SOUTH BEND, IND. - An Indiana man says he forgives his parents for abducting his son nearly 20 years ago and raising the boy themselves, but he doesn't understand why they thought he was a bad father or why they cut off all contact with him and the rest of the family.
Richard Wayne Landers Sr. said Sunday that before his parents made off with his 5-year-old son in 1994 during a custody dispute over the boy with him and his ex-wife, his parents told a judge that he didn't want to raise his son and kept a journal listing the reasons why they thought was a bad father. Landers said it was a stressful time and he can't remember the specifics of the accusations, but they were untrue.
"It's kind of like now. My emotions are torn between wanting to see him and not wanting to wreck his life," Landers said by phone. "Back then it was about the same. So go back and pinpoint exactly what I said back then or what questions were asked me, I really can't tell you."
Landers, 43, and his ex-wife, Lisa Harter, were young when they had their son, Michael Landers, who legally changed his name in 2006 from Richard Wayne Landers Jr. He said times were tough and they needed to straighten out their lives, so they gave guardianship of their son for a year to his parents, Richard E. and Ruth Landers, who authorities say have been living in Browerville under the assumed names Raymond Michael Iddings and Susan Kay Iddings.
Landers said he was unemployed for a while and that he and Lisa had to sleep in a car for three days before moving into a shelter for six weeks, then into an apartment. He said their marriage fell apart, partly because Lisa didn't think he defended her when his parents criticized her. He said his parents never explained why they told a judge they thought he'd be a bad parent, but that he thinks they were more worried about Lisa, who has mild developmental disabilities.
"They knew even if I got custody, that he would have to spend time around her," he said.
Landers said he doesn't have a criminal record and hasn't had drug or alcohol problems. He assumes his parents thought he and his ex-wife were too young and not ready to raise a child.
"But why didn't they get us parenting classes or offer to take us in and help us out instead of just running and hiding?" he said.
Landers said his parents dropped a hint about their plan shortly before they disappeared, but he didn't realize it until later. He said they gave him a videotape of his son and told him, "he'd always know who I was. It didn't strike me then. It didn't hit me until after they left what they were actually doing or planning."
Landers, who remarried 22 years ago and who has a 27-year-old stepson, said he wants to see his son Michael, who apparently understood his circumstances and lived willingly with his grandparents.
Michael Landers, who authorities say also lives in Browerville, didn't respond to a voice mail left Sunday at his wife's number, and his grandparents' phone rang unanswered.
Investigators searched in vain for the boy after he disappeared in 1994, but eventually declared the case cold. It was reopened in September after a conversation between Richard Landers Sr. and an Indiana State Police detective prompted another search of the Social Security number for Richard Landers Jr.
That turned up a Minnesota man, Michael Landers, who had the same number and birthday as his son.
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.
Richard Landers said he understands his son's feelings about his grandparents.
"It's the people he's grown up with. He feels he's in a nice place. He's been taken care of by them all his life, pretty much," he said.
He said he's eager to be reacquainted with his son and to tell him he loves him, although he said he can't afford to go to Minnesota right now and doesn't know his son's phone number.
"I don't know him like everyone else knows their son, but that don't stop the love," he said.
He said he forgives his parents, but can't understand why they never tried to get in touch with him or his older brother, Dallas, from whom Landers is estranged.
"I have to forgive them. My faith won't let me do anything else," he said.
Landers said he doesn't know whether his son would have been better off if he'd been raised by him or his former wife.
"I really don't know. I would have liked to have him here with me. However, I know that he was taken care of. So for me to sit and say he would have had a better life with me or a better life with the mom, I don't know because after got divorced there's that issue, too," he said. "He would have had to go back and forth between parents."