I'm surprised that I haven't taken more grief now that Michael Devlin has plead guilty to literally everything that the world was accusing him of. Over the course of October 8th to 10th, Devlin appeared in four different courts, and between them, here is the story that he told under oath, as I'm sure most of you heard at least some of. He says that during the fall of 2002, he drove around rural Franklin County looking for a kid who was alone. When he saw then-11-year-old Sean Hornbeck riding his bicycle alone with nobody around, Devlin deliberately ran into the bicycle, got out to pretend to help, and forced Sean into the truck and drove off with him. (And we are assured that somehow, despite the fact that the area isn't that rural, nobody heard or saw any of this.) He says that over the next month, he kept Hornbeck tied to the living room sofa with his mouth duct-taped shut and raped him repeatedly. Then, a month later, Devlin told Hornbeck he was going home, drove him out in to the woods, and instead attempted to strangle him. Hornbeck persuaded Devlin to let him live, so long as he stayed with Devlin willingly and never attempted to escape. Devlin plead guilty to having sex with Hornbeck many times over the next four-plus years, occasionally photographing and videotaping them having sex. Devlin says that in January of this year he "got bored with Sean" and went out looking for another kid, ending up kidnapping 13 year old Ben Ownby at gunpoint. 4 days later, because Ownby made enough noise while he was being kidnapped to attract attention to the kidnapper's truck, Devlin was caught and both boys were reunited with their families.
Since then, multiple journalists and columnists and experts have demanded that those of us who suggested that the most likely reason that Sean Hornbeck was living with Michael Devlin was that he chose to do so owe Hornbeck's family an apology. They'll get none from me. The account above may be all that we'll ever know about the case, and yes, it does make the Akers family (Sean's mother remarried) account the official account that is on the record and sworn to under oath. But there's one gaping hole in this story. For an entire month after Hornbeck's kidnapping, he wasn't living with Devlin. Devlin was flat on his back immobilized with severe complications of diabetes, at his own parents' house on the far side of town. I'm having trouble finding my links that gave the dates of that enforced bed rest, but it seems to line up with the time that Hornbeck was supposedly duct-taped and tied to the sofa. If so, who is supposed to have fed him during that time, and why hasn't Hornbeck accused that person? If my memory is wrong and the time that Devlin was laid up was after that, then we don't need to lock up Devlin anywhere nearly as much as we need to study the heck out of him. Because the best minds of the big-three Cold War powers spent what must have come to roughly a billion inflation-adjusted dollars over the course of six decades trying to find a way to compel someone against their will to take your side even after they've left your physical control, and it has never worked. Brainwashing only works as long as you stay with the subject to keep reinforcing the conditioning, whether you're an American airman shot down over North Korea or young Patty Hearst in the clutches of the Symbionese Liberation Army. We're being asked to believe that a middle aged not-terribly-bright diabetic assistant manager of a franchise pizza restaurant with only his hands, duct tape, and a little bit of rope was unable to improvise better mind control than what the top scientific minds of the CIA's MKULTRA program were able to do with thousands of man-hours of research involving hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of torture techniques and experimental drugs. If he did, then we need to know for the love of the gods how he did it. But I still don't think he did.
Because as multiple witnesses have verified, over the next four years Sean Hornbeck spent a lot of time on his own, walking up to four blocks from the apartment, dating at least two girls over that time, playing with other kids on various parking lots, and even illegally driving Devlin's pickup truck. If Hornbeck were famously retarded, or even stupid, then it would be possible to imagine that at no time when he had that much control over his life was he able to persuade himself that his parents and the cops would thrown Devlin in jail for the rest of his life, that there was no way for Devlin to threaten him if he went for help. But Hornbeck's famously an A student. I'm sorry, it just doesn't wash. I saw (or heard about, memory is fuzzy) a bumper sticker back in the 1970s that said, "You can believe in the laws of physics, or you can believe the Warren Commission Report." Well, you can believe in the laws of physics, and in thousands of years of recorded human history, or you can believe what Michael Devlin plead guilty to in court in early October of this year.
Yes, maybe it's possible that all the witnesses who contradict Hornbeck's and Devlin's account of this story are confused about chronology. Maybe Hornbeck has some undiagnosed mental illness that renders him exceptionally susceptible to mind control. Yes, it's theoretically possible that I was wrong and that Hornbeck really wasn't expecting Devlin to pick him up on that road. But you know what? That's what Devlin would say whether it was true or not. Because let's face some facts about this case. The police absolutely did catch him with two teenage boys living in his house without their parents' permission, in an entirely different county. That's aggravated kidnapping of a minor. He was already going to go to jail for a very long time. But the police also found, when they searched the apartment, photographs and videotapes of him having sex with Sean Hornbeck when Hornbeck was 15 or younger. At that point, even if he was convicted of nothing else, he was going to go to jail for the rest of his life. Period. Nothing that any fancy lawyer could do was going to change that fact. So if I'm right and Sean really was his boyfriend, or even by that point ex-boyfriend, Devlin had every incentive to plead guilty to whatever would make Sean Hornbeck's life easier. And if Sean Hornbeck admitted to having run away from home at age 11 to move in with his boyfriend, a middle aged overweight diabetic assistant manager at a franchise pizza place, that was a stigma that was going to stick with him for the rest of his life. And since both Hornbeck and Devlin would say what Devlin said under oath a couple of weeks ago whether it was true or not, what they said (whether under oath or not) proves exactly nothing to me.
Why do I care? Why am I wasting your time with this?
In May of this year, the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee gathered together almost the only four researchers on the entire planet who've done any research on sex crimes against children that involve the Internet: Dr. David Finkelhore of the Crimes against Children Research Center, Dr. Michael Ybarra of Internet Solutions for Kids, Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, and UC Berkeley researcher danah boyd (her preferred lack of capitalization, not a typo). You can read the (PDF) transcript of their presentation at NetCaucus.org: "Just the Facts about Online Youth Victimization." Please do. Now observe from their presentations something that literally everybody has found out about this subject, including research that goes back to the early BBS days as far back as 1977. When you ask kids if they've ever been sexually solicited over the Internet, nearly all of them say, "yes," but it turns out that they're misunderstanding the question. When boyd explained to them what they were really being asked, has any adult unknown to you contacted you over the Internet for the purpose of persuading you to have sex with them, all of them said "no." (They were thinking of the definition of "solicitation" that means "advertising," it turns out; the actual sexual exploitation of children by adults that really ticks them off is non-stop spamming of ads for sexual dysfunction aids and pornography web sites. It's the real reason, Ybarra says, that kids have abandoned email altogether for SMS phone text chat.)
Of the ones that have been sexually solicited over the Internet, all cases so far known have the following facts in common. The youngest was 13. And every single one of them was specifically hanging out in a sex-related Internet chat room or forum at the time, specifically hoping to meet an adult who'd have sex with them. None of the top four researchers on the subject, whether studying criminal case files or surveying thousands of kids, were able to find a case of a total stranger approaching a kid; the kids are the ones approaching total strangers. Contrary to the impression they always leave, you can tell that Perverted Justice, the Internet vigilante group behind NBC's "Dateline: To Catch a Predator" specials, adopts this specifically as their MO: volunteers log onto sexually themed chat rooms, announce that they're underage, and see who responds. They're trying to address the problem of teenagers who run away from home to be with their adult boyfriends (and, very very rarely, girlfriends) by making sure that every adult who might even consider saying yes when a kid offers sex over the Internet is afraid that it's a police sting. The researchers who spoke to the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee all felt that it might be more useful to try to identify which kids are likely to do that and intervene in their lives, persuade them how stupid that is.
Probably some mix of both efforts needs to be tried, with the understanding that as long as kids get horny and have nothing they can do about it, some very tiny minority of kids are going to seek out sexually active adults and there isn't going to be any way of stopping all of them from hooking up. If we're going to continue to structure society so that this is seen as a Very Bad Thing, that's what we're absolutely going to have to do. But we're not going to do this as long as almost all adults in America keep insisting that no kid would ever have sex with an adult willingly, and all of the prevention efforts are spent on trying to hunt down the roughly one molester per generation who forcibly abducts teenage strangers and rapes them. Not just because it's a waste of time, but because it perpetuates this myth that none of the kids are going willingly. Whether or not Sean Hornbeck went with Michael Devlin willingly, we know for a fact that almost all of the ones found with strange adults did.
And they don't even make up any but the tiniest minority of kids who are sexually abused by adults. Maybe the most extreme estimates (one in three women, by some accounts) are exaggerated, there are untold thousands of children in America who get sexually molested, thousands more every year. And all but a half dozen or a dozen of those are molested not by strangers, but by adults who have been put into a position of authority over the kid: parents, step-parents, adult relatives, adult neighbors, teachers, coaches, priests and ministers, babysitters, any adult who has alone-time with kids and the power to threaten the child with consequences if they talk is statistically far, far more likely to be the one who molests a child than J. Random Pedophile with a gun and a pickup truck. The children so molested are raped far younger than the ones who end up having sex with strangers, and much more violently, and never in known history at the instigation of, or even with the permission of, the child. And the tens of millions of grown-up victims of that kind of rape as children did not just spend 100 years trying to get society to do something about that problem only to see all of their efforts sidelined by yet another diversion, by yet another circus freak sideshow that distracts Americans from who it is that really rapes the most children.