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With a six-foot-four-inch frame straining under roughly 300 pounds, much of it earned during nearly a quarter-century's labor at a pizza shop, it's hard to imagine that Michael J. Devlin did not stand out. Then again, people who knew the bookish loner say that although he kept to himself, he lived in plain view not like a man with secrets.
To the contrary, Devlin was a fixture behind the counter at the Imo's pizzeria on South Kirkwood Road, chatting up regulars while he took their orders. Be it sports, religion, politics or current events, Devlin seemed like he could talk about anything and, according to those who knew him, he often did.
"He was very articulate when it came to news. There wasn't a subject he wouldn't chime in on. He was very intelligent," says Mike Prosperi, the Imo's owner who employed Devlin for roughly 25 years right up until his arrest on kidnapping charges on Friday, January 12. "I was just talking to a regular [customer], and he says, 'You know, last week we were talking something about religion.'"
Devlin, who worked as the shop's day manager and also worked nights answering phones at Bopp Chapel, was known to personally carry out orders to waiting customers. He'd shake customers' hands and crack jokes. Although he smoked menthol cigarettes and didn't play sports, he'd occasionally tell co-workers that he'd spent his day off painting rooms at his mother's house, or that he'd gone out Rollerblading.
"He was the same throughout his whole life. He was always kind of a heavier, dorky-type guy. He was never one of the 'cool kids,' and he took a good amount of abuse just because of his physical proportions, but he'd hang out. He just kind of lived his life," says Thom Williams, who grew up across the street from Devlin and worked with him at Imo's during the 1980s and '90s. "He played video games, he was an avid card player we'd play poker at his house all the time, but mainly it was employees from Imo's."
Then sometime in 2002, Devlin was diagnosed with Type II diabetes. That was when he quit smoking and gave up inline skating. He also became more withdrawn at work.
"He used to Rollerblade, but then he got diabetes and he couldn't afford another problem with his feet, so he stopped," says Prosperi, adding that Devlin had to have a toe amputated around the time of his diagnosis.
"He was a complete dick," says Dan Schwabe, who used hang out at the Imo's in middle school before getting a job at the pizzeria in 1995.
"All the other guys who worked there were cool with us except for Devo," says Schwabe, referring to Devlin by his nickname. "Me and a couple of my friends just steered clear of him."
Owner Prosperi says Devlin did not drink or take drugs. After the diabetes diagnosis, his only vice was Mountain Dew, which he drank in prodigious quantities.
"He drank Mountain Dew like it was water. He had the tap, so could take it straight from the [soda] fountain," says Prosperi, adding, "It's not like he was in a corner holed up or anything. He seemed normal, just like the rest of the guys."
So normal, in fact, that after thirteen-year-old William "Ben" Ownby disappeared near his family's home in Beaufort, co-workers joked behind the counter that the aging white Nissan pickup authorities were looking for fit the description of Devlin's own rusted-out jalopy.
"Oh yeah, people joked about it," recalls Prosperi, noting that Devlin had no criminal record. "But nobody really thought it was him. He never had any problems with anyone."
The joke didn't last long.
On Monday the day Ben Ownby was abducted after stepping off a school bus in rural Franklin County Prosperi sent Devlin home early after the pizzeria manager complained he felt ill.
"I could see that he was feeling sick. So I said, 'Mike, why don't you get everything set up, and as soon as the lunch rush is done go on home.' He left here about 12:50," Prosperi says.
Devlin missed work on Tuesday but arrived on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for his regular 10-a.m.-to-5-p.m. shift.
Prosperi says Devlin seemed normal after he returned from his sick days, taking his co-workers' ribbing with what appeared to be good cheer and bantering with regulars until Friday morning, when Devlin arrived at work complaining that two Kirkwood police officers had been snooping around his apartment building on South Holmes Avenue, just north of Interstate 44.
Meanwhile law enforcement officials were about to comb through Devlin's two-bedroom unit, where they would find not only Ben Ownby, but also fifteen-year-old Shawn Hornbeck, who'd been missing for more than four years: the "Missouri Miracle."
Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation took Devlin into custody after questioning him in the Imo's parking lot about Ben Ownby's disappearance.
Now accused of kidnapping both Shawn and Ben, it appears that Devlin who co-workers describe as "normal" and "nice" was in fact harboring a secret so sinister that its very improbability appears to have been its best defense against detection.