LONG PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — A 24-year-old man discovered living in Minnesota under an assumed name was abducted by his paternal grandparents nearly two decades ago when his unemployed mother was living in a car in Indiana, authorities said Friday.
The grandparents could face federal charges in the case, a Minnesota sheriff said.
Richard Wayne Landers Jr. now lives in the small northern Minnesota town of Long Prairie under the name Michael Jeff Landers, the Todd County Sheriff’s Office said Friday. Indiana State Police announced that Landers had been found on Thursday.
Landers had lived with his grandparents since birth. But in July 1994, after a dispute between Landers’ mother and the grandparents over his custody, the grandparents took him from their home in Wolcottville, about 50 miles southeast of South Bend, and fled.
“I’m not sure that they (the grandparents) ever had legal custody,” said John R. Russell, who spent several months investigating Landers’ disappearance in 1994 when he was a road deputy for the LaGrange County Sheriff’s Department.
The then-5-year-old boy’s mother and stepfather were unemployed and lived in a car, Russell recalled.
“These people (the grandparents) were nice people. It was wrong for them to do it, but I can understand why,” he said. “But I also didn’t think the child would be in any danger at all with them.”
Landers’ stepfather, Richard Harter, did not respond to phone calls Friday from an Associated Press reporter. A phone number for Landers’ mother, Lisa Harter, could not be located.
No home listing could be found for Michael Landers. Messages left with his wife were not immediately returned.
Minnesota officials say the grandparents – now living in the nearby town of Browerville, Minn., under the assumed names Raymond Michael Iddings and Susan Kay Iddings – verified Landers’ identity. They were known as Richard E. and Ruth A. Landers at the time of the abduction.
A woman who answered a phone number associated with the Iddingses said she has told the truth to the officials who need to know, and declined a request for an interview. A couple who answered the door at their home declined to identify themselves and also refused an interview.
The grandparents were charged at the time of the abduction with misdemeanor interference with custody, which was bumped up to a felony in 1999. But the charge was dismissed in 2008 after the case went cold.
Investigators reopened the case in September when Richard Harter turned over the boy’s Social Security card to an Indiana State Police detective. That turned up a man with the same Social Security number and date of birth living in Long Prairie, about 100 miles northwest of Minneapolis. A driver’s license photo for the man appeared to resemble Landers, police said.
Indiana State Police then contacted Minnesota law enforcement agencies, which began investigating along with the FBI and the Social Security Administration.
Todd County Sheriff Peter Mikkelson said once an investigation is complete, the case would be forwarded to the U.S. attorney general for possible charges.
Police spokesman Sgt. Ron Galaviz said it appears Landers’ father was never in the picture. Lisa and Richard Harter had married a year before the boy’s abduction.
In a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Richard Harter said his wife was “jumping up and down for joy” when investigators told her a few days ago that her son had been found.
He said his wife is “the happiest woman on earth.”
Harter said he and his wife were working with an attorney and hoped to reunite with his stepson soon. Police said Landers is married and expecting his first child.
Harter declined further comment and referred questions about the case to his attorney, who didn’t return phone messages Thursday and Friday.
Forliti reported from Minneapolis. Associated Press Writers Charles Wilson and Ken Kusmer in Indianapolis and Doug Glass in Minneapolis contributed to this report.