ST. LOUIS — A Missouri teenager who was kidnapped and held captive for 4½ years said Wednesday he survived the ordeal because he knew his tightknit family would never give up looking for him.
Shawn Hornbeck said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show that he remembered his strong connection to his family throughout the time he was held by Michael Devlin, who abducted him when he was 11. Hornbeck was rescued from Devlin's suburban St. Louis apartment, along with another boy, Ben Ownby, on Jan. 12, 2007.
Hornbeck was held captive for more than four years. Ownby had been missing only a few days.
"What really just made me hold on strong is knowing that my parents will always look for me, just because I've always just had one of the best connections a kid could have with his parents, you know," Hornbeck said, clasping his mother Pamela Akers' hand during the interview.
"With my family, it's just always been family's No. 1 and always there for each other. And it's just the strength that I could feel from my family, even though I was so far away," he said.
Akers said she had told her son she loved him just before he headed out the door of their rural Richwoods home in October 2002 to meet a friend on his bicycle. The family wouldn't see him again for 4½ years.
"Before he was taken, no matter what, every day when we would leave the house or anybody would leave, the last thing we would say to somebody was 'I love you,' because for some reason or another, you never know if that's going to be the last time," she said. "I was just so thankful that that was one of the last things that I did say to him before he left and that was one of the first things that I said to him when he came home."
Craig Akers, Hornbeck's stepfather, said the family found excellent therapists who have helped Shawn work through what he endured, put it behind him "and make it something that happened to him, not something that determined what Shawn was going to be."
Hornbeck, who is now 18, graduated a semester ahead of his high school class and attends college. He said he worked especially hard the first summer after his release from captivity and got individual help at a school that specializes in learning disabilities.
He said he caught up by turning on "a few more gears and just kind of put it into overdrive."
Returning to school and reuniting with his old friends put him at ease and made him feel normal, Hornbeck said.
"It was just all easygoing and natural, but I still worked to get to where I am today," he said.
On Tuesday, the third anniversary of his being found alive, Hornbeck and his parents launched a campaign through The Shawn Hornbeck Foundation to raise awareness about child safety.
Hornbeck said the foundation — and a desire to help other missing kids — always would be a part of his life.
Devlin, a former pizzeria manager, was convicted of kidnapping and abusing the boys and was sentenced to multiple life sentences in a Missouri prison.