Until his arrest last Friday on kidnapping charges, Michael Devlin, 41, led a life that seemed limited to a three- or four-mile radius from the place he grew up, Webster Groves, an upscale suburb of St. Louis. "He was just a big, friendly marshmallow," said one neighbor who knew Devlin in his youth. When he finally moved out of his parents' home, where he lived in an apartment above the garage, he set up residence in an apartment complex in Kirkwood, about three miles away. For 25 years, he worked at Imo's, a pizza parlor even closer by. And to commit the crimes he is accused of, all he had to do was take his Nissan truck two blocks to Interstate 44. The 50 miles or so he would drive to the rural towns of Richwoods and Beaufort were the most significant travel he would do. That's where, back in 2002, he found Shawn Hornbeck, then 11; and Ben Ownby, 13, just last week.
At Imo's, Devlin started out as a delivery boy before slowly ascending to assistant manager, making $20,000 a year. He regularly delivered pizzas to the Kirkwood police station, which sits just a few hundred feet from the pizzeria's back door. He tended to be chatty, seemingly able to talk from the start of the workday till its end. A lot of the time, the subject was video games; but he was a loner. No one ever heard him talk about dates or romances. So everyone assumed he played the games alone. Now, they suspect that, for the last four years at least, he had someone to play along with him.
As TIME reported, police stopped Shawn Hornbeck on at least one occasion but no one figured he was the kid missing from back in 2002. There were flyers about him nearby. For example, one was attached to a bench at a Schnuck's grocery store less than a mile from Devlin's home. It showed a photo of Shawn when he was kidnapped at the age of 11 and an artist's rendition of what he might look like now. "It's just amazing how those kids could be right here living among us and nobody knew," says Carol Michels, a neighbor of Devlin's parents.
It is not that Shawn Hornbeck was quiet. He is a fan of Insane Clown Posse, a group that performs in clownface and is most notable for picking fights with whomever they can bait into paying attention to them, including Eminem. Harry Richard, 33, was a neighbor of Devlin and also a big fan of the horrorcore music of Insane Clown Posse. Richard, who often wears Posse t-shirts, says he would frequently hear the band's music blasted during the day from the apartment below, when Devlin would be at work at the pizza shop. "Over the past six months or so, during the day he would bang all the time sometimes when Devlin was there and sometimes not. It was just like insane carpentry noises, hitting the walls like with a hammer." Says Richard: "He made it obvious that someone was there, someone was home. I can't help but think now that he was trying to tell me something." But Richard said he didn't ever knock on his neighbors' door, in part because he did not like Devlin. "I thought of him as some brat who was always banging on things in the apartment, making a racket," Richard said, adding that he never had a chance to talk to Shawn alone. "I never saw him without Devo [Mike Devlin]," said Richard. "They were always together."
Shawn was friends with other kids in the neighborhood but never seemed to be with them when they headed off to school. Says neighbor Alma Rodriguez: "He was a skater-kind of kid, who didn't speak to anyone." Rodriguez, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment across the tiny green lawn from Devlin's apartment with her husband and two small children, said she never saw Shawn leave in the morning for school. "I didn't think about it at the time, but now I guess it is odd." Both Rodriguez and Richards recall a more irritable Devlin, not the "marshmallow" that friends describe. Rodriguez remembers some heated, profanity-laced arguments Devlin had with others over parking spots. But Rodriguez said that she never had any suspicion that Devlin was interested in her children or the other children who lived in the apartment complex.
The taking of Ben Ownby, 13, proved to be Devlin's undoing. A detailed description of his Nissan by a friend of Ownby's quickly led police to Kirkwood. On Thursday, Devlin who had just returned from what he said were a couple of days off due to illness, had been chatting up a visiting police captain, talking about how to use a bow and arrow to fish. "He was just as calm as can be," says Michael Prosperi, Devlin's employer. By Friday, however, Devlin had been called in for questioning. Just about when that happened, Prosperi said Imo's got a call from Devlin's apartment. Prosperi called back and a boy answered. "Who is this," Prosperi asked. "Who is this?" the boy replied. Prosperi then said he was Devlin's boss and asked for him, repeating, "Who is this? Is there an adult there?' The boy then said, 'This is Shawn Wilcox. My father is a friend of Michael Devlin's.'" Then, said Prosperi, the phone went dead. Soon after, the police announced the miraculous rescue of Ben Ownby and Shawn Hornbeck.