Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Missing Indiana boy found in Minnesota, 19 years later

CLARISSA, Minn. — Richard Wayne Landers Jr. was 5 years old when his paternal grandparents allegedly abducted him in northeastern Indiana in 1994 and seemingly vanished, frustrating detectives for nearly two decades.

But Landers, now 24, has been found alive and well in Minnesota, the Indiana State Police say.

In 2006, when he turned 18, he legally changed his name to Michael Jeff Landers. Six years later, authorities found him in the small central Minnesota town of Browerville, the Todd County Sheriff's Office said Friday.

Sheriff Peter Mikkelson said the investigation is ongoing and the case will be forwarded to federal authorities for possible charges.

It's unclear what Landers knew about his history, but authorities said he had lived with his grandparents since birth.

According to court records, he applied for the name change in November 2006, a couple weeks after he turned 18. The application doesn't say why he requested the change, and it wasn't immediately clear how long he had used the name Michael.

A home phone number for Landers could not be found, and he and his wife didn't respond to multiple messages sent through social networking sites.

But a posting from his Facebook account appeared Friday night on the Minneapolis television station KARE's Facebook page, saying: "For you people who jump to conclusions you should find out the whole story. I was where I needed to be. My 'grandparents' were in the right I don't care what anyone else thinks."

Landers didn't respond to a followup message from the Associated Press seeking confirmation it was his statement. The AP believes the Facebook account to be Landers' based on multiple links between it and confirmed friends and relatives.

His grandparents fled during a custody dispute with Landers' mother in July 1994 from Wolcottville, Ind., about 50 miles southeast of South Bend.

The mother and stepfather were unemployed and lived in a car, recalled John Russell, who spent several months investigating the disappearance with the LaGrange County Sheriff's Department in Indiana.

"These people (the grandparents) were nice people. It was wrong for them to do it, but I can understand why," Russell said. "But I also didn't think the child would be in any danger at all with them."

But an attorney for Landers' mother refuted claims that she was homeless at the time. Attorney Richard Muntz said Landers' mother, Lisa Harter, spent only three days living in a car and it was with Landers' biological father.

She had divorced Landers' father by the time the grandparents obtained custody after Harter, who has mild developmental disabilities, moved into a group home that could not accommodate children, Muntz said.

After a while, she moved into an apartment and gained custody of her son on weekends, and she filed a petition to expand her custody rights when she remarried. "The judge gave her custody on a trial basis, and before she could get him, that's when they left," Muntz said Friday.

He said the grandparents withdrew $5,000 out of a home equity line, went out for breakfast and left town.

"The trail on this case went cold the day they disappeared. There was no trace of them after they left the restaurant," he said.

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.

Investigators reopened the case in September after a conversation between Richard Harter, Lisa Harter's husband, and an Indiana State Police detective who attended the same church prompted another search of Landers' Social Security number after others over the years yielded no sign of him, Muntz said.

That turned up a man with the same number and birthday with an address in Long Prairie, about 100 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Indiana State Police then contacted Minnesota law enforcement agencies, which began investigating along with the FBI and the Social Security Administration.

Minnesota officials say the grandparents — now living in Browerville 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.

Now that Landers has been located, his mother is eager to talk to him, but that hasn't happened yet, Muntz said.

A woman who answered a phone number associated with the Iddingses declined a request for an interview. A couple who answered the door at their home declined to identify themselves and also declined an interview.

Michael Landers and his wife, who police say are expecting a child, share a plot of land with his grandparents.

Landers works at an auto parts store in Long Prairie, but wasn't at the store Friday and an employee declined an interview.

The town buzzed with the news. 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.

Information from the Chicago Tribune was used in this report.

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