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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Keeping up Hope for Brothers' Return


Morenci tries to keep up hope for brothers' return

MORENCI, Mich. — Almost four months ago, Morenci police Chief Larry Weeks asked residents to keep their porch lights on until three young brothers, missing from this small, sleepy town came home.

Residents obliged — porch lights in town illuminated front yards and doorsteps. If Andrew, Alexander, and Tanner Skelton — 9, 7, and 5 — found their way home, they'd know where to find help.

Days turned to weeks, and soon, after the Thanksgiving Day disappearance, Morenci was blanketed with snow. Months went by and police were no longer trying to solve a missing person's case, they were looking for homicide victims.

Porch lights began to fade.

A stuffed animal still sits in the front yard of John Skelton’s house in Morenci, Mich., where the three little boys were last seen playing on Nov. 25.

Morenci is a town on the mend, but one that remains on high alert. Residents hope for a call to search again for the boys, or better yet, one where the voice on the other end says "They're home."

Since the boys went missing, Morenci police have fielded more than 1,060 leads into the largest case in the town's history.

"It's just an enormous amount of information that we've collected," Chief Weeks said Friday from his office, a poster of the boys hanging on the wall behind him.

"It's rare if the boys aren't the last thing I think about at night or the first thing in the morning," Chief Weeks said. "I'm not confident we will find them, but I have great hope we will."

Reminders of the missing boys are everywhere. Yellow ribbons are tied to trees and lamp posts that line streets. Yellow police tape still guards the boys' father's small white home on East Congress Street, spanning the length of the front yard where the boys were last seen by neighbors on Nov. 25, 2010.

Their father, John Skelton, 39, has changed his story, investigators have said. Mr. Skelton first told authorities that he gave his boys to a woman. The woman was supposed to return the boys to their mother, Tanya Skelton.

Later, Mr. Skelton said the boys were with a group called the United Foster Outreach and Underground Sanctuary. Investigators could not find any indication that the group exists.

Mr. Skelton is charged with three counts each of kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment in connection with his missing sons. He was arraigned on March 11 in District Court. The charges carry a sentence that could keep him locked up for life if he is convicted. He is being held in the county jail in lieu of $30 million bond.
Tanya Skelton keeps the porch light on for her boys, hoping for their safe return.

Near a small memorial of candles and a stuffed animal in Mr. Skelton's front yard, there's a small trace of snow, signaling an end to winter. Chief Weeks asks residents to remain vigilant, hoping spring brings new evidence or information as farmers work and campers and hikers traverse the thousands of acres of fields and wooded area surrounding the town.

A charity auction last evening to raise money for a reward fund was intended to help people remember.

Hundreds of people filed into the Morenci High School gym to bid on thousands of dollars of donated items ranging from the sublime — beautiful handmade quilts — to more mundane items such as Detroit Tigers' beer glasses — on display.

One of the quilts fetched $1,000 and was donated to Tanya Skelton, the mother of the missing boys. She sat front and center in the gym bleachers and burst into tears when the quilt, which bore images of her missing sons on the reverse side, was presented to her.

The fund was established so police could reward people who came forward with tips about the missing boys. It has about $10,000 in cash and $15,000 more in pledges, Morenci Mayor Keith Pennington said. He estimated the auction would bring in $20,000.

Mr. Pennington warmed up the crowd at the start of the auction and exhorted people to get out their wallets, explaining that at a charity auction the idea was not to pay as little as possible. He also had Chief Weeks take a bow.

"We want this to be a fun night," the mayor said. "We've had our share of tough days."

He then had people cheer when he named the county they lived in — Fulton, Williams, Hillsdale, and Lenawee. Lenawee got the biggest cheer by far. One man in the bleachers yelled that he had come all the way from Nashville.

Before the auction, Sherrie Tilley of Delta said she and her husband, Mike, were attending to show support for the missing boys and their family. Both had grown up and lived in Morenci until recently.

A hot item for sale was a blue T-shirt with screen-printed white lettering that showed three candles with the names "Alexander," "Andrew," and "Tanner." The space above the candles read "Prayers for a Safe Return Home."

Profits from the $8 T-shirts would be donated to the reward fund, said Codi Flower of Edgerton, who was selling the shirts and taking orders.

The auction also was intended as a community event that also might jar some memories. "We're hoping with this, what will happen, is someone will remember having seen something that they didn't think was important before and will make a phone call [to the police] and that will be the one," the Rev. Donna Galloway, pastor at United Methodist Church, said.

The fund-raiser also was meant to help the town celebrate its unity.

"It is indicative of the spirit that these boys generate," Ms. Galloway said. "Andrew, Alex, and Tanner, they didn't do anything half way."

Morenci — after all of the loss and sadness the town has endured in the past three years — needs a reason to celebrate.

Adam Johnson, owner of Johnson's Do It Yourself Hardware store on Main Street, washed "Good luck lady dawgs" off of his shop windows Friday morning. The Morenci High School girls basketball team advanced to the state's final four competition, giving the town reason to cheer. The team lost Thursday to Bark River-Harris Senior High School. Mr. Johnson will replace the message with something like "Thank you for making it to the final four."

"We live and die by our sports teams," Mr. Johnson, who lives next to Mr. Skelton, said. The Johnsons were the last to see the boys.

Meanwhile, in February, Tanya Skelton became a grandmother of a baby girl, Emma.

"It kind of rejuvenated the family," said Kathye Herrera, family friend and spokesman. "She's not a replacement, she's an addition. A great addition."

Ms. Skelton has gone back to work part time and is able to get out with friends for dinner or to see a movie, Ms. Herrera said.

But still, there's no normal, no sense of closure. Not yet. Perhaps not ever.

"I don't know how we can turn to a normal life not knowing where the boys are," Don Zuvers, the boys' grandfather, said. "There's still that hope they'll be found alive."

Hope keeps the town going.

"If we lived without hope then there would be no reason to do the auction, no reason to come together and be with each other and support and encourage each other," Ms. Galloway said.

Less than a half mile from where the boys were last seen, Ms. Skelton clings to hope.

Her porch light is still on.

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