- Associated Press - Friday, November 6, 2015

VESTAVIA HILLS, Ala. (AP) — For 13 years after a 5-year-old boy was taken from his mother’s Alabama home, authorities chased leads in hopes of finding him. But in the end, the youth himself helped unravel the mystery when he began applying to colleges and found out he’d allegedly been snatched away by his father.

Father and son were discovered living under assumed names recently in Cleveland, Ohio. By all accounts, the now 18-year-old Julian Hernandez was an excellent student and had been well cared for. His father, Bobby Hernandez, 53, was arrested and faces charges that could send him to prison for a decade or more if convicted.

The mother, whose name has not been released, has been in contact with her son, but it’s not known whether they have actually seen each other.

“You want to pick up and catch up, but how do you do that?” said police Lt. Johnny Evans of the Birmingham suburb of Vestavia Hills, where the boy once lived.

Authorities said the boy only found out about his real name because a problem arose with his Social Security number during the college application process.

“My understanding is that he didn’t know his birthday. He didn’t even know his own name. He was going by something else. How does he cope with going from somebody he thought he was to now somebody that’s completely unknown to him?”

Authorities said they’re still trying to piece together what happened to the boy over the 13 years he was missing. But some things are known: He vanished from his mother’s home in the Birmingham area in 2002, his father leaving a note saying he had taken the child, according to authorities. The parents of the child weren’t married.

Police investigated hundreds of possible sightings. The break in the case didn’t come until the son started applying to college.

A problem was discovered with his Social Security number, and so he approached a school counselor, who discovered Hernandez was listed as missing by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, District Attorney Brandon Falls in Jefferson County, Alabama, told the local media.

Authorities confirmed the young man’s identity Monday, and Evans said he told the mother her son had been located. Having had her hopes raised before, she was initially cautious.

“Over the years there have been hundreds of sightings. You know, ‘He’s here, he’s here, he’s here.’ We check it out and it’s not him or he’s not there,” Evans said. “When we confirmed it, she was extremely excited.”

Evans said Thursday that mother and son had since been in contact, but he was not sure whether it was by phone or other means.

The mother’s family said in a statement: “Our family was overjoyed this week to locate Julian and learn that he is safe. We want to thank everyone for their prayers and support during Julian’s disappearance.”

The son’s whereabouts Thursday were unclear. No one answered the door at the Cleveland home.

Evans said he was told that the teenager was “a very good student” and by all accounts a well-adjusted young man.

Police said they don’t know exactly how long Hernandez had been in Cleveland or whether he and his family had moved around.

A neighbor in Cleveland, Jeremy Hills, said he knew Bobby Hernandez as Jonathan Mangina and his son as Jay or J — Hills wasn’t sure. Hills said he thought they lived there with Bobby Hernandez’s wife and two other children, ages 3 and 14. The neighbor said the family had been there about four years.

Bobby Hernandez was charged in Ohio with tampering with records to get a driver’s license and was jailed on $250,000 bail. Alabama authorities charged him with interference with custody, which carries up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

A message left with his attorney was not immediately returned.

Hills portrayed the man he knew as Jonathan Mangina as a proud father and a good neighbor.

“Why he took the boy, I have no idea,” Hills said. “I could not say anything bad about him.”

___

Coyne reported from Cleveland. Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana in New Orleans and Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati and Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.


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