For four and a half years, the boy was tortured, terrorized and sexually abused. And the only thing that he had to cling to was what ultimately saved him — the love of his family.
“What really made me hold on strong was just knowing that my parents will always look for me, just because I’ve always had just one of the best connections a kid could have with his parents,” 18-year-old Shawn Hornbeck told TODAY’s Ann Curry Wednesday from his home in Richwoods, Mo. “With my family, it’s just always been ‘family’s number one.’ We’re always there for each other. It’s just the strength I could feel [from] my family, even though I was so far away.”
Shawn was speaking on the third anniversary of his rescue. The 11-year-old boy who was kidnapped in the fall of 2002 has grown into a handsome and dark-haired 18-year-old. Despite not going to school during his captivity, he has graduated high school a semester ahead of his class, is very big on cars and girls, and is attending community college.
He was flanked by his parents, Craig and Pam Akers, and as he talked, he held his mother’s hand.
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“It just makes me so proud and just so glad that he feels that way,” Pam Akers said. “Before he was taken, no matter what, every day when we would leave the house or anybody would leave, the last thing we’d say to somebody is, ‘I love you,’ because you never know if that’s going to be the last time. I’m just so thankful that was one of the last things that I did say to him before he left, and one of the first things I said to him when he came home.”
Torture and terror
Shawn was abducted on Oct. 6, 2002, while riding his bike near his home in Richwoods, Mo. His abductor, pizza-parlor manager Michael Devlin, tortured, terrorized and sexually abused Shawn and threatened to kill him if he ever told anyone who he was.
Under constant fear that Devlin would carry through on his threats, Shawn lived with Devlin in an apartment in suburban St. Louis for four and a half years. The apartment was only an hour away from his home.
The abduction and subsequent manhunt riveted the nation’s attention. But as the search for Shawn continued to be fruitless, at least one self-described psychic announced on national television that Shawn was dead. Still, even then, his parents never gave up hope.
The break in the case came on Jan. 8, 2007, when Devlin abducted 13-year-old Ben Ownby. Witnesses gave police a description of a truck seen in the area of the abduction.
The owner of the pizza parlor that Devlin managed realized the truck’s description matched Devlin’s vehicle. His suspicions heightened because Devlin called in sick for work for two days, the store owner called police.
The Akers’ joy at being reunited with Shawn was tempered by the knowledge that the boy would require extensive therapy to cope with what had happened to him during his captivity. A major concern was that Shawn would blame himself for not trying to contact his parents.
“What happened to him was extremely traumatic. It’s something that you just can’t deal with on your own,” Craig Akers told Curry. “We were fortunate that after a little bit of searching, we found some very good professional help — therapists that were able to connect with Shawn.”
Video: Missing teen's parents on his return Along with recovering from emotional trauma, Shawn also had a lot of schooling to catch up on. The first summer that he was back home, he immersed himself in the special tutors and schools that were made available to him.
“I worked that whole summer to catch up with my classmates in schooling,” Shawn said. “Then I went to a school that specializes in kids with learning disabilities and stuff. They were able to work with me one on one, to where I was able to continue my high school with my actual classmates that I had when I was 11.”
Shifting into overdrive
Curry asked Shawn what inspired him to work so hard to catch up and then jump ahead.
Shawn has also dedicated himself to helping other kids who are abducted as he was. Last year, he contacted Jaycee Dugard, the California woman who had been abducted as a girl and held for 18 years as a sex slave, to help her rejoin her real family and the real world.
His family started a foundation to help such people, the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation, and Shawn recently recorded a public service announcement. In it, after introducing himself, he says:
Video: Hornbeck’s parents: ‘Be patient’ with abductees “When I was 11 years old, I was riding my bike near my home when I was kidnapped by a stranger. I was held captive for four and a half years. If you see something, say something. Reach out to someone. There’s always someone willing to help, and no matter where you are, be aware of your surroundings.”
And, he might have added, never forget the power of a family’s love.
For more information about the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation, click here.
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