LONG PRAIRIE, Minn. – In 2006, an 18-year-old Minnesota man legally changed his name to Michael Jeff Landers. Six years later, authorities determined Landers was really the northeast Indiana child who had been abducted by his paternal grandparents in 1994.
Richard Wayne Landers Jr. was reportedly abducted when he was 5 years old. The 24-year-old Michael Landers now lives in the small, central Minnesota town of Browerville, the Todd County Sheriffs Office said Friday.
Sheriff Peter Mikkelson said the investigation is ongoing and that the case will be forwarded to federal authorities for possible charges.
Its unclear what Landers knew about his history, but authorities said he had lived with his grandparents since birth.
According to court records, Landers applied for the name change himself in November 2006, just a couple weeks after he turned 18. The application does not say why he requested the change, and it wasnt immediately clear how long he had used the name Michael.
In July 1994, after a custody dispute between Landers mother and the grandparents, the grandparents fled from Wolcottville, Ind., which straddles the Noble-LaGrange county line.
Im not sure that they (the grandparents) ever had legal custody, said John R. Russell, who spent several months investigating the disappearance with the LaGrange County Sheriffs Department.
The 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 didnt think the child would be in any danger at all with them.
Landers stepfather, Richard Harter, did not respond to phone calls Friday. A phone number for Landers mother, Lisa Harter, could not be located. Indiana State Police spokesman Sgt. Ron Galaviz said it appears Landers father was never in the picture.
Indiana attorney Richard Muntz has worked with Lisa Harter in her 19-year search and told the Star Tribune that child welfare services stepped in because she has some developmental disabilities and the grandparents had temporary custody.
Muntz said after a judge granted Harter custody for a trial period, the grandparents took $5,000 out of a home equity line and left town.
The grandparents were charged 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.
Minnesota officials say the grandparents – now living in 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.
Investigators reopened the case in September when Richard Harter turned over Landers Social Security card to an Indiana State Police detective. That turned up a man with the same Social Security number and birthday living in Long Prairie. A drivers 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. Mikkelson said once an investigation is complete, the case would be forwarded to federal authorities for possible charges.
A spokeswoman with the U.S. Attorneys Office in Minnesota said she could not confirm nor deny whether the matter was under federal investigation. But generally speaking, said Jeanne Cooney, in these types of matters authorities could look into charges related to non-custodial kidnapping, whether the child was exploited, abused, trafficked or being used to obtain benefits.
Richard Harter told The AP on Thursday that his wife was jumping up and down for joy when investigators told her a few days ago that her son had been found.
Michael Landers and his wife, who police say are expecting a child, share a plot of land with his grandparents a few miles outside of Browerville. There are two houses and two deteriorating barns on the property, and a few toys were scattered in front of one of the houses Friday. Ten cars sat in the shared driveway.
Landers works at an auto parts store in Long Prairie but wasnt at the store Friday and an employee declined an interview.
The town buzzed with the news, though. Rich Wall, a retired jeweler, said some residents speculated that some people knew of Landers history but kept quiet. He said it was the most notable news since a grisly triple homicide there in 2003.
My grandson called last night and said, Long Prairie made the news again, Wall said.