They say he was a loner in school. Made fun of at times. We know when we look back to our own pasts how hard those years can be – how escalated every little detail in life seems. How hard it is when you don’t fit in. However, we did not become monsters. So what makes one?
When I see cases like this I am perplexed with this question. The first thing I assume is that this person was abused himself as a child. By all accounts, this wasn’t the case. Michael Devlin had the “perfect parents” and was too young when he was adopted to know if his own biological parents were abusive.
Kevin showed no outward signs of this unfolding to anyone. He had no criminal history, just as Michael Devlin had no criminal past as well. Kevin was a loner and so was Devlin. Somehow, neither could seem to fit themselves into the world that was theirs. Awkward in appearance, awkward in a public situation. Kevin Underwood had an online blog to which he frequently talked about his feelings and obsessions with certain girls and even cannibalism.
Although Michael and Kevin are different in many ways, they are so much alike. What makes little boys into Monsters?
They’ve had two weeks to reconsider every detail. They’ve scavenged their memories for any clue, any inkling that Michael J. Devlin was something other than the lonely guy who managed a pizza shop in Kirkwood.
Bad family? Far from it.
Odd behavior? Hardly.
Devlin smoked, but he didn’t drink. He loved video games, such as the fantasy role-player Final Fantasy XI, but that is not unusual for adults these days. He had a temper, but those who have seen it say it came off more cantankerous than malicious. There was no criminal record beyond traffic tickets.
A family ‘as good as gold’
Born in November 1965, Devlin was still an infant when he was adopted by James and Joyce Devlin. His adoptive father was an insurance executive. His mother was a former airline stewardess who eventually taught at the private College School in Webster Groves.
Michael Devlin’s father and mother still live in Webster Groves, a comfortable place just a few miles from where the two missing boys were found.
The parents have two biological daughters. They also adopted four boys.
Three of the four Devlin boys worked for Prosperi at Imo’s. He has known the family for almost three decades.
“That family was as good as gold,” Prosperi said.
The Devlin parents were feted on their 50th wedding anniversary in 2004 in a Valentine’s Day column in the Webster-Kirkwood Times. The article recounted how the couple grew up just outside Philadelphia but didn’t meet until both were in Boston, where they married, before moving to St. Louis for James Devlin’s job.
Joyce Devlin was a Girl Scout leader who was devoted to her children.
“She is a saint,” said Mildred Kent, who raised her four children in Webster Groves and gave piano lessons to some of the Devlin siblings, but not Michael.
For many years, the family attended Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Webster Groves. Brian Devlin, one of the couple’s children, recalls going for Sunday services.
“They put these little suits on us, and you can imagine what suits looked like for kids back in the ’70s — little checkered things and that,” he said.
Brian Devlin, who in a Post-Dispatch profile last week talked about the personal struggles that eventually estranged him from the family, said his parents were good to him and his siblings. He still has fond memories of Christmas celebrations and family vacations on Lake Michigan.
Joyce, he said, is “a really good lady.” James makes “a mean barbecue.” And growing up in Webster Groves, the Devlins did “everything that a normal family would do to keep you right,” Brian Devlin said.
Surviving high school
Michael Devlin was a friendly child who was picked on for being overweight, several former classmates and neighbors said.
“He was teased, and it made him a loner,” said Susan Dames of Ballwin, who grew up a few houses from the Devlin family on Oakwood Avenue.
But Michael Devlin found a place for himself at Imo’s, first in Webster Groves and then in Kirkwood. He began working there in high school.
He graduated from Webster Groves High in 1984. His picture is not featured in the senior yearbook. Some classmates could barely remember him. Others recall a nonthreatening teen who sat on the sidelines of life.
“The guy was just a nice guy, like a big teddy bear,” said Karen Waller, who graduated in the same class.
After high school, Devlin went to work full-time at Imo’s. It was there that he met a bunch of guys who would go on hunting and fishing trips. Prosperi sometimes joined them. They sometimes traveled to Two Branch Island, a remote site requiring a ferry ride to reach, in the Missouri River in St. Charles County.
Devlin also traveled to Woodland Lake Estates, a development tucked in a hilly, wooded area in northwestern Washington County. He and a friend owned a small, vacant parcel in the development.
Washington County Sheriff Kevin Schroeder has said the land served “as a connection” to Shawn’s abduction 25 miles away in Richwoods, perhaps by familiarizing Devlin with the area.
Devlin obtained deer-hunting permits for the firearms seasons in 1996 though 1998, and held annual fishing licenses in 1996, 1997 and 2002, according to the Missouri Conservation Department.
Gus Nanos worked with Devlin in the 1990s and remembers an outgoing man with a quick wit. “Devo” invited co-workers to play video games and poker. Nanos, in a recent Post-Dispatch interview, even recalled Devlin in those years as “nice and thoughtful.”
But Devlin’s limited social circle began to fall apart as he got into his early 30s. His friends had less time to hang out. They had wives and families. Some got new jobs. Devlin stayed with Imo’s, rising to be a manager but still earning less than $21,000 a year. He was always on time. He never asked for a raise.
Prosperi recalls asking Devlin why he didn’t move on.
“He’d say, ‘Mike, I’m a lazy guy.’ And that was it,” Prosperi said.
Diabetes and foot pain
If there is one curious incident in Michael Devlin’s past, it centers on his toes.
In December 2002, Prosperi recalls Devlin complaining at work about his foot. He was limping. He talked about the pain to everybody. At a Devlin family Christmas party, Devlin apparently showed his foot to a family member who was a doctor, and he urged Devlin to go to the hospital immediately, Prosperi said.
Two of Devlin’s toes were gangrenous and had to be amputated, according to Prosperi. He was diagnosed as a diabetic. And he struggled with his weight.
Devlin missed three months of work, from January to March 2003, Prosperi said, a recollection supported by his check of payroll records.
Prosperi said he was told that Devlin was recuperating at his parents’ house, not at the South Holmes Avenue apartment in Kirkwood where he lived since July 2001. He recalls calling Devlin several times to see when he would return, and several times he spoke with Devlin’s mother and Devlin himself.
“Looking back,” Prosperi said, “the question on everybody’s mind is, who was watching Shawn?”
Shawn Hornbeck disappeared on Oct. 6, 2002. He would’ve been kidnapped just a few months before Devlin apparently moved in with his parents for an extended period.
One of Devlin’s brothers, Patrick, told the Post-Dispatch two weeks ago that relatives saw Michael at family gatherings but never knew of Shawn.
In recent years, Nanos recalled, Devlin became a different person: “He went from being such a teaser to a much quieter person. I felt like he had been humbled by all of his health problems. … Years of downing Mountain Dew and smoking menthol cigarettes probably caught up with him.”
Quiet but with a temper
At the South Holmes Avenue apartment complex, neighbors knew Devlin as a man with a temper who kept to himself and who seemed to have a son. A boy who identified himself as Shawn Devlin was seen walking in and out of the one-bedroom apartment, or riding his bike in the neighborhood.
“Nothing about Devlin jumped out at you,” said Krista Jones, who has lived in the complex for six months. “We’d see him walking the courtyard with Shawn and just thought it was father and son.”
Residents recall an incident last year when Devlin got upset because someone was parked in his favored parking spot. Devlin even called the Kirkwood police to settle the argument.
Beyond that, the neighbors seemed to know little about Devlin. They were even less familiar with the boy living in the apartment, knowing him primarily for the loud music he played during the day.
Looking for answers
Prosperi, along with other co-workers of Devlin’s at the pizza shop, have reconsidered even the smallest incidents to see if there was something they missed — such as how Devlin reacted to the frequent after-school flood of students from nearby Nipher Middle.
The students were between the ages of 11 and 14. They tended to make a mess. The floor got dirty. Napkin dispensers were emptied. That made Devlin upset, Prosperi recalled.
“It’s not like he was looking forward to little kids coming in,” Prosperi said.
Brian Devlin, who has not spoken to his brother since they were teenagers, still struggles to reconcile the image of his brother with the one painted by the allegations.
He wants to believe his brother acted out of loneliness, not something more sinister.
“I’ve been putting my mind all different ways around this,” he said. “I just can’t judge him yet.”