How a Kidnapped Boy Readjusts

  • Share
  • Read Later
St. Louis Post-Dispatch / MCT / Landov

Shawn Hornbeck (center), his mother, Pam Akers, (left) and stepfather, Craig Akers, greet friends as they walk into the press conference at Richwoods School in Richwoods, Missouri, Saturday, January 13, 2007.

Shawn Hornbeck's parents say they may never know the full story as to why their son Shawn never attempted to contact them or to escape during the more than four years he lived with the man police say abducted him in 2002. But they said comments by Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly that the boy may have enjoyed living with Michael Devlin more than his family had infuriated the couple.

"Can you really be that simple-minded?" Shawn's stepfather, Craig Akers, said in an interview with TIME late Thursday evening. "Our son was 11 when he was abducted. A child that age can be mentally manipulated in a very short time. Hearing him say what he said absolutely infuriates me. I can hardly even express how mad it makes me to hear that."

The comments had bothered Shawn, too, he added. "Shawn's actual words to us were that he had been terrified," Akers said. "We didn't ask him about that, but he brought it up after seeing something on the news about how he had had all these opportunities to get away. He said he was simply terrified."

Shawn hasn't told them yet what happened with Devlin to leave him so scared, but both said they suspect he may have been abused, a gut feeling they first shared in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that aired yesterday. But Craig Akers said yesterday his suspicion was not based on anything Shawn has said or done since he has been back home. "There was nothing to make me think that other than statistics," he told TIME. "Since Shawn disappeared, we have been helping out other families with missing kids. We've been involved in more than 40 missing persons cases. That is the only thing that I can think of as to why someone would do this."

He also said that the mere fact that Shawn stayed away so long, despite apparent freedom to use the phone and ride his bike, was proof to him that something "awful" had happened to him during those years. In addition, both parents said yesterday that they fear the reason Devlin may have taken Ownby was because he may have had an unhealthy obsession with younger boys. "That is what keeps crossing my mind," Craig Akers said. "We're just grateful that they found them so soon after Ben got there."

At nearly six-foot, and with a voice his mother says is much deeper than she remembers, Shawn has grown far beyond the little boy whose picture was broadcast relentlessly during the early months of his disappearance. But while he has grown up, he hasn't kept up with other kids his age — at least not academically, given that he did not attend school of any type while living with Devlin. Fixing that, his mother said, will be one of the family's first priorities as their life slowly returns to normal. "Shawn really wants to go back to school, but before we can get him back in school he has to be evaluated. So that is going to be the top thing we do next," Pam Akers said.

Just how to make up more than four years of missed schooling has not yet been decided. But Superintendent John Westerman of the Richwoods elementary school district, which Shawn attended before 2002 said the school board is committed to doing whatever it takes — including hiring a private teacher — to help Ben catch up academically with his classmates. Though his former classmates are now in the 9th grade, Westerman said that with a private tutors, summer sessions and hard work, Shawn could expect to graduate with his friends on time.

In the meantime, both parents said they expect a bumpy transition as Shawn gets used to living in a home with rules and boundaries he may never have faced while living with Devlin. "He's tested the boundaries, pushed a little here and there," said Craig Akers. "But that's okay. Since he has been back, he and a girl he knew very well before he was taken have struck up a casual relationship. We've had to have a talk with him, and tell him that she can't come over to the house unless someone else is there with them, and if they go in his room, the door will have to stay open. All the normal kinds of things you have to tell a young teenager."

His mother said there are some things Shawn is simply going to have to get used to in the near term. Going on dates, or even going to movies with friends, is going to come with some unusual strings attached. "He can go to any movie he wants to go see," she said. "But we're going to be right there with him." Her husband laughed, but wasn't joking when he said, "We're both going to have to get used to going on a lot of double dates for a while."