Monster Next Door?

From Webster Groves High to Imos Pizza to a cheap apartment in a forlorn corner of Kirkwood. For years Michael Devlin was all but invisible. Now hes Public Enemy No. 1.

Michael Devlin

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 He also became more withdrawn at work.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.

"It's so surreal; when you start looking at it, I guess he does fit a lot of the stereotypes that you think about when you hear about people who do this kind of thing, but it never occurred to me or anyone who knew him," says Devlin's former workmate Thom Williams, who now lives in Baltimore. "He was just a dorky, chubby guy who worked at a pizza place his whole life."

Chances are that if you were a visitor to Washington County on the morning of Monday, October 7, 2002, you had come to help search for eleven-year-old Shawn Hornbeck.

Last seen riding a lime-green mountain bike at around 4:30 p.m. the previous day, Shawn had been wearing an orange T-shirt that bore the logo of his Little League team, the Astros. He lived with his parents, Pam and Craig Akers, in Richwoods, a former mining community of modest homes that sits deep in a heavily wooded notch of rural land about 60 miles southwest of St. Louis.

The hilly terrain makes for rough going, and people worried that the boy may have fallen into one of the area's many sinkholes or abandoned mine shafts. But that didn't stop more than 200 would-be rescuers from setting out on foot, horseback, car and ATV in search of the 90-pound boy. Hoping to find at least a clue — a piece of clothing, perhaps, or Shawn's bicycle — the crew searched well into the night.

But their efforts were fruitless. Shawn had vanished, and what began as a search-and-rescue mission morphed into a criminal investigation.

Perched between two sets of railroad tracks, the apartment complex on South Holmes Avenue in Kirkwood is a far cry from the leafy neighborhoods that characterize the rest of the affluent west-county suburb.

Neighbors say that units rent for roughly $475 a month in the cluster of red-brick apartment buildings. Set in rows perpendicular to South Holmes Avenue, the buildings face one another, sharing a small patch of grass that serves as a courtyard. Children's bikes litter many of the complex's walkways. Dying house plants sit neglected near the pitted parking lot, and the communal Dumpster overflows with household trash. Many of the units have screen doors with broken handles, and the residents keep their white Levolor-style blinds drawn.

"It's a little lower-income than the rest of Kirkwood. It's a transient complex; people are moving in and out," says Mike Bales, a detective with the Kirkwood Police Department. "We may go down there once or twice a month."

One resident, though, was no transient. A member of the Webster Groves High School graduating class of 1984, Michael Devlin had lived in Apartment D on the ground floor since roughly 2002.

But unlike the amiable pizza guy who was ready to chime in on any old conversation, Devlin's neighbors knew him as an aloof loner who ignored his neighbors — so long as they gave him a wide berth.

"He was the only neighbor we didn't have contact with," says Yinara Emanuel, who lives across the grass courtyard from Devlin's unit. "He looked like a strange guy. He wouldn't look at you when he went from his apartment to his car."

Like many of Devlin's neighbors, Emanuel and her family have lived at the South Holmes complex for less than a year. Still, they say they had plenty of time to see Devlin's churlish side.

"We warned our children not to play in front of his door because he was so rude," says Krista Jones, who also lives across from Devlin's apartment. "He jumped all over one of our kids for running into his door with a bike. He said, 'Don't play around the door.' They never played over there again."

But that wasn't the only problem neighbors had with Devlin. According to an account published in this week's Newsweek, neighbor Laura Aguilar said that before Shawn began living with Devlin, she happened to peer into Devlin's bathroom window. There she saw what appeared to be sex toys.

Other neighbors say Devlin was a stickler for the rules, and if someone happened to park in his assigned parking spot, he was apt to fly into a rage.

"One night he was out there honking in the parking lot at like two o'clock in the morning because somebody was in his space," Jones says. "My husband almost beat him up. He was so mad at him, he told him he was going to kick his ass. [Devlin] took off and left."

Recalling a separate incident that occurred roughly three months ago, Yinara Emanuel's brother Mario (who lives in a separate apartment) says Devlin became irate when he arrived at the parking lot one evening and found that someone had taken his parking space.

Mario Emanuel says Devlin called the police to settle the matter.

"When the police came, they talked to Devlin and the son — who turned out not to be the son," says Emanuel, referring to the boy he now knows is Shawn Hornbeck. "They talked to the police. If the cops would have investigated across the board, they would have had him."

Kirkwood police officer Tom Ballman confirms that Devlin had summoned the police to the apartment complex.

The parking-spot incident wasn't the first contact between Kirkwood police officers and Shawn Hornbeck. On August 15, 2003, Shawn contacted the department to report that his bike had been stolen. Introducing himself as "Shawn Devlin," the boy apparently gave officers no indication that he was in fact Shawn Hornbeck and had been abducted ten months earlier.

Shawn encountered police once again on September 29 of last year. This time a Glendale officer stopped the boy as he rode his bike just before midnight. According to the police report, Shawn again gave his name as "Shawn Devlin."

To the officers who encountered him and the neighbors who saw him daily, Shawn was merely the sullen son of a single dad. Shawn's friend Tony Douglas told Newsweek that Shawn had told him that his mother had died in a drunk-driving accident. Tony added that his friend began spending holidays with the Douglas family, explaining that he did not like his father's (Devlin's) family.

"Shawn never smiled," says neighbor Krista Jones. "When I'd walk by, he'd be in there playing Nintendo or whatever. He seemed normal, but when I'd smile just to be friendly, he'd just get a mean look on his face. He kind of kept to himself, like he didn't want anyone to talk to him. It makes me think that the guy [Michael Devlin] brainwashed him."

Speaking for the first time publicly on The Oprah Winfrey Show last week, Shawn told the talk-show host that he spent most of his days in captivity sleeping, watching television and playing video games. He said that when people asked if he was in school, he told them he was home-schooled.

"We just made a story and kept the story the same," he told Winfrey. "It was always 'home-schooled.'"

"You were home-schooled?" Winfrey asked.

"No," replied Shawn. "That was the story."

Shawn's grandmother, Anna Quinn of St. Louis, later told the Associated Press that Shawn told his family his captor would at times wake him every 45 minutes.

"Think to yourself when you don't get enough sleep," Quinn said. "He had to do something to get his cooperation."

During a segment of her show when she spoke with Shawn's parents, Craig and Pam Akers, without their son present, Winfrey said: "OK, I'm going to 'go there' and ask you what do you think happened: Do you think that he was sexually abused?"

Seated on a couch across from Winfrey, the Akerses both nodded yes.

"Do you think that he was tortured?" Winfrey continued.

"That I do not know yet," Pam Akers replied.

"There is more than one kind of torture. There's mental torture, there's physical torture," Craig Akers put in. "I have no doubt that mentally he's not the same boy he was."

Still, by all accounts, Shawn was afforded certain freedoms during his four years of alleged captivity. He was permitted to ride his bicycle around the neighborhood. Neighbors report that they saw him driving Devlin's truck on occasion. He had access to a cell phone, television, video games and the Internet.

He went so far as to post a message on the Web site his parents created to help find him. "How long are you going to look for your son?" he posted, signing his name "Shawn Devlin."

Neighbors say Shawn had a friend who slept over occasionally. In recent months they'd seen him holding hands with a girlfriend — a freshman at Visitation Academy, a Catholic high school for girls in west St. Louis County. On December 6, Shawn is said to have accompanied her to a school dance. (School officials say they're uncertain whether Shawn attended the dance.)

Still, Shawn told Winfrey he "prayed that one day my parents would find me and I'd be united."

Winfrey told viewers during the show that Shawn had told her off-camera that he had been too "terrified" to attempt an escape.

"There has to be something held over his head," Craig Akers told Winfrey. "There's no way in the world that if he was able to do whatever he wanted to do, and could've walked away at any moment — there's no doubt in my mind that he would have [come home]."

Experts have cited the so-called Stockholm Syndrome, in which a captive comes to identify with his captor, and hypothesized that Shawn was paralyzed by fear.

Washington County Sheriff Kevin Schroeder puts it in plainer terms:

"This is something that is so bizarre that the normal individual cannot grasp what this then-eleven-year-old boy went through," Schroeder says. "There is no way that anybody can project onto Shawn what he should have, could have or would have done. Nobody knows. Nobody was in that situation."

Shawn Hornbeck's strange behavior might have continued for years had not Ben Ownby disappeared on January 8. Returning home from school, Ben got off a school bus and ran down the gravel road toward his house, about 500 feet away.

It was the last anyone would see of Ben for nearly a week.

Investigators learned that Ben was a Boy Scout, a straight-A student and a member of his school's Science Olympiad. Though he played plenty of video games, he didn't seem to have been in contact with strangers on the Internet. Nor did he appear to be a runaway. Investigators quickly eliminated domestic tribulations as a potential avenue of inquiry, and as the first waves of conflicting leads poured in, authorities struggled to develop a coherent focus.

All that changed when fifteen-year-old Mitchell Hults stepped forward with a detailed description of a truck. Mitchell had stepped off the school bus soon after Ben. The high school freshman told investigators that as he got into the Chevy pickup he'd parked near the bus stop that morning, he spotted an aging white Nissan pickup with a camper shell in the middle of the road, as if it were turning around. But as Mitchell approached, the truck aborted the maneuver and headed down the street, he said. Mitchell told investigators that as he pulled into his family's driveway, he saw the truck reverse direction and speed away.

Even as volunteers continued to post fliers and set out on foot, ATV and horseback in search of Ben, Mitchell's tip became investigators' main focus.

Says Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke: "Basically, that's all we had."

During media interviews that week, Sheriff Toelke drove home the importance of the white pickup.

It paid off. On the evening of Friday, January 12, 60 miles away, Kirkwood police officers Gary Wagster and Chris Nelson arrived at Devlin's apartment complex on an unrelated matter. As the officers were leaving, they spotted a white pickup.

"Are you seeing what I'm seeing?" Wagster would later say he asked Nelson.

There it was: A dirty white Nissan truck with a camper shell and plenty of rust.

A neighbor approached the two officers and said he'd been suspicious about the truck's owner, a burly man who lived in Apartment D. Minutes later the burnt-umber door to D opened, and Michael Devlin appeared.

The officers immediately recognized the bearded man with wire-rimmed glasses as the laid-back day manager at the Kirkwood Imo's Pizza, 500 feet south of the city's police headquarters. They intercepted him on his way to the Dumpster.

"They started a conversation with him. That's when they started seeing some red flags — his body language, his attitude shifted," says Kirkwood detective Mike Bales. "It was enough to make them think that something wasn't right."

More specifically, Wagster and Nelson say Devlin was friendly at first but became defensive, clenching his fists and averting his eyes, when they asked him about Ownby's disappearance.

"He got all squirrely on me," Wagster said during the Oprah broadcast. "I was like, something ain't right."

Added Nelson: "For a guy that's laid back, he got real defensive, started clenching his fists and darting his eyes — evasive. When I was asking him questions, it's like, I've never seen this guy before."

Devlin refused to admit the officers into his apartment that night. But through the window Wagster and Nelson spied a teenage boy at a table playing video games.

The boy had shock of dark hair and did not otherwise fit the description of thirteen-year-old Ben.

Stymied at Devlin's front door, the officers called in to Kirkwood police headquarters. Officials there contacted authorities in Franklin County.

"This all happened within 35 to 40 minutes," Detective Bales recounts. "A short time later, officers from the highway patrol and FBI arrived on the scene."

Bales says that when state and federal agents arrived that evening, Devlin denied them access to the apartment.

The authorities countered with an all-night stakeout.

As Devlin left for work the next morning, law enforcement agents followed him.

The authorities say Devlin was cooperative when they questioned him in the Imo's parking lot. In a statement of probable cause filed in Franklin County court, law enforcement officials say Devlin confessed to them that he had kidnapped Ben Ownby.

When investigators later searched Devlin's apartment, they found Ben — and, to their astonishment, Shawn Hornbeck.

Sheriff Toelke says Shawn immediately identified himself to officers as the boy who'd been missing for four-and-a-half years.

According to FBI agent Roland Corvington, Ben Ownby had one question for the law enforcement agents: "Are you going to take me home?"

Michael J. Devlin is being held in the Franklin County Jail in lieu of a $1 million cash bond. He was charged late last week with two separate counts of kidnapping, one in Franklin County, the other in Washington County. In the latter case, authorities allege that he used a gun to abduct Shawn and have also entered a charge of one count of armed criminal action. Washington County has set Devlin's bond at $3 million.

The cases are being litigated separately. Authorities from both jurisdictions say more charges are possible, and federal authorities and St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch say they are looking into pressing charges against Devlin.

Officials from rural Lincoln County now say that Devlin is their most "viable" lead in the case of Charles Arlin Henderson, who disappeared in 1991 while riding his bike near his home in Moscow Mills. He was eleven years old at the time.

"There are some similarities between the circumstances of Arlin Henderson's disappearance and Ben and Shawn," says Lieutenant Rick Harrell of the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department. "Arlin was riding his bike in a rural area just like Shawn was, the time of day [late afternoon], the boys' ages, and also as far as the distance from Devlin's home — it's similar."

Adds Franklin County Sheriff Toelke: "It's unlikely for people to wake up and become kidnappers or sexual offenders. There's always the possibility that there may be other kids involved, and we're looking at that."

The renewed interest in Arlin's disappearance is welcomed by his mother, Debra Henderson-Griffith. She says Lincoln County authorities told her they were going to interview Devlin after investigators from other jurisdictions had interrogated him.

"I've had so little hope for so long, but now these young boys are back — it's really given me hope," says Henderson-Griffith, whose son disappeared while she was cooking dinner. Then again, she adds, "I'm never really going to give up hope until someone brings me a body."

At an arraignment in Franklin County last week, Devlin showed little emotion as he pleaded not guilty to one count of kidnapping in the Ownby case.

His attorneys, Michael Kielty and Ethan Corlija, declined to comment on their client's purported confession. The attorneys also declined to comment on Shawn's parents' charge that they believed their son was sexually abused.

"The only thing I have is an allegation," Kielty says. "I think it would make it next to impossible to have a fair jury in this county."

Judge David Tobben set Devlin's preliminary hearing for March 15. He is expected to be arraigned later this week in Washington County on charges of kidnapping and armed criminal action. Kielty says his client plans to plead not guilty.

A single kidnapping conviction could carry a sentence of life in prison.

"We're going to take the first crack at him," says Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Robert Parks. "It's my hope that this guy never sees the outside of a jail cell in his natural life."

Contact the author [email protected]

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles

Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.