The mother and stepfather of a teenage boy who was held captive in a man's apartment in a suburb of St Louis for more than four years said yesterday that although he had not told them so directly they believed he was sexually abused during his ordeal.
First clues as to what may have happened to the boy, Shawn Horbeck, surfaced when he and his family gave an interview to the American talk-show host, Oprah Winfrey. However, the segment, broadcast in the United States last night, still left many questions about the case unanswered.
The story continues to command headlines in the US, in part because of the puzzle of how the accused man, Michael Devlin, a pizza parlour manager, managed to hold the boy for so long and why Shawn, who was often seen by neighbours playing and riding his bike, never made contact with his real home.
Shawn, who was 11 when he disappeared and is now a taller, lankier 15 year-old with a ring in his lip, told Ms Winfrey that he was still not ready to talk extensively of his experience. He added, however, that all the time had "prayed that one day my parents would find me and I'd be united."
The breakthrough for the police came after another boy, 13-year-old Ben Ownby, was kidnapped after school in the same area on 8 January. A tip-off that the man who seized him was driving a white van took them to Mr Devlin's apartment; when they gained entry they found Ben and Shawn.
With the kind of rehearsed tact that has made her America's most popular talk show host, Ms Winfrey finally warmed up to the obvious question. "OK, I'm going to go there and ask you, what do you think happened? Do you think he was sexually abused?" she asked Craig and Pam Akers, the boy's parents. Both nodded and replied, "Yes".
The interview was pre-taped in the family's home before yesterday's broadcast. Ms Winfrey said in her preamble that Shawn had admitted to her off-camera that he had been "terrified" to make any attempt to contact his mother and stepfather after his abduction.
Shawn's mother said that she was certain that her son will tell her more about what he endured later. Her husband added meanwhile: "There has to have been something held over his head. There's no way in the world that if he was able to do whatever he wanted to do... there's no doubt in my mind he would have come home."
And while he said the boy had said nothing to them about physical torture at the hands of Mr Devlin, that doesn't mean he was not forced to stay in the apartment by some means. "There's mental torture, there's physical torture. I have no doubt that mentally he's not the same boy he was."
Mr Devlin, who also worked in a funeral home as well as the pizza parlour, remains in custody and yesterday pleaded not guilty to charges relating to the abduction of the second boy, Ben Ownby. He is, meanwhile, under investigation for the unsolved disappearance of another local boy back in 1991.
Asked last night about the parent's claim of possible sexual abuse of the boys, Mr Devlin's lawyer, Michael Kietly, declined to respond directly saying only that he had seen no evidence. "The only thing I have is an allegation," he replied.