What Shawn Went Through
Young Shawn Hornbeck had plenty of chances to flee his captor. So what made him stay?
By Arian Campo-Flores and Ellen Harris
Updated: 3:01 p.m. ET Jan 17, 2007
Jan. 17, 2007 - It’s one of the most perplexing questions to emerge from the tale of the two missing Missouri boys who were found last Friday: why didn’t Shawn Hornbeck, 15, the older of the two, simply flee? As details of his four years of captivity in Kirkwood, Mo., emerge, it seems that he had countless opportunities to escape. Neighbors say he led an independent life, regularly hanging out unsupervised with a buddy and riding around on his skateboard and bike. The police came into contact with him at least four times when he was free of his alleged abductor, Michael Devlin, 41. One neighbor, Krista Jones, even reported that Devlin was teaching Hornbeck how to drive. So why, many have asked, didn’t he seize his chance and take off?
Things aren’t nearly so simple, according to experts in child psychology. A captor can confine a child with psychological barriers as much as physical ones. “When a young child is taken from his family and isolated and perhaps threatened, and those threats are backed up by violence—all that plays a tremendous role in silencing the child,” says Dr. Terri Weaver, associate professor of psychology at St. Louis University. Abductors “know how to create a paralyzing sense of fear so even when the captor is not present, the child feels he is omnipresent.” As a result, she argues, people should “withhold judgment and blame on this child.”
Hornbeck’s life suffered a severe schism when he was allegedly kidnapped at the age of 11. He was torn away from rural Richwoods, Mo., and taken to Kirkwood, more than 60 miles away. Adding to his isolation, he was apparently never re-enrolled in school and evidently made few friends in Devlin’s apartment complex. “He might have been in the situation where everything he knew, every kind of activity he once did was taken away,” says Dr. Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles psychologist specializing in trauma. “No school, no friends, no parents and maybe all the stimulus was gone … [His captor] had the power of all of this over him.” An abductor often imposes himself further through intimidation or outright violence. That’s a plausible scenario in Hornbeck’s case, according to Devlin’s upstairs neighbor, Harry Reichard. He says that over the course of the year and a half that he lived above the two, he heard all manner of disconcerting sounds, including whimpering, pleading and screaming. On one occasion, he says, “it was like Shawn was trying to get [Devlin] to stop doing something.”
Hornbeck may have developed a form of so-called “Stockholm Syndrome,” a term that traces its origins to a 1970s bank heist in Sweden in which the hostages bonded with their captors. Dr. Frank Ochberg, one of the psychiatrists who helped coin the term, says he doesn’t know enough about Hornbeck’s case to say whether it falls into this category. “The boy would have had to have been badly traumatized at the onset, and he would have had to have gone through a stage in which he was infantilized,” says Ochberg. “To become psychologically infantilized,” he explains, people’s “infant needs for food and love are met and they begin to feel a primitive, primordial gratitude toward the person taking care of them.” Other experts who have been following the case from afar say Hornbeck’s behavior appears to show signs of the syndrome.
But there’s an added element to Hornbeck’s case. Like the Swedish hostages, he may well have feared for his life. But unlike them, he may also have been fearing for his family’s lives. Abductors of children often intimidate their victims by threatening harm against the kids’ families, according to Dr. Sharon Cooper, a forensic pediatrician at UNC-Chapel Hill and instructor at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. As a result, the kids “sacrifice their own desire to escape as a means to protect the family.” This dynamic may have played a role in Hornbeck’s case. According to a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, investigators say that Devlin kept Hornbeck in submission by threatening to kill the boy and his entire family. (A lawyer for Devlin says his client plans to plead not guilty, but has had no other comment on the case.)
If Devlin, in fact, made such threats, the effect on Hornbeck would likely be to reinforce the initial trauma of his abduction. Dr. Robert Pynoos, co-director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, says that the terror of experiencing a kidnapping—the helplessness, the physical coercion—never entirely fades. And to ensure that it doesn’t, the captor often reminds his victim what he’s capable of. “Unless you understand the child’s experience of that threat and the ways in which it’s renewed,” says Pynoos, “you can’t understand the actions of that child.” What may look like a prime opportunity for escape to the outside world may look like anything but that to a captive child.
Another factor that could have deepened Hornbeck’s feeling of helplessness: the possibility that he was sexually molested. So far, such allegations haven’t surfaced. Most of Devlin’s neighbors interviewed by NEWSWEEK said that he and Hornbeck seemed to get along fine. And Devlin’s work friends and acquaintances have said they didn’t have a clue about any of his possible romantic attachments or sexual proclivities. But one neighbor, Laura Aguilar, says that more than four years ago, before Hornbeck arrived at the apartment complex, she observed something through Devlin’s street-level bathroom window that disturbed her. On the shelves were what appeared to be a variety of sexual toys, including a dildo.
To be sure, Devlin hasn’t been charged with kidnapping in Hornbeck’s case, only in that of William “Ben” Ownby, 13, who was abducted four days before the boys’ discovery. Devlin is slated to be arraigned in the Ownby case on Thursday. Moreoever, much about Hornbeck’s case remains unclear. Did he perhaps leave willingly with Devlin when he vanished four years ago? Were there any problems at home that he may have been fleeing? And were there characteristics of life with Devlin--no school, ample time for video games--that made it appealing to stay there? (For their part, Hornbeck’s parents have been overjoyed at the return of their son, but have not spoken publicly about his home life prior to the abduction.)
Whatever happened during Hornbeck’s four years with Devlin, he undoubtedly faces a difficult road ahead. Psychologists say it would be healthiest for him to work through his issues gradually, but a court trial may force him to confront painful experiences before he’s ready. What’s more, he disappeared four years ago as a little boy, but has now returned home as a teenager. “Most teens are emancipating themselves from their families instead of reuniting with them,” says Cooper, the forensic pediatrician. That will only add to Hornbeck’s hardships. “It’s not over yet, that’s for sure,” says Cooper. The healing has barely begun.
The understatement of the century.