ST. LOUIS – Pam and Craig Akers made international headlines last year when they were reunited with their 16-year-old son Shawn Hornbeck after he was missing for four years. This week, the Akers quietly made it possible for another family to feel that joy.
Pam and Craig helped find 15-year-old runaway Emily Graeber and return the girl to her parents in suburban St. Louis. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Sunday that Emily's parents sought help to find the girl from the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation, a group the Akers started to find Shawn when he disappeared in 2002 at the age of 11.
Neither Emily nor her parents commented on the girl's return, but the Akers said they paid their own way to find the girl in Oakland, Calif., and the cost was well worth it.
"If that is what it takes to bring missing kids home, then Craig and Pam Akers are behind it, Shawn himself is behind it," said Sherri Martin, foundation administrator.
Emily had disappeared on Oct. 29 after boarding a Southwest flight in St. Louis. She was headed for Utah, where since March she had attended a residential treatment center for troubled teens. But she never got off the plane in Salt Lake City. Authorities believe she stayed on the plane as it flew to its final destination in Oakland, where she disappeared.
Emily's parents turned to the Hornbeck Foundation because runaway teens aren't necessarily a law enforcement priority. A federal study found that 350,000 youths were reported as runaways to authorities nationally in 1999 alone.
The Hornbeck Foundation put out a "ShawnAlert" on Nov. 8 that described Emily and her disappearance.
At about 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, the foundation received a call from someone in Oakland claiming to know where Emily was. Craig Akers verified the information. By 3 a.m. Thursday, he felt someone needed to get to Oakland immediately. And Graeber's family was dealing with another family emergency as Emily's maternal grandmother was near death.
"Pam and I decided the easiest thing was to go ourselves," Craig Akers said.
It was their first trip to the Bay Area. Once in California, Craig Akers said he called police to ask for help, in case something went wrong, but was told that could take hours.
Akers decided not to wait. The couple knew Emily was staying with a teenage boy and his mother. Emily had met the teenage boy on a bus, telling him she needed a place to stay so she would not have to return to what she called her boarding school, Craig Akers said. She was not hurt, not hungry, just hiding.
"Her reaction was one of shock, disbelief. She asked us, 'How did you know I was here?"' Craig Akers recalled Friday. "She didn't know who we were. She didn't really know who Shawn Hornbeck was or the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation. Then we explained why we were there.
"She was very, very fortunate," Akers said. "She was taken in by decent people."