Pizza manager Michael J. Devlin admitted to police that he snatched a 13-year-old Missouri boy, a prosecutor said Thursday. "When Mr. Devlin was taken into custody, he did confess that he had kidnapped Ben Ownby from Franklin County," prosecutor Robert Parks told a news conference.
Devlin, 41, pleaded not guilty to kidnapping a child under age 14 at a hearing Thursday. The boy was referred to in court by his initials, "W.O."
"I'm not guilty," Devlin said during a brief appearance via video link from the county jail. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 30 years to life in prison.
Security concerns kept Devlin from appearing in person before Judge David Tobin at the Franklin County Courthouse. He is being held in isolation on $1 million bail.
Devlin's attorneys said the not guilty plea was a procedural matter. They would not comment on the alleged confession, which was revealed after the hearing.
The attorneys said they are concerned that Devlin will not be able to receive a fair trial because of the intense media coverage of a developing drama receiving national attention.
Devlin is being held in isolation for his own safety, authorities said. His next court date was scheduled March 15, but prosecutor Parks said a grand jury is likely to get the case before then.
Ben was found with another missing teen, Shawn Hornbeck, on Friday in Devlin's apartment in Kirkwood, a St. Louis suburb. Ben had been missing for four days, Shawn for more than four years.
Similarities with 1991 case?
Authorities continue to examine similarities between the boys' alleged abductions and the 1991 disappearance of 11-year-old Arlin Henderson in Moscow Mills.
Both Shawn and Arlin were last seen riding bicycles.
Arlin had a crew cut and was wearing a camouflage shirt and pants.
Arlin bore a physical resemblance to Ben, a 13-year-old who was allegedly kidnapped January 8 as he got off the school bus near his home in Union.
Devlin has been charged with two counts of kidnapping and armed criminal action, which carries a minimum of three years.
The latter charge stems from an allegation that Devlin kidnapped Shawn at gunpoint, said Washington County Sheriff Kevin Schroeder.
Meanwhile, Missouri authorities said they are looking into the possibility that Devlin also may have monitored or even participated in a 2005 search for another missing child to learn police investigative techniques in such situations.
Lincoln County detective Chris Bartlett said Devlin was, at the very least, aware of the search for Bianca Noel Piper, 13, who disappeared in March 2005.
"Whether he was a part of it, in it or in the middle, or just watching from afar, he absolutely knew what was going on," Bartlett said. "I certainly believe Michael Devlin was monitoring our search and the disappearance of Bianca Piper."
Evidence being pooled
Police said the recovery of Ben and Shawn has breathed new life into the Piper and Henderson investigations, prompting a few more tips in those cases. Lincoln County Sheriff's Lt. Rick Harrell said that Devlin's name is being checked against archived logs and investigation files from both disappearances.
Addressing reporters Wednesday, Washington County prosecutor John Rupp said there is no question that Shawn was kidnapped and was not with Devlin voluntarily.
"Shawn was abducted against his will. Period. End of the story," Rupp said.
Parks, the Franklin County prosecutor, said he and his counterparts in other counties involved in the case are "pooling all of our evidence" to determine what other charges will be brought against Devlin.
Ben's parents said Tuesday their son is recovering from the ordeal but has not discussed what happened.
"Ben's doing fine," Doris Ownby said.
She and her husband, William, have sought professional counseling for the entire family.
"They said not to push a child that's been through something like that," William Ownby said. "Eventually, they'll come to terms and volunteer that -- or not. That's fine. He hasn't volunteered anything -- yet. But they say it takes time."
Kirkland police officer Gary Wagster and fellow officer Chris Nelson started questioning Devlin outside his apartment building after they realized his truck matched the description of the suspect's vehicle in Ben's kidnapping.
They said that initially Devlin was happy and respectful to them.
"As the questions began to get more specific, that's when the attitude changed," Wagster said. "It threw a lot of red flags up for us."
Devlin's landlord described him as an ideal tenant, and Mike Prosperi, his boss for 25 years, said his employee never gave him trouble.
"I mean, he was my manager; he counted my money. ... And you just don't do that with somebody that you don't trust," Prosperi said.