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Cops: Missing Mich. boys' dad lied about woman

/ Source: The Associated Press

A father of three missing boys lied about a relationship with a woman he claims to have entrusted with their care, said the Michigan police chief leading the investigation into their disappearance.

Morenci Police Chief Larry Weeks said Monday that police doubt the story of John Skelton, 39, who told them he handed over his children to a woman named Joann Taylor before attempting suicide Friday. The boys —Tanner, 5, Alexander, 7, and Andrew, 9 — were last seen Thursday in the backyard of their father's southern Michigan home and are believed to be in danger.

Authorities haven't named the father as a suspect, but Weeks said they also haven't ruled him out. The police chief said Monday authorities are looking for anyone who saw the three boys in their father's blue Dodge Caravan on Thursday or Friday along the Michigan-Ohio border. The FBI said the vehicle was on the Ohio Turnpike during that time.

"We believe the boys were in the vehicle the morning or evening before" they were reported missing, Weeks said. He said that despite the time since they were last seen, searchers "remain hopeful" they're still alive.

Police said they have extensively searched name records and other sources for Joann Taylor but have yet to find a woman by that name in a relationship with Skelton.

Authorities and volunteers searched Monday afternoon along busy U.S. 20 in northern Ohio highway for any evidence of the boys.

Cambridge Township fire chief Scott Damon said he had a crew searching east of Pioneer, Ohio, about 12 miles from the boys' home in Morenci.

"It's pretty flat land. We're just walking along," Damon said. "We're looking for any type of evidence. My group has not found anything."

Volunteers have been searching around Morenci, about 75 miles southwest of Detroit, for days. Monday morning, they checked fields, farms and wooded areas along the state boundary based on "information we've collected from a number of sources," Weeks said.

Police have searched Skelton's Morenci home and removed items but declined to identify them.

Weeks said Skelton was being treated at a hospital in Ohio for "mental health issues" after he told police that he tried to hang himself on Friday.

The boys were reported missing Friday by their mother, Tanya Skelton, Weeks said. A family friend said the boys were with their father as part of court-ordered visitation and their parents were going through a divorce.

About 200 people gathered Sunday evening for a prayer vigil at Tanya Skelton's church in Morenci, a small, mostly blue-collar and farming community. Lights were strung on poles along the town's main street, and festive decorations adorned windows in some of the shops and eateries in town.

Friends said the Skelton boys had started celebrating the holidays early by making greeting cards. One of the older brothers wrote "Jesus is awesome" on his and drew a Nativity scene, family spokeswoman Kathye Herrera said.

"They love church. They love the interaction, and they know all about Jesus," Herrera said, adding that John Skelton recently began attending services at the church.

Herrera said the boys' parents have been together for about 10 years. Earlier this year, John Skelton picked his two older sons up from school and took them to Florida, but later returned to Michigan, she said. Custody was awarded to Tanya Skelton, though John Skelton "had been seeing the boys with no issues," Herrera said.

Tanya Skelton attends a local college or community college, and John Skelton is a long-haul truck driver who hasn't been working in while, Herrera said. John Skelton's mother, Roxann Skelton of Jacksonville, Fla., told the Detroit Free Press that her son wouldn't hurt his children. She didn't return a phone message from The Associated Press. "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."

Authorities said John Skelton told investigators Friday that he wanted the boys out of his house when he committed suicide, and he asked Taylor to take them to their mother. John Skelton claimed 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 John Skelton said she was driving.

Many of those who attended Sunday night's vigil tried to hold back tears, though others allowed them to flow freely. As "Silent Night" and other Christmas hymns played, people 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 Ed White, Jeff Karoub, David N. Goodman and Mike Householder in Detroit contributed to this report.