Families hold out hope for connection to Devlin

Thursday, April 19, 2007
The arrest of accused kidnapper Michael Devlin has raised new hope for the Richard Kleeschulte, shown at his home in St. Charles, Mo., and the parents of other missing boys. Kleeschulte's son Scott was 9 years old when he went missing in 1988. A team of state and federal investigators is combing through Devlin's background to see if he is linked to cold cases that have stymied authorities for years. (JEFF ROBERSON ~ Associated Press)

ST. LOUIS -- Richard and Peggy Kleeschulte didn't need to tell each other that they couldn't stay at home last Thursday night. Arranging a dinner date on their son's birthday has become an unspoken ritual since he disappeared nearly 19 years ago.

The couple chatted quietly at a table in Tubby's Pub in suburban St. Charles. Sweethearts since their teenage years, the Kleeschultes try to focus on happy memories. They didn't speak their son's name until the end of the meal.

"We had a drink and said, you know: 'Here's to Scott,'" Richard Kleeschulte recalled.

Though Scott disappeared in 1988, the Kleeschultes still seesaw between raw despair and the desperate hope they might still see him alive.

"Ain't a day goes by that you don't think about him," Richard Kleeschulte said. "At times you think: He's out there. Maybe I'll get a phone call. Maybe today."

The arrest of accused kidnapper Michael Devlin has raised new hope for the Kleeschultes and the parents of other missing boys. A team of state and federal investigators is combing through Devlin's background to see if he is linked to cold cases that have stymied authorities for years.

The 41-year-old pizzeria manager was arrested in January after a manhunt for missing 13-year-old Ben Ownby led to Devlin's Kirkwood apartment. FBI agents who raided the home also found 15-year-old Shawn Hornbeck, who had been missing for more than four years.

The discovery was soon dubbed the "Missouri Miracle." But for parents of other missing boys there has been no miracle, just years of longing and frustration.

Parents deal with the stress in different ways. During his four-year absence, Shawn's stepfather, Craig Akers, threw himself into a foundation named after the boy, helping arrange search parties for other missing children.

The Kleeschultes have focused on raising their four other children. Debra Henderson-Griffith, whose son Charles "Arlin" Henderson disappeared in 1991, said she simply tries to stay distracted.

"You go to bed wondering. You wake up wondering. You have dreams. My husband wakes me up at night because I'm crying or screaming," she said.

At any given moment, Henderson-Griffith is just one or two memories away from weeping. She keeps the television on to occupy her mind. She ignores holidays when they come around.

She is still haunted by the Sunday evening in July when she last saw Arlin. He was riding his bike in front of the family's mobile home in rural Lincoln County, just outside the town of Moscow Mills.

His bike was found months later, abandoned near a highway a few miles north of their home. Along with the anguish, Henderson-Griffith struggles with a parent's guilt.

"God should put something inside of mothers so they can protect their children," she said.

The disappearances of Arlin and Scott fit the profile of cases that investigators are examining for links to Devlin, said Highway Patrol Sgt. Al Nothum.

All the cases involve young boys who vanished in wooded or rural areas between 1988 and 2001. All of the boys lived in areas where Devlin was known to travel often, sometimes driving vehicles he borrowed from friends, Nothum said.

Nothum wouldn't say if the team has found any solid evidence linking Devlin to other abductions.

"There's connections," Nothum said. "The task force is not even close to being disbanded."

Between eight and 20 investigators are working with the FBI-led team, he said. The task force's current findings can't be disclosed because they could become evidence in future trials.

"We don't want to contaminate this case," he said.

Devlin's lawyer, Michael Kielty, said his client isn't involved in any of the cases.

"We categorically deny any involvement in any other cases," Kielty said. "I'm confident nothing else will come of fruition regarding any of the other victims being looked at by the task force."

Devlin is being held in Franklin County jail in lieu of a $1 million bond.

The Kleeschultes and Henderson-Griffith both say they are guarding against too much hope. Over the years they have seen too many promising leads vanish into nothing.

Henderson-Griffith's family has re-formed The Friends of Arlin Henderson. The group was founded in 1991 to find Arlin, but faded away over the years. The new effort is orchestrated by Arlin's uncle, James McWilliams.

It seems the foundation is as much a coping mechanism as a means to find a boy who would now be in his 20s.

"We're doing this to keep [Debbie[']s] spirits high," he said. "You cannot give up."

Richard Kleeschulte said after all these years, he wants to meet the person who took his son.

"I'd like to look them in the face. I'd like to ask them: 'Why did you put us through this?"'

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