Published November 30, 2015
MORENCI, Mich. -- A father charged with kidnapping his three missing boys fought extradition from Ohio back to Michigan on Wednesday as an army of volunteers prepared to trudge through fields, woodlands and dirt roads to search for the brothers who have not been seen since Thanksgiving.
John Skelton, a 39-year-old unemployed long-haul truck driver, sat throughout the court hearing in Toledo, Ohio, in a wheelchair covered by a green blanket, answering the judge's yes-or-no questions in a whisper. His attorney told the judge his client would fight his return to Michigan.
Skelton was arrested Tuesday on three counts of parental kidnapping, and so far, police say, the boys' father hasn't told authorities much that they can use as the search for the boys darkened. After Skelton waived extradition, the judge in Ohio set bond at $3 million and scheduled another hearing for Dec. 14.
"He's been forthcoming with some information, the credibility of which we can't verify," Morenci Police Chief Larry Weeks said Tuesday.
Weeks acknowledged police don't expect a "positive outcome" to the case after talking to Skelton over the course of the investigation.
Crews have searched parts of southern Michigan in and around Morenci, a small town of 2,000 people about 75 miles southwest of Detroit. They've also scoured hundreds of acres just south of Morenci in northwest Ohio looking for 9-year-old Andrew, 7-year-old Alexander and 5-year-old Tanner Skelton.
A similar search in Ohio was conducted a few weeks ago about 130 miles to the southeast after a mother from Howard, Ohio, her friend, 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son disappeared. Police say the girl was found bound and gagged in a 30-year-old unemployed tree-cutter's basement and that he led them to the dismembered bodies of the other three stuffed in a hollow tree trunk.
About 250 volunteers joined agents, police and firefighters Monday in the search, and officials said about 225 signed up Tuesday. They were told to gather again at Wednesday morning in Morenci's fire hall, the nerve center for the rescue operation.
Michelle Williams will be among them.
"I know the family -- I've known `em for years," said Williams, 45, who brought chili to the fire hall this week for volunteers. "The grandmother taught me to sew. . They're great people."
Her heart sank when she learned of Skelton's arrest.
"It's just sickening. I just can't believe there's people out there that evil who would hurt their own kids," she said. "I'm still hoping that they find them and he's lied about the whole thing, because he's lied before."
Lee Ann Underhill, a Morenci resident who went to school with the children's mother, Tanya Skelton, searched for the boys between her long overnight shift at a plastics factory and a few hours' sleep. She said she knew the boys, and like others here, she said finding them is personal.
"I've been through fields, creek beds and woods," Underhill said after returning from a search Tuesday afternoon. "We're looking for anything out of the ordinary."
Another searcher, Bill Foster, said everyone in the town of 2,000 was hoping for a "Christmas miracle" and the boys' safe return.
"The search has to continue. We won't quit the search until we bring the boys home," Foster said.
Lenawee Sheriff's Department Corporal Jeff Paterson said he was part of a large group that scoured an 83-acre campsite in Ohio on Monday that's a few miles south of Morenci.
"There were three ponds, sewage lagoons, then a wooded area with a creek," he said. Several barns in the area also were searched.
He said when the terrain allows, grid searches are done, with searchers spreading out 10 feet apart and walking in the same direction. Eyes are focused on the ground at their feet.
"Do it nice and slow so you don't miss anything," he said.
Locals began combing through fields and woods Saturday, the day after the boys' mother reported them missing and the day after John Skelton tried to hang himself.
Skelton was arrested by FBI agents Tuesday afternoon following his release from a medical facility in Lucas County, Ohio. He initially told investigators he gave his sons to a female acquaintance to hand over to his estranged wife. Police say he was lying.
Tanya Skelton, 44, filed for divorce in September. A judge gave her custody of the boys, but she and John Skelton reached an agreement on visitation.
Police on Tuesday had the grim job of telling Tanya Skelton's family -- her mother, specifically -- that it was growing unlikely the children would be found alive.
Her reaction: "Imagine your worst nightmare come true," Weeks said. "How would you respond?"