It was the sort of story that invariably ends in tragedy. This time, however, the outcome was a miracle. Four years after he was kidnapped and 36 hours after being freed, Shawn Hornbeck was back at home, getting used to life with the parents who, even in the darkest days, never lost their belief they would be reunited with their son.
Every day in the United States 2,300 children are reported missing. Nine times out of 10, the episode is swiftly and happily resolved. But that never seemed to be the case with Shawn, who was abducted as he was riding his bike near his home in Richwoods, Missouri, 50 miles south-west of St Louis, back in October 2002, when he was 11 years old. He disappeared without a trace and had never been heard of since.
Or at least until Friday afternoon, when his parents, Pam and Craig Akers, received news from the police that their son, along with another boy, Ben Ownby, 13, abducted only last week, had been found safe, well, and apparently pretty unfazed by the whole thing in an apartment in the St Louis suburb of Kirkwood.
Meanwhile the suspect, Michael Devlin, a bearded, burly man weighing almost 22 stone, has been jailed, facing one charge of first degree kidnapping, to which other counts may be added by the time he is formally arraigned next week.
The case is a mystery at many levels. Mr Devlin, 41, attracted no attention in his jobs as a pizza restaurant manager, and at an undertakers, where he was described as "prompt, well mannered and very efficient". Nor were eyebrows raised at the boy hanging around his small two-bedroom, ground-floor flat in a modest building close to a railway line and an interstate highway.
Neighbours said Mr Devlin could be surly and irritable on occasion, but otherwise appeared perfectly normal. He had lived around Kirkwood all his life, and his entire criminal record consists merely of a couple of traffic tickets.
The landlord at the apartment, Bill Romer, told reporters he was in the flat to fix a plumbing problem and saw a boy apparently Shawn asleep. "As far as I knew, that was his son living with him," Mr Romer said. "The kid's bedroom didn't even have curtains on the windows." Rick Butler, a neighbour, said he had no sense the boy was scared or trying to get away. He even saw Mr Devlin and Shawn pitch a tent together in the apartment grounds. Other neighbours remember him visiting friends on his bike and playing video games with the flat's door open. The boy had access to a mobile phone.
The crucial lead turned out to be a white pickup truck seen speeding from the scene where Ben Ownby was seized last week. The decisive break, however, was a fluke, as police noticed an identical truck when they visited Mr Devlin's apartment to talk to other residents about an unrelated case. They then interviewed Mr Devlin at the pizzeria before arresting him.
During his captivity, Shawn even saw missing person posters of himself put up by police and after his release told his stepfather that the simulated impression of how he might be looking now was "an insult".
Though remarkably long, his abduction lasted barely half the eight years for which the Austrian girl Natascha Kampusch, now 18, was held prisoner in an underground room near Vienna, before escaping in August. Questions were raised about that extraordinary ordeal. Similar ones, inevitably, are bound to be asked now.
"Some people will ask, 'Why didn't you scream out?' or 'why didn't you just take off?'," Ed Smart, the father of Elizabeth Smart, a Utah girl who was abducted and held for nine months, told Newsweek yesterday. " But the manipulations that these perpetrators pull on children is unbelievable."
Pam Akers, Shawn's mother, speaking of the "miracle" of her son's return, put it more simply. "I want this to give hope to the families that their kids can come home. It may be days later, it may be weeks later, but they can come home."