The Sick Degrees of Michael Devlin

Date Published 03.09.07

On January 9 True Crime Diary posted a story about the abduction of William “Ben” Ownby, 13, from his bus stop in rural Missouri. True Crime Diary theorized Ben’s abduction was related to the disappearance four years earlier of Shawn Hornbeck, 11, from Richwoods, Missouri. Leads in Shawn’s case had dried up over the years and speculation ran that he’d fallen into a body of water, or witnessed a local drug deal. He was most certainly dead. But something nagged at us about this latest abduction. Ben and Shawn were about the same size when they disappeared, and looked somewhat alike. They lived a similar distance from St. Louis, in rural areas off Interstate 44.

Three days after our story appeared, Ben Ownby was rescued from an apartment in suburban St. Louis. The sad, pale boy who opened the door for police? Shawn Hornbeck, now a teenager.

Most of America knows the ensuing story of their captivity and something about their captor, a hulking pizza shop manager named Michael J. Devlin, 41. They may also know that law enforcement officials publicly declared they're looking hard at Devlin for another missing boy case that True Crime Diary speculated was connected to Ben and Shawn's: Arlin Henderson, 11, who disappeared from Moscow Mills, Missouri in 1991. Like Shawn, Arlin was on his bike when he vanished. His face bears a striking resemblance to Ben’s. He went missing at about the same time of day as the other two boys, around 5 p.m. Look at the locations of the boys’ disappearances on a map and a jagged line emerges; gravitate toward St. Louis and you create a terrible triangle, with Devlin’s apartment at the tip.

Just how far, wide and often did Devlin troll for victims? A happy ending, rare in child kidnappings, buoyed hope across the country that Devlin might be the answer to several painful mysteries involving missing or murdered children. But True Crime Diary didn’t peg Devlin for a rigorous serial offender. Despite some road trips of an unclear nature with Shawn, Devlin stayed rooted in the suburban area he grew up in; he worked at the same pizza place for 25 years. He had such a meticulous routine that when he missed a single day of work after Ben’s abduction it aroused suspicion in his boss. Also, diabetes had led to the amputation of two of Devlin's toes, limiting his mobility. It seemed like Devlin kept his life mostly familiar, easy and small; when dark impulses overtook him he drove out of his comfort zone, but only an hour or so away.

We were ready to move on from Michael Devlin entirely when a follow-up story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoting his brother caught our attention. It was an idle, throw-away line. Devlin's troubled brother Brian, once known as the "black sheep" of the family, wanted the public to know that his parents had raised their children well.
Brian Devlin, who in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch profile last week talked about the personal struggles that eventually estranged him from the family, said his parents were good to him and his siblings. He still has fond memories of Christmas celebrations and family vacations on Lake Michigan.
The story went on, but we didn't. Lake Michigan. A search showed that in several different interviews Brian Devlin mentions the family's cottage on Lake Michigan without specifying a location. A property search showed that a man with the same name as Devlin's father owns a home in southwestern Michigan, right near the lake. It's not a wildly uncommon name. A lot of people rent cottages instead of own them, and they mostly do so when their kids are younger, so it was iffy, maybe a long shot, but it was something. It was something to note, because the town where the Devlins may have property is close. Only twenty miles away, in fact. It is close to Benton Harbor, where on February 15, 2001 a boy named Steven Kraft, 12, went out in the early evening to play with his family's two dogs; his dogs came home, but Steven, known as Stevie, was never heard from again.

We put Steven Kraft (left) and Shawn Hornbeck (right) next to each other and compared their faces. Then we picked up the phone and called the Benton Harbor Police.

Without mentioning why we asked one of the lead detectives on the case what they thought happened to Steven Kraft. Stranger abduction? Peer altercation? Family or acquaintance homicide? "Yes," the detective said. "All of the above." He sighed. "Truth is, we don't know. We chased down everything here. We simply do not know."

We asked him if he was aware that Michael Devlin was familiar with the Lake Michigan area and may have had a family cottage near Benton Harbor. There came a low whistle. "You're kidding?" The detective started taking notes about the possible Devlin family cottage. "What do you know," he said, but we couldn't tell if it was an exclamation or a question, and the truth is we don't know much.

We do know: Michael Devlin wasn't a rootless drifter type, but a homebody who scouted for victims not far from home.

He was close enough to his family that he recuperated at his parent’s house after his foot surgery, and even admitted to a New York Post reporter after his arrest that, ”I don’t know how I’m going to explain myself to my parents.”

Devlin was socially immature, preferring to play video games and hang out at the pizza parlor where he worked. Pedophiles often idealize children and childhood. Why is that important here?

Devlin’s brother recalls a happy childhood, in particular family trips to a cottage on Lake Michigan.

So we know Devlin is aware of the Lake Michigan area, and it’s safe to assume he has happy childhood memories from there, too.

The Devlin family may or may not still own property in the Lake Michigan area.

On February 15, 2001, a boy named Steven Kraft, 12, went missing from a town on Lake Michigan, not far from where a man with the same name as Devlin's father owns property. Steven is the same size and fits the general description of Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby, the two boys Devlin is known to have abducted.

Devlin abducted Shawn and Ben when they were alone, out playing in rural areas, in the early evening. Steven lived by a creek and some woods, and was last seen taking his dogs for a walk around 7 p.m.

Shawn Hornbeck disappeared so thoroughly on October 6, 2002 that it's hard to believe it was Devlin's first experience with child abduction. Did he abduct Steven Kraft a year and a half earlier? If so, where is he? Why let Shawn live and Steven is nowhere to be found? We can think of several answers to those questions, and the latest news that Devlin was involved in making child pornography, while not surprising, certainly raises other possibilities.

But right now, that's all we have: a possibility.

The Benton Harbor police are currently investigating whether Michael Devlin can be connected to the disappearance of Steven Kraft.

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary:
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.