Missing boys found: 2 Mo. officers break the case

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By Bill Bryan
St Louis Post-Dispatch

KIRKWOOD- Kirkwood police officers Gary Wagster and Chris Nelson were about to leave the apartment complex on South Holmes Avenue Thursday night when a white pickup in the parking lot caught their eye.

"Are you see what I'm seeing?" Wagster asked Nelson.

Within minutes, the two officers were talking to the owner of the pickup, and were on their way to breaking a case that has riveted the nation.

Wagster and Nelson were at the apartment in the 400 block of South Holmes on an unrelated assignment: to talk to a resident about a misdemeanor harassment complaint.

They couldn't find the person.

They were turning to leave when they saw the pickup.

It matched to a T - down to the dirt and the rust - the Nissan vehicle sought in the abduction Monday of 13-year-old William "Ben" Ownby of Beaufort.

As the officers went up to look at the truck, a resident told them about his suspicions concerning the vehicle and said that its owner lived on the first floor with his teenage son. About that time, they looked up and saw that man, Michael J. Devlin, 41, walking to a Dumpster to empty his garbage.

The officers knew Devlin. In fact, they sometimes ordered pizza from him. Devlin was the day manager of Imo's Pizza, right around the corner from the Kirkwood police station.

Nelson had been inside Devlin's apartment before. In March, Nelson had gone to talk to Devlin about a traffic charge. The apartment was messy but otherwise nondescript.

As they stood on the parking lot Thursday night, Devlin started off his conversation with the officers in a friendly manner. But his demeanor quickly changed when they pressed him for permission to search his apartment. Devlin wouldn't budge.

"He became too defensive," Wagster said of Devlin. "Something didn't feel right."

Nelson added, "It was enough to send off red flags. He did a 180."

The officers could see through Devlin's window that a teenager was inside the apartment, but the young man didn't fit the description of Ben, the missing boy.

Michael Devlin was jailed on $1 million bond on a kidnapping charge.
The boy inside was Shawn Hornbeck, who disappeared from Richwoods nearly 4½ years ago.

The officers relayed their suspicions to their supervisors and the task force in Franklin County that was searching for Ben. Members of the task force went to the Kirkwood apartment Thursday night, and Devlin wouldn't let them inside, either.

Investigators kept the apartment under surveillance, and Friday morning saw Devlin leave for his job at Imo's. Devlin was arrested at the pizza parlor and investigators later found Ben and Shawn inside the apartment.

Devlin faces a charge of kidnapping in Ben's disappearance and is being held in lieu of $1 million bail. More charges are expected.

"It all seems surreal," Nelson, 31, said of his role in the case. Nelson's daughter, Brittany, 11, told him, "Dad, you're a hero." "It didn't really hit me until she said that," Nelson said.

Wagster, 39, added: "It's a great feeling."

Wagster has been with the Kirkwood police force five years, after three years with the Military Police. Nelson has been with Kirkwood six years.

The two officers said they believe any other police officer would have followed up with an investigation of the Nissan as they did.

Now, the two Kirkwood officers want to meet the families of Shawn and Ben.

"That will be the biggest gift," Wagster said.

And Nelson agreed: "That will be incredible."

Copyright 2007 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.
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