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The three missing Skelton boys, from left: Alexander, 7, Andrew, 9, and Tanner, 5.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/29/2010 12:35:12 AM ET 2010-11-29T05:35:12

Authorities used planes and search dogs to scour areas along the Michigan-Ohio border Sunday, hoping to find three Michigan boys who were reported missing the same day their father tried to hang himself.

Police in Morenci, about 75 miles southwest of Detroit, said they fear the boys are in "extreme danger."

Their father, 39-year-old John Skelton, was being treated at a hospital in Ohio for "mental health issues" after he attempted suicide Friday, Morenci Police Chief Larry Weeks said. When asked if Skelton was a suspect in his sons' disappearance, Weeks said: "We haven't ruled anything out yet."

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The three boys — 5-year-old Tanner, 7-year-old Alexander and 9-year-old Andrew Skelton — were last seen Thursday and reported missing the next day by their mother, Tanya Skelton, Weeks said. A family friend said the couple was estranged and the boys were with their father as part of court-ordered visitation.

FBI child abduction teams, along with behavioral science experts, joined numerous police and volunteers to search fields, farmland and wooded areas late into the night Sunday. They expected to resume their work Monday.

Authorities said John Skelton claimed to have given the boys to a female friend, but officials haven't been able to confirm whether the woman exists.

The weekend search for the boys extended to an Ohio state park just south of the Michigan state line, according to the sheriff's office in Fulton County, Ohio. The FBI got involved Friday, shortly after being contacted by Michigan authorities, said Andrew Arena, head of the agency's Detroit office.

Authorities said John Skelton told investigators Friday that he wanted the boys out of his house when he committed suicide, and asked a woman named Joann Taylor to take them to their mother. John Skelton claimed that he met Taylor several years ago and the two had been involved in an online relationship, and she likely lived in southern Michigan.

But officers haven't been able to find a woman by that name or the silver van that Skelton said she was driving.

John Skelton's mother, Roxann Skelton of Jacksonville, Fla., told the Detroit Free Press that her son wouldn't hurt his children.

"I know my son, he's not a monster," she told the newspaper. "He's a good son and he would not harm his boys."

“In my heart I know my grandchildren are safe somewhere,” she said. “I know those children are … still with us.”

Kathye Herrera, a friend of Tanya Skelton's, said the couple have been married for 10 years but are in the process of getting a divorce. Herrera said that earlier this year, John Skelton picked his two older sons up from school and took them to Florida, but later returned to Michigan. Custody was awarded to Tanya Skelton, though John Skelton "had been seeing the boys with no issues," Herrera said.

Herrera said Tanya Skelton attends a local college or community college and John Skelton was a long-haul truck driver who hasn't been working in while.

About 200 people gathered Sunday evening for a prayer vigil at a church in Morenci, a small, mostly blue collar and farming community just north of the Ohio state line. Lights are strung on poles along Main Street, and festive decorations adorn windows in some of the shops and eateries in town.

The Skelton boys also started early, making holiday greeting cards. One of the older brothers wrote "Jesus is awesome" on his and drew a Nativity scene, Herrera said.

"They love church. They love the interaction, and they know all about Jesus," Herrera said.

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Many attending the vigil tried to hold back tears, though others allowed them to flow freely. As "Silent Night" and other Christmas hymns played, each filed slowly past the altar, lighting small white candles before returning to the pews to continue prayers for the boys' safe return.

"Give us courage to face our fears," church Lay Leader Bob Dister said as part of a short prayer before leading into "The Lord's Prayer."

He wept as the vigil ended.

Associated Press writers Jeannie Nuss in Columbus, Ohio, and David N. Goodman in Detroit contributed to this story.

The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

Video: Cops: 3 boys missing after father's suicide bid

  1. Closed captioning of: Cops: 3 boys missing after father's suicide bid

    >> much.

    >>> police in michigan are searching for three young brothers missing since their father tried to commit suicide. the man told investigators he left his 9-year-old, 7-year-old and 5-year-old with a woman he met online. police have not found the woman. 39-year-old john skelton is being treated for mental health issues.

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