Lisa Harter refused to give up hope that her missing son would be found after his grandparents took the 5-year-old and fled their small Indiana town.
Nineteen years later, the search has ended in the central Minnesota town of Long Prairie, where detectives found Harter's son living, now a 24-year-old man with a wife and family that Harter hopes to eventually meet.
"It's such a relief that he's been found and that he's alive and that he's healthy," she said Thursday from her home in LaGrange, Ind. "I found this out two days ago, and I'm so excited. I'm pretty happy. I know he's married and he has a child on the way. I've seen pictures of him. He looks like a man. I last saw him when he was a boy. He looks so different."
She will wait, hoping that her son will call her now that authorities have told him she has been searching for him since 1994.
"I'm a little nervous because I haven't seen him for a long time," she said. "I want to tell him I want to see [him]. I want to talk to [him.] But I might cry."
Harter's son, whose birth name was Richard Wayne Landers Jr., was caught in a custody battle between his mother and his paternal grandparents.
Harter and her son's father were in the midst of a divorce at the time, said Indiana attorney Richard Muntz, who has worked with the mother in her 19-year search. The couple had a troubled relationship and Harter ended up in a homeless shelter, Muntz said. Child welfare services stepped in because Harter has some developmental disabilities. "The father wasn't in the picture, and the grandparents got temporary custody," Muntz said.
In her own home, remarried and working a job, Harter sought to regain custody.
"We had a number of hearings, and during the last one the judge said, 'I don't know if the mother can handle the situation, but we have to give it a try,'" Muntz said. "The judge ordered the child returned to the mother for a trial period. The grandparents went to the bank, drew $5,000 out of a home equity line and stopped for breakfast at a local restaurant."
That was the last time they were seen in rural Wolcottville, which is about 35 miles northwest of Fort Wayne.
A warrant was issued for the grandparents' arrest on a misdemeanor charge of interfering with custody. Five years later, with authorities convinced that the boy had been taken across state lines, the crime became a felony, Muntz said. In 2008, the LaGrange County prosecutor dropped the charges after neither the boy nor the grandparents had been found.
About a decade ago, Indiana State Police detective Jeff Boyd took over the case from a deputy who had retired.
"I had kind of taken an interest in it because we're a small rural community and I said, 'Hey, we still have somebody missing here,'" he said. "I thought we needed some closure. ... At times I thought it was a lost cause."
Pursuing a mystery
The grandparents, who had taken on new identities, stopped using their Social Security numbers, which authorities could have used to track them down.
"When they left, there was nothing. I would run their numbers every year through all 50 states and never get anything back," Boyd said.
In September 2012, Harter and her husband, Richard, asked detectives to run the boy's Social Security number again.
"I was at church and talked to a state policeman about running his number again," said Richard Harter. "I gave him the Social Security card. We just kept hoping."
The detective on the case "got a hit," Boyd said.
The boy, now a man living in Long Prairie, had used his Social Security card to get a driver's license. His date of birth matched the missing boy's birthday. And the photo on the driver's license seemed to resemble how the boy would look 18 years later, Boyd said.
Harter's son could not be reached Thursday night for an interview.
In October, the Indiana investigators contacted Long Prairie police officials, who along with the Todd County Sheriff's Office, the FBI and the Social Security Administration were able to determine that the Long Prairie man was Harter's missing son and that his grandparents were living in nearby Browerville under different names.
Indiana authorities say the grandparents have confirmed their true identities and verified that the 24-year-old man living in Long Prairie is Richard Wayne Landers, although he's living under a different first name.
State and federal authorities will continue to investigate the case to determine whether the grandparents should be charged with a crime.
Glad case is solved
Muntz and Boyd said they are relieved that Harter's son has been found. They don't know whether he will want to be reunited with his mother.
When he was 5 years old, he said he wanted to live with his grandparents, Boyd said.
However, in a custody battle it's difficult to judge what a 5-year-old is being told, Muntz said.
Although investigators never gave up searching, there was probably less urgency involved than if the child was thought to have been abducted by strangers, Muntz said.
"There was no indication that the child was in any danger," he said. "He was with grandma and grandpa."
Solving the case "is great," Boyd said. "I just wish we had done it years ago when he was a small child, but it sounds like he was raised and life was all right for him.
"Any time these things end and you find out they're alive and well, I think it's a great thing. ... But a lot of years were lost for the family here that wanted to be a part of his life and couldn't be."
Staff writer Nicole Norfleet contributed to this report. Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788