By Ken Kusmer, Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Authorities on Friday identified a 24-year-old man discovered living in Minnesota under an assumed name, nearly two decades after his grandparents abducted him from Indiana.
The paternal grandparents could face federal charges in the case, a Minnesota sheriff said.
The Todd County Sheriff's Office said Richard Wayne Landers Jr. now lives in the small northern Minnesota town of Long Prairie under the name Michael Jeff Landers.
Indiana State Police announced Thursday that Landers had been found. Landers’ paternal grandparents took him in July 2004, when he was just 5 years old, because they were upset over custody arrangements, police said.
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.
Charges against the grandparents were dismissed in 2008 because the case had gone cold. But 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.
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.
No home listing could be found for Michael Landers. Messages left with his wife were not immediately returned.
Landers’ mother, Lisa Harter, was “jumping up and down for joy” when investigators told her a few days ago that her son had been found, her husband Richard Harter told The Associated Press in a telephone interview on Thursday.
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.
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.
Authorities said Landers had lived with his grandparents since birth. But there was a dispute between Landers’ mother and the grandparents over his custody, and the grandparents took him from their home in Wolcottville, about 50 miles southwest 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.
“I know they were in the courts. They were starting to let him be with her (his mother) for a little bit at a time. Then they said they should give them a couple of weeks together, and just before the two weeks, they disappeared,” Russell said.
The grandparents were charged at the time 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.
“By all accounts, it didn't appear he suffered from any abuse, either physical or mental,” Galaviz said.
Associated Press writers Amy Forliti and Doug Glass in Minneapolis and Charles Wilson in Indianapolis contributed to this report.