MORENCI, Mich — Community members held lighted candles and prayed silently during a vigil at a local church Sunday, while authorities continued to seek public help in locating three boys missing since Friday.
More than 200 people filled Morenci United Methodist Church, where the Zuvers, the family of Tanya Skelton, the mother of Andrew, Alexander, and Tanner Skelton, regularly worship.
“It was good for everyone to come together and pray, pray for the best,” said Carrie Joughin, a high school classmate of Ms. Skelton. She said grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins of the boys were in the church.
“I think people are trying to figure it out. I think there are a lot of gut instincts that don't look good,” Ms. Joughin said.
During a news conference an hour before the vigil's 5:30 p.m. start, Morenci Police Chief Larry Weeks said the public search for the missing boys would be suspended at nightfall and resume Monday morning.
“It would not be safe to have so many people out in the dark wooded areas,” the chief said, urging those interested in volunteering Monday to contact the Morenci Fire Department.
Andrew, 9, Alexander, 7, and Tanner, 5, all pupils at Morenci Elementary School, were reported missing Friday by their mother, Tanya, one day after they were last seen in the back yard at the home of their father, John Skelton.
Mr. Skelton subsequently told police he handed his sons over to a woman named Joann Taylor on Friday morning and asked her to take the boys to their mother's house. Mr. Skelton then attempted to hang himself, but was not successful.
The Skeltons are in the midst of divorce proceedings, and while Ms. Skelton had custody of their sons, Mr. Skelton retained visitation rights and had them visit at the former family home on East Congress Street for Thanksgiving.
Chief Weeks said Mr. Skelton remains hospitalized in a “mental health facility” following his suicide attempt.
Asked whether Mr. Skelton has been assisting police, Andrew Arena, special agent in charge of the FBI's Detroit office, declined to talk about specifics.
“We're not narrowing in on any one person,” Mr. Arena said. “That's the biggest mistake we can make is put all our eggs in one basket and focus on one person and miss something going by us.”
Because police have been unable to find Joann Taylor or even verify that she exists, law enforcement and civilian volunteers began searching in earnest for the children on Saturday, following the late Friday issuance of an Amber Alert.
Hundreds of volunteers along with firefighters from 12 area departments in Ohio and Michigan, Lenawee County Sheriff's deputies and mounted patrol officers, the Michigan State Police, and the FBI were out in full force again Sunday, combing wooded areas outside Morenci as well as Harrsion Lake State Park near Fayette, Ohio, and Lake Hudson State Park east of Hudson, Mich.
Chief Weeks stressed that investigators had no direct evidence or information that the children were in any of those locales.
“These searches are being conducted in places where the boys had frequented or areas that they may have been seen in the past,” the chief said.
Morenci firefighter Steve Meller, who was coordinating volunteers from the command center at the fire station, said well over 200 people showed up Sunday morning to help search. Many were sent out to do straight-line searches through wooded areas along Lime Creek Highway, where Mr. Skelton reportedly used to hunt, Mr. Meller said.
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Searchers were told to stay within 10 feet of each other and move in the same direction. They were to look for anything that seemed suspicious but not to touch any objects they found.
Law enforcement officers were dispatched when possible clues were reported — ground that appeared to be freshly turned, a padlock lying along the roadside.
Christal Varga was among those who turned out early to search and she intended to spend the entire day looking for the Skelton boys, who go to school with her children. She was with two other friends, also mothers of the boys' classmates.
“If it was our kids, we wouldn't want to be sitting at home,” she said. “We'd want everybody in the whole town out here.”
Barb Stover, a neighbor of Mr. Skelton, showed up at the fire station with her two children to help with the search.
“We're ready to do anything. Those boys meant a lot to us,” she said, adding that she's hoping they're found alive.
Michael Osborne, superintendent of the Morenci Area Schools, said clergy and social workers would be on hand Monday in the district's buildings to provide support for staff and students as needed.
A message recapping the Skelton boys' disappearance and outlining the district's response plan was e-mailed to district parents Sunday evening, Mr. Osborne said, and announcements also will be made in the schools Monday morning.
Chief Weeks said that because of the large number of city employees involved in the search and investigation, municipal offices would be closed Monday. Reopening will be evaluated on a daily basis, he said.
The FBI's Mr. Arena said investigators are keeping their focus intentionally wide. In addition to its child-abduction response team, the FBI has brought in behavioral science experts, he said, “to give us an overview of who would've done this, the mindset, that kind of thing, and any suspects we develop they're going to give us an assessment.”
Mr. Arena encouraged anyone who knows anything or sees anything that could offer a clue to the children's whereabouts to call the hot line set up by Morenci police, 517-458-7104.
“We need calls. We need tips,” Mr. Arena said. “Anything that's out there — no matter how incredible you may think it is — call.”
Chief Weeks said investigators particularly need to know where the boys were from 2:30 p.m. Thursday to 1:30 p.m. Friday.
He said investigators remain unsure whether Mr. Skelton truly gave his sons to Joann Taylor.
“We continue to search to verify whether or not this woman exists,” the chief said. “At this point no information has been collected to lead us to this person so, again, contact the hot line if you're familiar with who Joann Taylor is or any information regarding her, her husband, or their potential whereabouts.”
Chief Weeks also said police have “examined a number of electronic devices,” but wouldn't divulge whether they have specifically inspected Mr. Skelton's computer for e-mails between him and Joann Taylor.
Family spokesman and friend Kathye Herrera said Tanya Skelton was staying close to home in hopes of being there if and when the children come home.
“She's sad, probably number one, because she wants her babies,” Ms. Herrera said. “She's scared and just praying they're OK and somebody's taking care of them, and she's exhausted. The stress has just done her in.”
Ms. Herrera said Ms. Skelton had been wary about her estranged husband's intentions since he took the children to Florida, where his parents live, two months ago without telling her.
Ms. Skelton considered it kidnapping, she said, but because they were still married at the time, it was legal for him to take them to Florida. She filed for divorce afterward.
Ms. Herrera said Ms. Skelton did not think he would hurt the boys.
“I don't think that was ever an issue,” she said. “Maybe that he would take them to Florida again, but not physically harm them. The boys loved their Dad. They loved their Mom.”
During the vigil, lay leader Bob Dister implored God for protection.
“Relieve the sufferings of the Skelton and the Zuvers families. Grant them peace of mind and a renewed faith in your protection and care. Protect us all from the violence of others and keep us safe from the weapons of hate,” Mr. Dister said.
Members of the Zuvers family sat close together in the front row, tearful faces visible, and accepted hugs and whispered encouragements from worshippers who also dabbed away tears as they filed by to take and light candles. Christmas music played faintly in the background while the congregation was invited to pray in silence.
Mr. Dister said afterward that Tanya Skelton was in the church, but no one from the family spoke. He said she has “held up pretty well, as well as could be expected when you don't know where your kids are at.”
Earlier Sunday across this rural community 40 miles west of Toledo, people hoped for the best but feared the worst.
Delite Gillen discussed the case with friends at the Morenci Dari-ette over lunch. She didn't know the boys, she said, but was concerned for their safety “because it's a small town and we're just caring about everyone. That's what a small town is.”
After exiting the church participants in the prayer service said they wanted to help the family of the missing boys.
“Mainly it was to support the families, show them that we care as a community,” said Sharon Bruce, 67, of Morenci. She said she is friends of Beverly and Donald Zuvers, Ms. Skelton's parents, and at one time she taught piano to Tanya.
“I think people are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst,” Ms. Bruce said. “We're thinking this can't be happening in Morenci. That's what we're thinking.”
Staff writer David Patch contributed to this report.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at:firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6129.