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Ben Ownby, 13, is escorted to be reunited with his parents after being abducted five days earlier. He smiled and seemed relaxed on Saturday as his parents recalled the shock of hearing he had been found safe. ((CBC))

The families of two boys kidnapped four years apart and found in the same suburban St. Louis apartment said Saturday their rescue was the end of a nightmare.

The boys' parents clung to them at two news conferences Saturday and focused on their joy at the startling outcome, saying little about the 41-year-old man charged in the case or how the teens were treated.

The boys — 15-year-old Shawn Hornbeck, abducted in October 2002, and 13-year-old Ben Ownby, taken after getting off his school bus on Monday afternoon — smiled and appeared at ease as their parents recalled the shock of finding out Friday night that their children were safe.

"I still feel like I'm in a dream, only this time it's a good dream, not the nightmare I've had four and a half years," Hornbeck's mother, Pam Akers, told reporters.

Hornbeck's stepfather, Craig Akers, said he and his wife were in disbelief when they were reunited with the boy.

"There was that split second of shock," he said. "Once I saw the face, I said, 'Oh my God, that's my son.'"

Routine warrant led to rescue

Hornbeck smiled often, his mother's arm draped around him, and seemed at ease. He was much bigger than pictures of the missing 11-year-old, his hair darker and longer.

Hornbeck and Ownby disappeared 4½ years and about 65 kilometres apart, though both were last seen in towns within100 kilometres of St. Louis.

A routine search warrant led police to investigate the apartment in Kirkwood, Mo., of Michael Devlin, a pizzeria manager and part-time funeral-home worker. He was charged with first-degree kidnapping and bail was set at $1 million US.

Ownby grinned broadly as his mother recalled that soon after his return home, Ben went to the computer to play video games.

"We're just ecstatic," Doris Ownby said. "Don't want to let him go out of our sight."

Authorities declined to offer further details about Devlin. FBI Special Agent Roland Corvington said federal charges were possible.

'I just figured them for father and son'

The key to finding the boys was a beat-up white pickup truck spotted by a schoolmate of Ownby's who got off the bus at the same time. The friend saw the pickup speeding away about the time Ownby vanished from the gravel road near his home.

On Thursday night, Kirkwood city police officers saw a white truck matching the description. They traced the owner, contacted the Franklin County Sheriff's Department, then searched Devlin's home Friday and found the boys.

There were no details about what police found inside the apartment, or how or why the boys might have been detained. Franklin County prosecutor Robert Parks said more charges are likely.

In Kirkwood, one of Devlin's neighbours, Rick Butler, 43, said FBI agents came to his door Thursday night and showed him a picture of Ben Ownby.

He said he had not seen the boy but had seen another boy he believed was Hornbeck. He said he saw no evidence that the boy was scared or trying to get away. He even saw Devlin and the teen pitch a tent in the courtyard.

"I didn't see or hear anything odd or unusual from the apartment," Butler said. "I just figured them for father and son."

With files from the Associated Press