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Published: Saturday, 12/4/2010

Search for Morenci boys put on hold

MORENCI, Mich. — The organized search for three young brothers missing since Thanksgiving ended Friday, after several hundred volunteers turned out to cover four counties.

The effort to find the Skelton boys, Tanner, 5, Alex, 7, and Andrew, 9, started last Saturday after they were reported missing on Thanksgiving Day. The boys are feared dead.

“I don't think anybody wants to give up until we have an answer,” said Bob Waldron, a Morenci volunteer firefighter of 42 years, who grew up with the boys' maternal grandparents. “We all get frustrated.”

The Morenci Fire Department will remain on call for special searches this weekend. Authorities suggest volunteers limit other searches to their own properties until further notice, said Steve Meller, Morenci firefighter and volunteer coordinator.

John Skelton, 39, father of the boys, is being held in the Lucas County jail in lieu of $3 million bond as he contests extradition to Michigan on parental kidnapping charges.

After first telling authorities he gave the boys to a female friend, Mr. Skelton has recanted that story and stopped cooperating with the search effort. He was hospitalized in the Toledo area for several days this week after a suicide attempt, police have said.

Mr. Skelton's wife, Tanya Skelton, filed for divorce Sept. 13, after her husband traveled to Florida with two of their boys without her consent. Though she was granted full custody of the children, Ms. Skelton later allowed her estranged husband visitation rights.

The Rev. Donna Galloway, pastor of Morenci United Methodist Church, which the Skelton family attended, said the three Skelton boys helped decorate their church and Wakefield Park with holiday lights. Though a ceremony to recognize their efforts was postponed when the boys went missing, a candlelight vigil in the park at 6 p.m. Sunday will include the delayed lighting ceremony.

The Skelton brothers Alex, 7, left, Tanner, 5, center, and Andrew, 9, are feared dead. The Skelton brothers Alex, 7, left, Tanner, 5, center, and Andrew, 9, are feared dead.
NOT BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

“Andrew said, ‘Pastor Donna, can you imagine the church is going to have lights, the park is going to have lights. We're going to light up this town,' ” Ms. Galloway said, of the eldest boy's remarks during the setup of the display. “In light of what Andrew said, bring a flashlight, bring a spotlight, or put Christmas lights around you. We want the boys to see where Morenci is.”

The pastor also said Friday she had visited both Mrs. Skelton at her home and Mr. Skelton in jail after “he called and asked for me to come.” She declined to discuss details of her visit with him, saying “I went in my role and my capacity as a pastor and I was administering to the needs of one of God's children.”

Ms. Galloway spent most of Friday with area ministers at the Morenci fire hall, ready to support volunteers with prayer and words of encouragement.

The search effort Friday included 400 volunteers, groups of search dogs, and four dive teams that used sonar equipment at several lakes in Williams County in Ohio.

“We always want to find something. The problem is sometimes you don't,” said Jerusalem Township Fire Chief Larry Stanton, head of the Lucas County Dive Team, which used solar technology to scan Harrison Lake in Fulton County. Divers did not enter the water because of cold temperatures.

Mr. Meller coordinated the six-day search of hundreds of miles of roads in southeastern Michigan and Fulton and Williams counties in Ohio. Frirday, teams of 11 volunteers searched at least 30 miles of roadways from M-99 and East Territorial Road in southwestern Hillsdale County to Weston Road in eastern Lenawee County.

More than 400 volunteers — some from as far as Texas and Canada — filled at least nine school buses to search roadsides Friday. The effort identified several roadside objects as potential evidence including discarded children's socks, a youth-sized winter jacket, and a car seat, Mr. Meller said.

“If it looks like a child's item, it's getting picked up,” Mr. Meller said.

Morenci Police Chief Larry Weeks has said authorities “do not anticipate a positive outcome here.” He could not be reached for comment Friday, and police dispatchers told media he declined to speak publicly.

Veterinarian Sharilyn Shoemaker decided to end her business day early by closing her practice, Morenci Veterinary Clinic, so that her staff could participate in the search Friday. The clinic will host a fund-raiser for the family from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, offering photos with Santa Claus for a $5 donation at their clinic at 9222 West Weston Rd.

“I think right now it's hard for us to concentrate on other things,” Dr. Shoemaker said.

Dr. Shoemaker said her 5-year-old daughter, Rachel, is a playmate of Tanner, and her 6-year-old, Rebecca, is a classmate of Alex. She said her girls understand the boys may not be found, and the family visited Mrs. Skelton this week.

“I don't keep the news on and stuff around my kids,” she said. “They can gather from what they see out there.”

Contact Bridget Tharp at:

btharp@theblade.com

or 419-724-6086.



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