Skelton case: Police want to talk with Montana man

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Authorities want to talk to a man who once lived in a Montana backyard where the remains of three children were found. Police are checking whether the discovery is connected to three missing brothers in Michigan.

Tanner Skelton, 5, from left, and his older brothers, Alexander, 7, and Andrew, 9, have been missing since 2010.

The man, Doug Labare, who lived in a camper, had access to a Missoula, Montana, shed one year before the bones and teeth of the children were found in September in a box inside, according to a search warrant sought by Missoula police.

The ages of the children found in the box, estimated by an anthropologist, were roughly similar to three brothers who went missing in Morenci in November 2010: Tanner, Alexander and Andrew Skelton were 5, 7 and 9 years old.

A housing code compliance officer believed Labare set up a surveillance camera to help him detect visitors, she told police, according to the search warrant. The warrant didn’t say where the camera was located or why compliance officer Charmell Owens believed it was to avoid her and others. Labare was evicted in the summer 2016 because he had been living there illegally, the warrant said.

Missoula police say they are seeking a person of interest but wouldn’t identify the individual and said the person isn’t a suspect. Labare hasn’t been named as a person of interest or charged in the matter.

Attempts by The Detroit News to find Labare through public records weren’t successful Friday. Nobody else is named in the search warrant, but it’s unclear whether there other search warrants.

Missoula police also are looking to talk to others who may have lived in the rental house in the past. After a recent tenant had been evicted, a cleaning crew discovered the box in the shed that contained the remains.

Besides human remains, the warrant sought, but didn’t find, clothes or personal items belonging to the children, weapons or other instruments that could have been used in a homicide, or containers used to transfer human remains.

The Skeltons’ mother, Tanya Zuvers, wrote on Facebook she was following developments in the case.

“We are processing it and hopeful that we will have answers soon,” she wrote. “We are thankful for all your thoughts and prayers.”

Zuvers, who couldn’t be reached for comment, frequently updates her page with photos of her sons. Her Thursday message was signed “faith-hope-love.”

Friends of the family said they were heartened to hear the news because it would finally answer what happened to the brothers.

“The family needs closure. The town needs closure,” said Jennifer Berry of Morenci.

But police in Michigan and Montana both stressed the investigation is in the early stages.

It’s not known whether the children whose remains were discovered were boys and whether they were related, police say.

Also, the intensive, seven-year investigation of the Skelton case never showed any connection to Montana, according to the Michigan State Police, which is the lead investigative agency in that case.

“Until this (DNA) testing is completed and additional investigation by law enforcement in Montana occurs, it cannot be determined if these remains belong to the missing Skelton brothers,” the state police said in a press release.

Missoula police sent the remains for DNA testing by the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a federal clearinghouse for missing person records.

But, given the small size of the bones, there’s no guarantee the agency will be able to extract DNA from them, police said.

And it will take months to attempt to obtain the DNA because of a backlog of cases, said Jeremy Brewer, a Michigan State Police detective sergeant who is investigating the Skelton case.

In this 2011 photo, John Skelton, of Morenci, appears in Lenawee County Circuit Court in Adrian.

If DNA is found, it will be compared to missing person cases kept by the federal clearinghouse and other agencies.

After Michigan police learned about the discovery on Thursday, they contacted Missoula police and are now working with them on the investigation.

The remains were discovered Sept. 27 by a cleaning crew who were removing trash from a Missoula rental home after the tenant had been evicted a week earlier, said Missoula police.

In the Skelton case, their father, John Skelton, was sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison for unlawful imprisonment of his children. Police believe he killed the children because of a nasty custody fight.

The brothers were last seen in his backyard on the day they were supposed to be returned to their mother. They were reported missing the next day.

Skelton has given conflicting accounts of what happened to his children, including giving them to a stranger to keep them away from his wife. Police scoffed at the notion of another person being involved in the crime.

Despite the passage of time, Morenci hasn’t forgotten the missing brothers. Seven years later, their photos continue to plaster storefronts and car windows.

Berry said the case is never far from residents’ minds.

“It’s not something you forget. It’s horrible,” she said.

Every year, Zuvers, Berry and others attend a vigil for the three boys. It’s held at a city park where Zuvers’ family erected a bronze plaque.

The memorial contains the boys’ names and likenesses, joined by the inscription: “faith, hope, love.”

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell