Morenci keeps hope alive for missing Skelton boys

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Morenci — After her three sons disappeared in 2010, Tanya Zuvers still bought them Christmas presents. On Easter, she prepared Easter baskets. On their birthdays, she wrote birthday cards.

Six years later, the gifts and cards remain unopened. Andrew, Alexander and Tanner Skelton, who were 9, 7 and 5 when they disappeared, are still missing.

And Zuvers has come to accept a parent’s worst nightmare — her children may never come home.

“I know realistically they may not come home alive, but I will always have that hope,” she said.

The police also acknowledged that grim possibility. Still, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recently released photos of what the boys would look like today. The age-progression images amount to a Hail Mary, a million-to-one shot, said police. If the Skeltons are still alive, if they look like the photos, and if someone sees them, maybe they’ll call law enforcement.

“It’s just another tool we have,” said Jeremy Brewer, a Michigan State Police detective sergeant who is investigating the case. “It gives us and the public a better idea of what we’re looking for.”

Only one person claims to know what happened to the boys, but he isn’t talking. When he has spoken, he has maintained he didn’t harm his children.

John Skelton, the boys’ father, is serving a 10- to 15-year prison sentence for unlawful imprisonment. Police believe he killed the children because of a nasty custody fight and hid their bodies.

The boys were last seen in the backyard of their father’s home in Morenci on Black Friday in 2010, the day they were supposed to be returned to their mother.

Skelton has given conflicting accounts of what happened to his children, including giving them to a stranger to keep them away from his wife.

Brewer periodically visits Skelton at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia but the prisoner won’t discuss the case.

Skelton also didn’t respond to a letter from The Detroit News.

Before the boys disappeared, their lives were much like other children in Morenci, which sits along the Michigan-Ohio border, 35 miles west of Toledo.

They played soccer, went camping and played with the kids in the neighborhood. They delighted in swimming in Harrison Lake in northern Ohio.

Morenci hasn’t forgotten the Skelton boys. Six years later, their photos continue to hang from storefronts and car windows.

Barber Carl Murphy says the missing brothers are a tender subject in his town. The boys’ father, John, is in prison for unlawful imprisonment, and has offered conflicting answers on where the boys might be.

At the Pizza Box, a whiteboard that touts the week’s special also has a scrawled message: “Keep the boys in your prayers!”

A few doors down, Janie’s His and Hers Hair Styling has a missing persons poster on its door and three electric candles in the window. It’s the second set of candles after the first burned out.

Janie Frey, who owns the shop, helped distribute leaflets on both sides of the state border.

“I can’t imagine a father would do something so horrendous to their children,” she said while cutting a customer’s hair.

Residents cling to the belief the boys are still alive. The alternative is too difficult to bear. They search for reasons to be hopeful.

At Carl’s Tapers and Shaves, a one-chair barber shop across the street from Janie’s, owner Carl Murphy imagined a scenario in which the boys are still alive.

He wants to believe their father, working with someone else, is hiding the children to spite their mother.

“It’s a touchy subject,” said Murphy, who has a 15-year-old son. “It tugs at a lot of people.”

While residents are hopeful about the Skelton boys being alive, people involved in the investigation don’t harbor such positive thoughts.

Three candles for the Skeltons still light the window of Janie’s His and Hers Hair Styling on Main Street.

Even during the first week of the disappearance, when hundreds of volunteers mounted all-day searches of farms and woods surrounding the town, police feared the worst.

Some 2,000 tips later, they haven’t learned anything to change their minds.

“Every day that goes by, there’s less and less of a chance we will find something positive out of this,” Brewer said.

But he continues to work the case vigorously. A $60,000 reward is being offered to anyone who helps authorities find the children.

He still receives tips every week, mostly from people who believe they may have seen one of the boys. The calls have come from nearly every state and some outside the country.

It took several years for Zuvers to accept what the police had gently been telling her about her boys’ fate. It’s hard for her to look at the age-progression photos because they show what she will never experience, her children growing up.

“All three are so much more grown up,” she said. “They don’t look like my little boys anymore.”

Meanwhile, she continues to piece together her fractured life. Once unable to work, or even leave her bedroom, she has a full-time job as a warehouse clerk. Also, she’s engaged to be married. The wedding date hasn’t been set.

Every year she attends a vigil for her children. It’s held at a city park where her family erected a bronze plaque. It contains the boys’ names and likenesses and the words “faith, hope, love.”

A plaque in a municipal park on the banks of Bean Creek in Morenci honors the three Skelton boys, who disappeared in 2010.

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell