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A search for one missing boy ends with the saving of two

Ben Ownby was missing for several days, Shawn Hornbeck for several years. Police find them in a man's apartment.

January 13, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — The news came as a shock: Shawn Damian Hornbeck, a 15-year-old missing since 2002, had been found in a St. Louis suburb -- about 50 miles from where he disappeared.

Yet it was how he was found, investigators said Friday, that has left them, family members and the community stunned and giddy.

Shawn was found during a search for William "Ben" Ownby, 13, who disappeared Monday after getting off a school bus on a gravel road near his home in Beaufort, Mo.

Both boys were found Friday in the apartment of Michael J. Devlin, 41, in Kirkwood, Mo., Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke said.

Devlin, who reportedly worked as a dispatcher for a pizzeria and as an overnight phone operator at a funeral home, had been charged with one count of first-degree kidnapping as of late Friday.

"All of us have been just amazingly happy," Toelke said.

"The things we've gone through in the past few days have been intense. Then you have something like this happen -- there's nothing to describe it, really."

Franklin County Prosecutor Robert Parks said Devlin was being held on $1 million bail.

"More charges are likely to be filed as we learn more," he said.

The Ownby family could not be reached for comment Friday.

Relatives of Shawn declined to comment late Friday except to say they had always believed they would see him again. They have scheduled a news conference for this morning.

Ben, a Boy Scout, had last been seen Monday stepping off the school bus and heading home in tiny Beaufort, about 60 miles west of St. Louis.

Classmate Mitchell Hults was on the bus. As the news spread of Ben's disappearance, Mitchell approached local authorities. He told police he saw a truck speed off from where Ben had been walking.

"They had me take a polygraph test," Mitchell told local TV reporters late Friday. "I told them as much as I could about the truck."

The details -- that the pickup was battered and white, with a camper shell and the word "Nissan" printed on the tailgate -- were spread by local news reports and law enforcement teams in the area.

An Amber Alert was issued for Ben, and neighbors and family members joined investigators to scour the hilly terrain by horseback and all-terrain vehicle and on foot.

The story was painfully familiar in this region: In October 2002, Shawn was 11 years old and last seen riding his green mountain bike to a friend's home in Richwoods, Mo., about 40 miles southeast of Beaufort.

He never arrived.

Shawn's family and the rest of the community scoured parks in search of the boy, and investigators drained nearby lakes and wells of the former mining community in northeastern Washington County.

As time passed and the public's hopes began to fade, his parents pushed on, starting a foundation to help families of other missing children find their loved ones.

On Thursday, investigators caught a big break. Kirkwood police officers were serving an unrelated warrant at an apartment complex and spotted a battered white Nissan truck. They contacted the Franklin County Sheriff's Department, which identified Devlin as the owner of the truck.

They later discovered the boys in Devlin's apartment.

Officers didn't immediately recognize Shawn, who told them he was the boy who had disappeared more than four years ago.

"We have some good news and possibly some unbelievable news. We've found Ben Ownby," Toelke told reporters Friday. "And we've also located Shawn Hornbeck."

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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