MORENCI, Mich. — The search for three young Michigan brothers went from rescue to retrieval on Tuesday, with police warning the public to expect the worst and charging the children's father with their kidnapping.
Despite the somber news, a small army of volunteers spent a fourth day scouring corn fields, campgrounds and wooded areas near Morenci, a small community 75 miles southwest of Detroit along the border with Ohio, looking for the smallest scrap of evidence.
Lee Ann Underhill, a Morenci resident who went to school with the children's mother, Tanya Skelton, searched for the boys between her long overnight shift at a plastics factory and a few hours' sleep. She said she "knew" the boys, and like others here, she said finding them is personal.
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"I've been through fields, creek beds and woods," Underhill said after returning from a search Tuesday afternoon. "We're looking for anything out of the ordinary."
Another searcher, Bill Foster, said everyone in the town of 2,000 was hoping for a "Christmas miracle" and the safe return of 9-year-old Andrew, 7-year-old Alexander and 5-year-old Tanner Skelton, who were last seen at their father's home on Thanksgiving.
Morenci Police Chief Larry Weeks' admission Tuesday that police don't expect a "positive outcome" to the case after talking to the boys' father, 39-year-old John Skelton, is not what you want to hear, Foster said.Story: Missing Mich. boys' dad had lost job, custody
"We're very saddened by the news, but the search has to continue. We won't quit the search until we bring the boys home."
Locals began combing through fields and woods on Saturday, the day after the boys' mother reported them missing and the day after John Skelton tried to hang himself.
Skelton, who was released from a medical facility in Lucas County, Ohio, on Tuesday, initially told investigators that he gave his sons to a female acquaintance to hand over to his estranged wife. Police say he was lying.
The FBI arrested Skelton after his release Tuesday, and he was charged in Lenawee County, across the state line in Michigan, with three counts of parental kidnapping, Weeks said. He said Skelton has since stopped cooperating with investigators and requested an attorney, and that police are looking into things Skelton said before he went quiet.
Tanya Skelton, 45, filed for divorce in September. A judge gave her custody of the boys, but she and John Skelton reached an agreement on visitation.
Police on Tuesday had the grim job of telling Tanya Skelton's family — her mother, specifically — that it was growing unlikely the children would be found alive.
Her reaction: "Imagine your worst nightmare come true," Weeks said. "How would you respond?"
The search is expected to continue for at least several more days, and then whenever a tip comes in, authorities said.
Lenawee Sheriff's Department Corporal Jeff Paterson said he was part of a large group that scoured an 83-acre campsite in Ohio on Monday that's a few miles south of Morenci.
"There were three ponds, sewage lagoons, then a wooded area with a creek," he said. Several barns in the area also were searched.
Paterson said when the terrain allows, grid searches are done, with searchers spreading out 10 feet apart and walking in the same direction. Eyes are focused on the ground at their feet.
"Do it nice and slow so you don't miss anything," he said.
It was only a few weeks ago about 130 miles to the southeast that a huge search effort was undertaken after mother from Howard, Ohio, her friend, 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son disappeared. In that case, police say the girl was found bound and gagged in a 30-year-old unemployed tree-cutter's basement, and that he led them to the dismembered bodies of the other three stuffed in a hollow tree trunk.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.