An Indiana mother whose former in-laws allegedly abducted her son nearly 20 years ago was not homeless at the time, the woman's lawyer said, refuting claims that the grandparents needed to step in because she was unable to care for the boy.
Authorities searched for the then-5-year-old Richard Wayne Landers Jr. for years, but the case went cold. They eventually found him living with his paternal grandparents in the small central Minnesota town of Browerville. He had changed his name in 2006 to Michael Jeff Landers.
Lisa Harter and the boy's father, Richard Wayne Landers Sr., did live in a car for three days at one point, but at the time of the boy's disappearance in 1994, Harter had moved into an apartment, attorney Richard Muntz told The Associated Press late Friday.
Muntz said that when Harter and Landers Sr. divorced, Harter — who has mild developmental disabilities— temporarily moved into a group home that wasn't equipped for children. The grandparents obtained custody and filed for guardianship, he said. After Harter moved into an apartment and gained custody of her son on weekends, 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 told the AP.
Todd County Sheriff Peter Mikkelson has said the investigation was ongoing and the case will be forwarded to federal authorities for possible charges, perhaps related to non-custodial kidnapping.
Michael Landers seems to have understood his circumstances and lived willingly with his grandparents.
Neither he nor his wife immediately responded to telephone or Facebook messages. But postings from each of their Facebook accounts appeared Friday night and Saturday on the Facebook page of KARE-TV in Minneapolis, suggesting that the grandparents did what was necessary.
A posting from Michael Landers said: "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 the right I dont care what anyone else thinks."
One of several posts from his wife, Bobbie Landers, said, "His 'grandparents' didn't follow the law, but they did what was right. .... He was 5. He remembers his birth parents and what they were like. ... He was where he WANTED and NEEDED to be to be safe and become the man he is today. My husband & my best friend."
Neither person immediately responded to follow-up messages from AP seeking confirmation it was their statement. AP believes the Facebook accounts to be theirs based on multiple links between theirs and those of confirmed friends and relatives.
Both of Landers' parents have said they're eager to see him again. Bobbie Landers wrote on Facebook that it wasn't clear what the next steps were.
"Mike does understand that it must have been hard for his mom. He doesn't discount that at all. He doesn't know how he feels about her and his parents (grandparents) have never said or told him anything negative about her," she wrote. " ... We're trying to keep our privacy and figure things out on our own."
Landers' grandparents took him during a custody dispute with Landers' mother in July 1994 from Wolcottville, Ind., about 50 miles southeast of South Bend. They withdrew $5,000 out of a home equity line, went out for breakfast and left town.
Investigators searched in vain for Landers, but declared the case cold. It was reopened in September after a conversation between Richard W. Landers Sr. and an Indiana State Police detective prompted another search of the Social Security number for Richard W. Landers Jr.
That turned up a Minnesota man with the same number and birthday as Landers.
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 telephone message left for the Iddingses on Saturday was not immediately returned. A couple who answered the door at their home Friday declined to identify themselves and also refused an interview.
Muntz said he's trying to establish a way for Harter and her son to get reacquainted.
Richard W. Landers Sr. told the News-Sun in Kendalville, Ind., that he has forgiven his parents.
"I'm just thankful my boy is still alive, and I'll still get a chance to see him," he said.
Associated Press writers Kyle Potter in Browerville, Minn., Amy Forliti and Doug Glass in Minneapolis, Charles Wilson and Ken Kusmer in Indianapolis and Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee contributed to this report.