The focus is changing in the search for Morenci’s three missing Skelton brothers. At a press conference this week, Morenci Chief of Police Larry Weeks announced that the inquiry is shifting from a missing persons case to a murder investigation.
There’s no new information leading to that decision, Weeks said. Instead, an assessment of all information collected prompted his decision.
“Back on the 19th of January our investigative team met and made an assessment of the information we’ve collected on the investigation up to this date,” he said. “Based on all the information we’ve collected, and not one particular thing, the decision was made by me to shift the focus of the investigation in this direction.”
Following that, he said, the boys’ mother, Tanya Skelton, was notified of the change.
Investigators said in November shortly after the boys disappeared that a positive ending to the case was not expected. Despite that, the Morenci Police Department and other law enforcement personnel have investigated dozens of tips and alleged sightings of the boys, but none have led to the location of the children.
Weeks gave two reasons for announcing the new focus to the public.
First, he wants people to be alert in the coming months.
“I need to have people in the spring, when they return to farming, camping, enjoying outdoor activities, to be mindful of the possibility that these boys are out there somewhere, and not be thinking that they’re with an organization.”
The children’s father, John Skelton, claims that the boys are with an organization that he says is called United Foster Outreach and Underground Sanctuaries. Investigators have been unable to verify the existence of an organization by that name.
“Based on my earlier comments, we don’t believe that any organization or the story about turning the kids over to an organization is a truthful one,” Weeks said.
He reviewed the locations that volunteers and law enforcement personnel searched after the boys disappeared, but emphasized that a much wider area could be involved.
The boys were last seen by a neighbor around 3:30 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. John Skelton went to the Fulton County Health Center for treatment of an ankle injury about 22 hours later, after he claimed to have botched a suicide attempt.
“That’s a significant window,” Weeks said. “They could have traveled great distances and I don’t want people thinking that’s the only area where they could be located or recovered.”
Weeks stated in November that a smaller window of time exists in which Skelton’s vehicle was apparently in the Holiday City, Ohio, area—sometime between 4:30 and 6:45 a.m. Friday, Nov. 26—but that’s a only small portion of the time he was gone.
“I don’t want people to get tied into that period of time,” he said. “I don’t want to frame it. I want people in this region to think, ‘I could be the one who sees them.’”
Another reason for the announcement is for the public to understand the direction of the investigation. A lot of false hope has been spread by John Skelton, Weeks said, and the new announcement will allow people to process the information accordingly.
Weeks said an obvious question now is to wonder when criminal charges will be filed. He said there is no timetable.
“The plan is to continue with our investigation and develop as much information as we can to support the case,” he said. “Ultimately, when the time is right, we’ll turn it over to the prosecutor’s office for review.”
Weeks was asked if a murder case can go forward without a victim. Michigan law does allow an individual to be charged for murder without a body, but that decision would have to be made by the prosecutor.
Weeks said by changing the focus of the investigation he hopes to narrow tips to those relating to a murder investigation.
The chief was asked about a statement attributed to John Skelton’s parents claiming that the boys mother had molested them.
“No report has been filed with our department of her molesting or abusing the children in any way,” Weeks said, nor was one filed in a Florida court where there was also a custody hearing.
Weeks said his office will continue to collect information and keep the county prosecutor informed. He also remains in contact with FBI and state police officials almost daily.
Weeks said he understands that the new focus of the investigation will be difficult for many people to accept because they’re holding out hope that the boys will be found safe.
“When you look at what our community has been through,” he said, “I think it’s difficult for people to wrap their head around losing another child.”
• Skelton family representative Kathye Herrera announced that the family has no plans for additional interviews and wishes to be left alone.
They support the auction planned March 19 to raise additional money for the reward fund, hoping that tips will help lead to the prosecution of anyone involved in harming the children.