In the middle of a bitter divorce, Tanya Zuvers waited for her three sons, Andrew, Alexander, and Tanner Skelton, to return from a Thanksgiving outing with their father, John Skelton. Seven years later, John still claims he gave the children to a “group” to protect them from their mother—and Zuvers is left wondering if her boys are ever coming home.
It was November 26, 2010, and Andrew, 9, Alexander, 7, and Tanner, 5, were seen playing in the backyard of their father’s Morenci, Michigan, home. Zuvers had sole custody but allowed John to be with his sons for the holiday.
Hours passed, and by Friday, Zuvers alerted police about John’s failure to return the boys. Police frantically searched for answers in the following days, but John’s behavior led to more questions.
John attempted to hang himself around the time of the disappearance and told officers that, before his failed suicide attempt, he had handed his sons off to a woman named Joann Taylor. He insisted that he didn’t know Taylor and had met her on the side of the road when she had car trouble. Officers, however, confirmed days later that the entire encounter was fabricated.
The father also claimed that he gave away his sons to protect them from their abusive mother, who was convicted of having sex with a 14-year-old boy in the 1990s. Zuvers has repeatedly denied abuse allegations.
Court documents provided a window into the couple’s tumultuous marriage and the messy custody battle that followed. Zuvers reportedly filed for divorce on September 13, 2010, the same day that John allegedly signed Alexander and Andrew out of school and took them to Jacksonville, Florida. The father returned the boys to Michigan and had been visiting them “with no issues,” according to the mother’s spokesperson.
On September 27, John filed a motion for custody, citing his estranged wife’s sex offender status. Zuvers’ original divorce motion sought custody as John was a long-distance truck driver whose work took him away for long periods of time.
Zuvers was granted exclusive custody after John returned from Florida. However, the pair reached a visitation agreement outside of court.
John’s story was ever-changing: At one point, he said that he gave Alexander, Andrew, and Tanner to an organization of child-protective activists that, years later, he hasn’t identified. Additionally, no group has stepped forward to confirm the boy’s safety.
Meanwhile, news of the Skelton brothers’ disappearance quickly spread, thrusting the tight-knit town of 2,000 into the national spotlight. By November 29, 250 civilian and fire department volunteers came aboard to search ditches and woods for any sign of the boys.
Search teams quickly zeroed in on two locations that John apparently visited: Harrison Lake State Park, southeast of Fayette, and an area near White Pine Highway and Lime Creek Road in Morenci.
Countless searches and interviews uncovered that John had traveled to Holiday City, Ohio, about 25 miles from Morenci, the day after Thanksgiving. Investigators also found that John had combed online for information on how to break a neck.
By Monday, the FBI had created a staging center in Pioneer, Ohio, where volunteers scoured ditch banks and a campground. The agency also solicited information about a blue 2000 Dodge Caravan that John was possibly driving in Williams County.
But hope that the boys would be found safe dwindled and, by November 30, the FBI had taken John into custody on kidnapping charges.
“Based on the information we have, we do not anticipate a positive outcome here,” Morenci Police Chief Larry Weeks said during a press conference.
Fast forward a year later to September 2011, and John was sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison. The father, who pleaded no contest that June to unlawful imprisonment, remains mum about his sons’ whereabouts.
Prosecutors gave John one last opportunity to confess and give his estranged ex-wife closure.
“I would have done things differently if I felt that the system didn’t fail me if I felt the people who were supposed to have done something didn’t choose friendship over their duty. That’s it,” John said instead.
John claimed he’s cried every day since he’s last seen his sons. But his attempt to gain sympathy fell on deaf ears.
“Because of you, Andrew, Alexander, and Tanner have been silenced. We don’t know where they are,” Lenawee County Circuit Court Judge Margaret Noe told the father at sentencing.
Michigan State Police Detective Lieutenant Jeremy Brewer, who now leads the ongoing investigation, believes John, 46, is ready to take what happened that Thanksgiving to his grave.
“His lack of help, his lack of any type of care or concern for helping us find the boys. In fact, if anything he’s grown more callous—more cold,” Brewer told WXYZ last week.
“At the end of the day, the one sitting in prison right now is the one who holds the keys.”
John has never faced murder charges and is eligible for parole in 2020.
Birthday cards. Christmas gifts. Easter baskets. Zuvers said she still celebrates holidays with her sons despite their absence. But the heartbroken mother has slowly accepted that her sons are likely gone forever.
“I know realistically they may not come home alive, but I will always have that hope,” she told The Detroit News in February.
Every year, Zuvers attends a vigil for her sons in Wakefield Park. In 2012, the municipality commemorated the boys with a plaque which bears their likeness that reads “Faith, Hope, Love.” The memorial will remain in the park until the Morenci boys come home.
Authorities continue to investigate Tanner, Alexander, and Andrew Skelton’s disappearance. Anyone with information about the November 2010 case is urged to contact Michigan State Police at 855-642-4847.
[Featured Image: Tanner, Andrew, and Alexander Skelton/Facebook]