Friday, January 11, 2013
By KYLE POTTER and AMY FORLITI
CLARISSA, 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 Indiana child who had been abducted by his paternal grandparents in 1994.
Richard Wayne Landers Jr., reportedly was 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 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, Landers applied for the name change himself in November 2006, just a couple of 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. Telephone and social networking messages left with him and his wife were not immediately returned.
In July 1994, after a custody dispute between Landers’ mother and the grandparents, the grandparents fled from Wolcottville, Ind., about 50 miles southeast of South Bend.
“I’m not sure that they (the grandparents) ever had legal custody,” said John R. Russell, who spent several months investigating the disappearance with the LaGrange (Ind.) County Sheriff’s 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 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. 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.
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 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.
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 refused an interview.
A spokeswoman with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Minnesota, Jeanne Cooney, said charges in such a case could be related to non-custodial kidnapping, whether the child was exploited, abused, trafficked or being used to obtain benefits.
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 wasn’t at the store Friday and an employee declined an interview.
Raymond Iddings has worked since 1999 as a herdsman at Twin Eagle Dairy in nearby Clarissa, where owner Patrick Lunemann described him as a “dedicated, faithful” employee. Lunemann said he was in shock when he read a story about the case.
He said Iddings plays guitar at his church, and recalled a day last summer when the couple brought their instruments to play for dairy workers. He said he knew Michael slightly, saying he stopped on occasion — perhaps to drop off Iddings’ lunch if he had forgotten it.
“(Landers) works at an auto parts place. That fits him perfectly, because Ray is kind of a motorhead and Michael is the same way,” Lunemann said.
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.