that he had probably lost track of time and was running late. But when 45 minutes had passed and their 11-year-old little boy still wasn’t home, they knew something was wrong.

Shawn’s mother, Pam, would say that she had this gut feeling as a mother that something terrible had happened. Along with her husband Craig, they got in their car and drove around the neighborhood looking for Shawn. They followed the same tracks he would have taken to get to his friend’s house, but there was no sign of him. They decided to go home, write down a list of places he could be, along with the phone numbers and get calling. It quickly became apparent that Shawn had never made it to his friend’s house that night.

Meanwhile, Shawn was being held captive in an apartment in St. Louis by Michael Devlin, who was in his 40s and worked as a Pizza restaurant manager.

The plan was initially for Devlin to assault Shawn and then kill him to get rid of the evidence, but Shawn was really smart and wanted to stay alive. He told his capture that if he was allowed to live, he wouldn’t fight him. He would go along with whatever he wanted to do, in exchange for his life. This worked. Devlin would keep Shawn Hornbeck held captive for four gruelling years about 40 miles away from his parent's home.

For the first month that Shawn had been kidnapped, he was restrained. He would be tormented by being awoken from his sleep every 45 minutes. After the first month, Devlin would leave Shawn at home alone when he would leave for work or run errands. This was only after he had fully manipulated Shawn into believing that his entire family would be killed if he tried to escape. This is an 11-year-old little boy we’re talking about - and a grown man. He fully believed that this man would kill him and his family if he were caught trying to get help. He was terrified.

While Shawn was no longer bring physically held captive, he was still in a mental prison. He was given some freedoms, including being allowed to watch TV, use the telephone and even access the Internet. One might question why he didn’t use those opportunities to reach out to the police or his parents - but his captor had immense emotional power over him. Devlin kept guns in the home and told him repeatedly that he would murder him and everyone he loved he even attempted to get help.

Instead, he prayed every night to be rescued, while knowing his parents still loved him and missed him - and yet, he just couldn’t push himself to do it. However, there was one time when he came very close. One time he was browsing the Internet and decided to search his name to see what kind of activity was happening in his missing person's case. He really wanted to know if anyone was still looking for him - especially his parents - because Devlin had made him feel otherwise.

Through his search, Shawn found his parent’s missing person’s website that they had set up for him. The site included a contact point, where people could leave messages of prayer and support for his parents. The user known as “Shawn Devlin” left a message that read, “How long are you planning to look for your son?” However, his posts were dismissed as either fake or spam.
Shawn HornbeckPhoto byProvided by family

Four years is a long time, so as the years passed, Shawn would be allowed short stints outside of the home, where neighbours and people in the community would see him. No one remembered his face as the child from the missing person posters. He went by the name Shawn Devlin. He told people that he was homeschooled by his father, who was really his captor. To pass the time, he would sleep and play video games, but this would happen in between the moments of abuse.

One of the most shocking revelations from Shawn’s abduction is the fact that he had actually spoken to police on multiple occasions while he was a missing child. During one incident approximately 10 months after his abduction, he filed a police report for his missing bike. He introduced himself at the station as Shawn Deviln and said that his bicycle had been stolen from outside of the apartment building he lived at. He gave no indication that he was a missing child that police were actively searching for.

This wasn’t Shawn’s only interaction with law enforcement during those four years. On September 29th, 2006, an officer would stop Shawn while he was riding his bike at night because he was wearing dark clothing. He also didn’t have any reflectors on his bike, so the officer simply stopped him to take down his information and let him know that drivers couldn’t see him in the dark. Once again, he reported his name as Shawn Devlin. This time he was asked his date of birth, and he gave July 7th, 1991 - which was actually just 10 days off from his actual birthday. This was years into Shawn’s missing person case and it had been widely publicized by this time. Still, the officer did not recognize him as the missing child and so nothing was done at that point.

These encounters with the police, where Shawn was by himself and had every opportunity to tell them who he was and didn’t - just goes to show the high level of manipulation Devlin used. But also, it is quite likely true that if Shawn had attempted to escape and was caught, Devlin would kill him.

While their child was missing, Shawn’s parent’s worked tirelessly with investigators to try to find their son. They decided to attend a taping of the Montel Williams Show, featuring world-renowned psychic medium, Sylvia Browne. Shawn’s parent’s had the opportunity to ask her about his disappearance. Browne would tell these distraught parents that Shawn had been taken by a man named Michael, who was as tall as a basket player and drove an old blue Chevrolet. She also claimed that he was deceased.

A few things to note here. She wasn’t completely wrong in her vision. Shawn had been picked up by a man named Michael. But Michael is one of the most common names in all of North America. He had not been seen by any boy named Keith or picked up in an old blue Chevrolet. As for Michael Devlin, the man who actually abducted Shawn, he wasn’t tall like a basket player. The worst thing of all that she lied about - was that their missing child, Shawn Hornbeck, was deceased. Shawn’s mother asked if he was still with us and Syvlia nods “no” - and his mother breaks down at this point.

Sadly, she had no idea that her boy was still alive and within reach. They knew it was a very real possibility that their son was deceased, and they created a memorial site at a park with a plaque where they could go to feel connected to him. Even with that nagging feeling at the back of her brain, she did not give up. Along with Shawn’s stepfather Craig, they set up a foundation called the “Shawn Hornbeck Foundation” that assisted with funds and resources to look for missing and abducted children. They would put basically all of their life savings into this cause for the next four years.

Ben Ownby is Abducted

Then, on January 8, 2007, Michael Devlin would make a very big mistake. Shawn was getting older, which meant he started looking older and he wasn’t exactly Devlin’s type anymore. For this reason, he decided it was time to abduct another young boy. He would see 13-year-old Ben Ownby standing at a bus stop in Beaufort, Missouri. Without really thinking it through and ensuring there wasn’t anyone around to see, he grabbed Ben and threw him into his white truck. Thankfully, Ben’s friend, 15-year-old Mitchell Hults, was also near the bus stop and saw the whole thing happen. He called the police and gave them a description of Devlin and the truck he was driving.
Ben OwnbyPhoto byProvided by family

Ben was described as both a straight-A student and a responsible young man who always told his parents where he was going and when he would be home. When Ben didn’t return home after school, his parents jumped into action right away by calling all of his friends and neighbors to see what they knew. This is when they learned about the sighting of the white truck driving erratically away from the bus stop, likely with Ben in it, and the connection was made.

Because this was an abduction, the FBI became involved in the investigation very early on. With the detailed witness account, they were able to quickly identify the truck in question. As it turned out, there was a pizzeria manager named Michael Devlin who owned a truck matching the description. Two FBI agents decided to pay Devlin a visit at work to ask him a few questions in relation to Ben’s bus stop abduction. They asked him if they could search his truck, they he gave them permission.

While one officer began to look through the truck, Devlin sat in the back of the FBI car fumbling over questions the other officer was asking him. At one point, he mentioned having to get home to his son, Shawn. As the FBI officer pushed further with questioning, Michael Devlin broke down and confessed. He said that he had Ben Owny back at his apartment, along with Shawn Hornbeck who had been missing for over four years. Michael Devlin referred to himself as a bad person.
Photo bySheriff's Department

When the FBI broke down Devlin’s apartment door, they found Shawn and Ben sitting on the couch playing video games. Both boys were rescued alive and that fact alone was incredible. The story of their recovery spread like wildfire, with people referring to it as the “Missouri Miracle”. They recognized Ben right away, as he had only been missing for the last four days, but it took them a bit to realize who this teenager with dark sweeping hair and piercings was. Shawn looked much different than the 11-year-old boy who had been taken off of his bicycle.

A Reunion at Last

On January 12, 2007, Shawn’s parents, Pam and Craig, received a phone call that they never thought would come. They were actually driving at the time, and the attorney who called knew the news would be so shocking, he told them to pull over. Not only had their son been found, but he was alive. It was the best news they could have ever received, and yet it was shocking to their core. Somehow, after four and a half years of being held by a monster, Shawn survived and was ready to be reunited with his family.

Shawn’s mom Pam would say that although he looked very different than the little boy she remembered, she immediately recognized his face as her son. He had all of the same features that she had lovingly adored as she watched him grow as a child - and yet, something was very different. He had gone through a lot of trauma that had changed him and matured him.

This was just the beginning for Shawn, who would have to go through extensive therapy for what he went through. He appeared on many different talk shows, including Oprah, where he spoke about how he prayed to be rescued and held out hope that his parents were still looking for him. It was the only thing that got him through the days. Now that he was home, he had a lot of catching up to do. He discovered that his parents had kept his bedroom exactly the way he left it... for when he was found. But there were a lot of other changes, including all of his childhood friends growing up and his big sister having married.

Shawn also spoke about Ben Ownby, the other boy who had been taken and was mostly quiet during this time, and how he may never have been discovered if not for ben. Shawn said,

“[I feel] thankful that he held in there for those couple of days, and I'm sorry for what he went through, because I told myself a long time ago I never want any other kid to go through what I went through. But I am thankful for him for holding in there, and I'm happy that he's back with his family." | Source: Oprah

As for Michael Devlin, the monster behind it all, he was charged with numerous offences, including kidnapping, molestation and use of a deadly weapon. He had basically been caught red-handed, so he plead guilty to the charges and was sentenced to 74 years behind bars. He was also given an additional 2,020 years which seems redundant but he won’t be eligible for parole until he’s 100. If he makes it that long in prison. In 2011, he was attacked by another inmate and stabbed with a shank, allegedly due to the nature of his crimes.

2023 Updates

Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Owny would move on with their lives the best that they could while living in the St. Louis area. Shawn would get married and become a father. The foundation that had been created in his name to assist with finding missing children disbanded in 2013 due to a lack of resources and has since thrown its support behind other organizations with similar missions.

As an interesting side note related to this case, true crime investigator and writer, Michelle McNamara, started investigating this case when Shawn’s story was going cold and tips stopped coming in. She was actually very close to figuring out the details of this case prior to the police finding both missing boys. She was one of the first people to make the connection between Ben’s abduction and Shawn’s. Michelle would assist in the investigation into the Golden State Killer, but sadly she died at just 46 years old before he was caught and sentenced.


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