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4 abducted children who made it home

Natascha Kampusch - C.Stadler/Bwag
Natascha Kampusch | Image: C.Stadler/Bwag (CC BY-SA 4.0)

When a child goes missing, the worst case scenario is often confirmed in the days or weeks that follow. However, there have been remarkable instances of the vanished victims being found alive many years later, having survived gruelling experiences that almost defy belief.

1. Steven Stayner

In December 1972, seven-year-old Californian boy Steven Stayner was walking home from school when he was coerced into the car of convicted child rapist Kenneth Parnell. It was the start of a long ordeal that became a twisted travesty of a father-son relationship.

Parnell told Steven that he’d been granted legal custody over the boy. They spent the next seven years moving around California, with Steven often left at home alone while Parnell was at work. Throughout it all, Steven was repeatedly raped and abused. He was only able to summon the courage to escape when Parnell abducted another, younger boy in 1980.

Steven, now a teenager, fled Parnell’s house with the other victim, finally contacting the police and being reunited with his family. The story was a media sensation, but there was to be no happy ending for the Stayner family.

Steven died tragically young in a road accident in 1989, while his older brother, Cary, became a serial killer and is currently on death row for the murders of four women.

2. Natascha Kampusch

One of the world’s most infamous kidnapping cases began in March 1998, when ten-year-old Natascha Kampusch was snatched in Viennat by Wolfgang Přiklopil. A seemingly ordinary technician, Přiklopil was really a deeply disturbed man who’d turned the basement of his house into a soundproofed cell.

It was here that Natascha was held for eight long years, the subject of Přiklopil’s volatile obsession. At times he was affectionate, buying her gifts and even taking her on a skiing trip. At other times he starved her, beat her and sexually abused her. He also declared himself to be an Egyptian god.

Natascha managed to flee the house in 2006. Returning to her family aged eighteen made her an instant global celebrity. However, Natascha’s composed, nuanced attitude towards her ordeal, and her empathy for her captor (who committed suicide after her escape), led her to be deluged with hate mail by those who wanted her to seem more like a stereotypical victim.

3. Jaycee Dugard

It was in June 1991 that eleven-year-old Californian girl Jaycee Dugard was attacked with a taser while walking to a school bus stop. Her assailant was Phillip Garrido, a convicted sex offender, who was helped by his wife Nancy. The pair became Jaycee’s captors for almost two decades, in one of the most shocking cases in US criminal history.

Jaycee lived in their home as well as in a series of enclosures erected in the garden. She was repeatedly raped by Garrido, while his wife switched between being an ostensibly caring maternal figure and a jealous and cold abuser. Jaycee gave birth to two children by Garrido – the first when she was fourteen and the second when she was seventeen.

The children were schooled at home by their young mother, who had been fully conditioned to feel part of a bizarre family unit. So much so, that she even worked at Garrido’s print shop, chatting with customers and helping to run the business. The truth finally came out in 2009, when Garrido’s increasingly erratic behaviour aroused the suspicion of police, who in turn notified the parole office that had been overseeing him due to previous convictions.

Jaycee was protective of Garrido at first, exhibiting signs of Stockholm syndrome. This was perhaps to be expected, given that eighteen years of her life had been spent with him. The couple were both handed long prison sentences, while Jaycee and her daughters have successfully readjusted to life after the Garridos.

4. Shawn Hornbeck

Shawn Hornbeck was eleven when he went missing while out riding his bike in Missouri in October 2002. More than four years passed before he was seen again by his family, who never gave up hope that he was alive.

Shawn was abducted by Michael Devlin, a pizza shop manager who had initially kept his victim tied up in his apartment, even attempting to strangle him at one point.

Though he subjected Shawn to abuse, Devlin provided him with some freedoms. Indeed, Shawn lived an unlikely dual existence, continuing to cohabit with his abuser while going out, socialising, and even having dates with girls. His fear of Devlin stopped him from leaving, though he did email the missing person website his family had set up. Using an alias, Shawn asked his parents how long they intended to hold out hope, intending it to be a hint that he was still alive. His dad later recalled receiving the message and dismissing it as ‘someone yanking my chain’.

Devlin was eventually caught after he kidnapped another boy in 2007. His vehicle was identified, leading police to find both Shawn and the new victim at Devlin’s apartment. He was handed multiple sentences amounting to 4,240 years in prison.

Top image: Natascha Kampusch (CC BY-SA 4.0)