Image: Alexander Skelton, 7 Andrew Skelton, 9, and Tanner Skelton, 5.
AP
From left, Alexander Skelton, 7, Andrew Skelton, 9, and Tanner Skelton. 5.
updated 12/1/2010 6:41:41 PM ET 2010-12-01T23:41:41

A couple whose three sons have been missing since Thanksgiving had bickered over custody as they negotiated their divorce, but they still did things together as a family.

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, John and Tanya Skelton took their boys to the United Methodist Church in Morenci to help decorate it and a nearby park for the Christmas season.

"Andrew said to me, 'With the park all lit up and church all lit up, we're going to light up the town,'" the Rev. Donna Galloway, who also serves as the chaplain for the Morenci Fire Department, said Wednesday.

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"It was a good day, it was a family day, for all of us at the church. That light — and the season of light — is what we're holding on to," Galloway said.

That was the first time Galloway saw the whole family together.

The following Friday, Tanya Skelton reported the boys missing when their father didn't return them to her. Police say he tried to hang himself, and that he lied to investigators when he said he first gave the boys to a female acquaintance to hand over to their mother.

The disappearance of the boys, who were last seen on Thanksgiving playing in their father's yard, has gripped those living in and around Morenci, a community of about 2,000 residents 75 miles southwest of Detroit.

A small army of volunteers fanned out for a fifth day Wednesday to search the countryside around Morenci and across the border in Ohio.

Meanwhile, the children's father was in a Toledo, Ohio, courtroom, fighting extradition back to Michigan to face three charges of parental kidnapping.

John Skelton, a 39-year-old unemployed long-haul truck driver, sat throughout the hearing in a wheelchair covered by a green blanket, answering the judge's yes-or-no questions in a whisper.

The judge set bond at $3 million and scheduled another hearing for Dec. 14.

Tanya Skelton, 44, filed for divorce in September. A judge gave her custody of the boys, but she and John Skelton reached an agreement on visitation.

Police say Tanya Skelton's family has asked for their privacy.

Galloway said she has spoken with Tanya Skelton since the boys' disappearance, and that she thinks it's absurd when people ask how Skelton's doing.

"How would you be doing?" Galloway said. "She wants her boys home. We all want her boys home. She's a mom."

Adam Johnson, who lives next door to John Skelton, said Wednesday that he was among the last people to see the boys. He and his wife, Gail, had company over and were putting coolers on the back porch.

"Two of the boys were playing out back. They called to me and I said 'hi,'" said Johnson, 69.

Whatever might have happened last week, Johnson said he never saw anything that concerned him.

"He seemed to be very caring around the boys — I never saw him really yell at the boys," said Johnson, who owns a local hardware store with his wife.

Johnson said he often saw the boys playing loudly and happily on bikes, in a backyard playhouse and even in the dirt. The Skelton family also liked to gather for outdoor barbeques, he said.

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Morenci Police Chief Larry Weeks said John Skelton hasn't said much about where the boys might be, and that he was no longer speaking to investigators. Asked whether he thought the children had been killed, Weeks said he refused to believe that "at this point."

"It is my desire to maintain hope," he told reporters during a Wednesday news conference. "But as I said yesterday, the information we have did not indicate that this is going to have a positive outcome."

Volunteer searchers were asked to break for the weekend starting Friday evening so that the authorities can take the weekend to decide how to proceed with the search next week, Weeks said.

Support for the family has poured in from across the region. On Wednesday, an account at a local bank was set up to take donations for the family.

Galloway described the Skelton brothers as "all boy, and they're good boys."

"They were very vital and important — they are — a very vital and important part of our church," she said.

She said last Sunday was especially hard for her as she led the congregation.

"Standing and looking out and not seeing them sitting in their little shirts and ties was real difficult," she said. "But we are a community of faith and we have a belief in God and we know that they are being watched over."

___

Associated Press writers Corey Williams in Morenci and John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio, contributed to this report.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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