VESTAVIA HILLS, Ala. — An Ohio teenager applying to college discovered some startling things about himself because of a discrepancy involving his Social Security number: His real name. And that he was allegedly snatched from his mother in Alabama by his father when he was 5.
Father and son were discovered living under assumed names this week in Cleveland, where by all accounts 18-year-old Julian Hernandez was an excellent student and had been well cared for. The father, Bobby Hernandez, 53, was arrested and faces charges that could send him to prison for a decade or more.
Authorities are still trying to piece together what happened to the boy over the 13 years he was missing. But some of the bare facts 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 couple were not married.
Over the years, police investigated hundreds of possible sightings across the country. The break in the case didn't come until the son started applying to college.
Some kind of problem was found with his Social Security number, and so he approached a school counselor, who discovered that 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 on Monday.
"My understanding is that he didn't know his birthday. He didn't even know his own name. He was going by something else," said police Lt. Johnny Evans of the Birmingham suburb of Vestavia Hills.
Evans said he had informed the mother on Monday. At first, she was cautious, given all the times she was disappointed before.
"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. "So she was very excited to hear that there was another tip, just apprehensive. When we confirmed it, she was extremely excited."
Evans said on 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 name was not released.
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.
A message left with his attorney was not immediately returned.
Hills portrayed the man he knew as Jonathan Mangina as a proud father.
"He cared about his son a lot," Hills said. "He always talked about his son," who was studying to get a black belt in karate.
Hills said he was led to believe Hernandez was divorced and his ex-wife lived in Alabama. He said Hernandez once told him that his ex-wife "didn't want to be a mom anymore."