It was a bittersweet Christmas for Craig and Pam Akers and their 16-year-old son, Shawn Hornbeck. Sweet because Shawn was back home after having been held against his will for four years; bitter because of the thoughts it evoked of all the holidays the family spent apart.
In the end, however, the holiday turned out to be quite special, Craig Akers, Shawn’s stepfather, told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira on Friday.
“You’re grateful for the one that you do have and all the ones that you know that are coming up in the future,” he said. “We’re so ecstatic just to have him here for even just a minute with us.”
“It’s just been wonderful for us,” Pam Akers said of the past year. “We can’t hardly believe it’s already been a year. To us, sometimes it seems like it’s only been a couple of months.”
The Akers spoke from their home in Richwoods, Mo., where they and Shawn will celebrate on Saturday the first anniversary of the day he was found by police in the apartment of Michael Devlin. The 41-year-old pizza parlor manager in suburban St. Louis had abducted then 11-year-old Shawn while he was riding his bike on Oct. 6, 2002. Devlin was also holding 13-year-old Ben Ownby, who had been abducted four days earlier, on Jan. 8, 2007.
Neither boy has spoken publicly about his ordeal, although Ownby’s parents said he was doing well in an appearance on TODAY on Tuesday.
News reports have said that Shawn was tortured at first and was too scared to call police or tell anyone that Devlin, who presented him as his son, had abducted him and was sexually abusing him.
In the year since his rescue, Shawn, who did not attend school during his captivity, has progressed amazingly well, the Akers said.
“We’re doing wonderful,” Pam Akers told Vieira. “He’s slowly but surely getting back into being a normal 16-year-old kid. He’s doing great in school, picking up all of his normal activities we did before he was taken from us and getting used to being around his friends and family again.”
The Akers shared photos of Shawn, showing a dark-haired and handsome young man enjoying a variety of sporting activities. They spoke with pride about how hard he’s worked to catch up the years of missed schooling.
“He worked one-on-one all summer long. When most kids were out playing and having fun, he was having to do his school,” Pam Akers said. “He actually has gone from a fifth-grade level all the way up to ninth-grade level, and he has a 3.96 grade average, so we couldn’t be any prouder.”
Vieira asked the couple whether they have talked with their son about what happened to him while he was being held by Devlin.
“It’s come up from time to time,” Craig Akers replied. “As part of Shawn’s therapy, he’s documenting some of the more significant periods that occurred there and sharing those with us during counseling sessions. That, coupled with the conversations that we’ve had, we have a real good idea of what all transpired.”
“How do you make sense of it?” Vieira asked.
“There really isn’t any making sense of it,” he said. “It’ll never make sense. It shouldn’t make sense. But it is something you can learn to deal with, learn to cope with. The important thing is remembering that it is not you. It doesn’t define you, it’s not who you are. It’s something that happened that wasn’t your fault.”
It’s never going to go away, he said, adding, “You just have to remember that it’s always going to be there. But just keep moving forward and things will turn out OK. And in this case, that’s exactly how things have turned out — OK.”
Experts: Never give up hope
The Akers had been told by various self-proclaimed “psychics” that their son was dead, but they never gave up hope of finding him. In fact, while he was being held captive, Shawn had had access to the Internet and, although afraid to reveal himself because of what Devlin might do to him, he sent his parents at least one cryptic message under the name Shawn Devlin that asked: “How long are you going to look for your son?"
In a companion news story filed by Kevin Tibbles for NBC News, John Walsh of “America’s Most Wanted” said Shawn Hornbeck’s story is an example of why he tells parents whose children have gone missing, “Don’t ever give up looking. Don’t ever give up hope.”
After Shawn’s abduction, the Akers established The Shawn Hornbeck Foundation to help others in their situation. The foundation has continued to grow since Shawn was returned to them and is taking up increasing amounts of their time.
“It’s become an everyday driving force for us,” Craig Akers told Vieira. “Our ultimate goal is to be able to spend 100 percent of our time every day doing things for the foundation, for other families, for other missing children — giving parents tools to keep their children safe, teaching children how to be safe. It’s become really our life’s work; it’s where we’re headed and where we’re destined for down the road.”
Devlin, meanwhile, was charged with multiple counts of abduction, kidnapping and sexual abuse by both state and federal prosecutors and last year pleaded guilty to the last of them. His combined sentences total 74 life terms and 170 years in prison.
“Justice here on earth has been served as much as the law can do. I’m very satisfied that that part has happened,” Pam Akers said. “True justice will come when his time is up.”