Friends of kidnapped boy miss their pal since his rescue

Monday, July 23, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:20 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

KIRKWOOD — Children who befriended Shawn Hornbeck during the four years he was missing now miss him.

They knew the eastern Missouri boy as Shawn Devlin and thought he was the son of Michael Devlin, who is now charged with kidnapping and abusing the boy.

In January, police found Shawn and 13-year-old Ben Ownby in Michael Devlin’s suburban St. Louis apartment. They were discovered four days after Ben disappeared near his rural Franklin County home, but more than four years after Shawn went missing from Washington County when he was 11 years old. Devlin faces dozens of charges, including kidnapping both boys, and remains jailed on $1 million bond.

Shawn returned to life with his mother and stepfather at his home in Richwoods. He has not spoken to the friends he made while living in Kirkwood, and a psychiatrist said it would be a mental strain for him to do so.

Shawn’s parents wrote in an e-mail to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that they wouldn’t discuss whether Shawn will contact former friends. They said they didn’t want to discuss issues of a private nature with the media.

Zafar Rehmani, a St. Louis child psychiatrist, said such contact would be difficult for Shawn.

“People who go through any trauma, they are going through it for survival,” Rehmani said.

Afterward, they may avoid situations and people from that time, which remind them of the trauma. It’s a defense mechanism to avoid reliving the past, he explained.

Meanwhile, the former friends want to know if Shawn, now 16, thinks about them, if they should have known he was in trouble, if they’ll be able to communicate with him again.

“I think about him every day,” Tony Douglas told the Post-Dispatch.

Tony was 11 when he met Shawn while riding bikes near Kirkwood. They lived in the same apartment complex, hung out at Crestwood Plaza and played video games in Devlin’s apartment. Shawn spent nearly every holiday with Tony’s family.

“He felt like he was one of my kids,” said Rita Lenderle, Tony’s mother.

On Tony’s 13th birthday, his sister-in-law, Kelly Douglas, took the boys to the balloon races in Forest Park. Shawn bought small gifts for Tony and his mother, using the allowance he got from Devlin.

“You should be nicer to your mom,” Shawn told Tony, advice other friends also would hear from Shawn.

Tony moved to Washington, Mo., this winter, but the two remained friends until Shawn’s rescue. The last months have been difficult because Tony hasn’t been able to talk to Shawn, whom he still considers his best friend.

About two years ago, Carley Reeder was online, chatting with friends from her home in Owenton, Ky., when a boy from Missouri dropped her a line. Carley, 14, said she immediately liked Shawn.

Shawn talked to Carley over a webcam but would quickly turn it off when Devlin came home, she said, and get off the phone. Other times, he was angry without a reason she understood.

Laura Seger, from Glencoe, Ky., met Shawn through Carley, and used to talk to him on the phone. He told her he was home-schooled, that his dad was at work all day, that his mother had died.

“It seemed innocent,” Laura’s mother, Lea Harris, said. “They weren’t talking about anything they shouldn’t have been.”

Shawn called Harris “Mom.” He would ask how she was doing, and whether Laura was finishing her homework and being a good kid. He would tell her to give Laura a hug for him.

Harris is proud of her daughter.

“She was there for him, every day,” she said. “Maybe it made a difference in his life.”

Tony’s mom said, “I like to think we helped him through it.”

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