By DAVID GREEN
Perhaps each version of John Skelton’s story gets a little closer to the truth.
In Lenawee County Circuit Court July 27, Judge Margaret Noe reviewed what Skelton has told investigators over the months since his three sons disappeared.
First came the story about giving his children to a mysterious woman named Joanne Taylor. That was followed by the report of a man named Virgil who arranged for the children to be taken away. Later, Skelton said that he was the one who drove away with the children and he gave clues to their location that he said were based on dreams.
After Judge Noe recounted Skelton’s admission that Joanne Taylor was fictional, Morenci Chief of Police Larry Weeks walked across the courtroom with a box of tissues for the boys’ mother, Tanya Zuvers, who sat weeping in the corner of the room with family members.
Skelton pled “no contest” to three counts of unlawful imprisonment—a plea the court accepted as a finding of guilt—relating to the disappearance of his three young sons last November.
Andrew, Alexander and Tanner disappeared from Skelton’s Morenci home on the day after Thanksgiving and haven’t been seen since.
“Do you have any questions about the rights I have given you?” asked Judge Noe.
Skelton, wearing an orange prison suit and orange plastic shoes, answered, “No, your honor.”
“Do you understand these rights?” she asked.
“Yes, your honor,” Skelton said.
In order to accept the “no contest” plea, Judge Noe said, she must find beyond reasonable doubt that defendant John Russell Skelton forcibly confined each of his children and interfered with their liberty.
Their mother had legal custody of the children, Judge Noe added, and their disappearance occurred after an agreed-upon holiday visit.
Judge Noe asked the attorneys and Skelton if she should read the police reports on which she based her findings. All three answered in the affirmative.
After an Amber Alert was issued for the missing children Nov. 27, Skelton told investigators he had given his children to a woman named Joanne Taylor whom he had met four or five years earlier. He said he intended to kill himself and did not want the children present.
“That story changed, however,” Judge Noe noted, “as in on Jan 17, 2011, John Skelton said that on November first, 2010, he met a man named Virgil in Niles, Michigan.”
Skelton told the man that he did not want his wife to take his children. Virgil said he would try to help.
Within a week, Skelton said, he found a manilla envelope in his mailbox with papers and business cards for United Foster Outreach, and a phone. Skelton said Virgil took some of those items later and Skelton burned other items.
“John Skelton links Virgil to Joanne Taylor,” Judge Noe said. “He adds another person named Elijah and another named Sue, and two children, Alex and Mary.
“He said there were a number of visits at his home and that arrangements were being made for his children to become accustomed to these people.”
Skelton claims the people showed up at his home Nov. 25 and brought some Amish-like coats for his sons to wear. He sent his children off with some blankets, saying that the children would fit into a new lifestyle. He said he put the children into a van and expected the group to provide him with a new telephone for coded communications.
“Later, John Skelton said he doesn’t know where his children are,” the judge continued. “He has said to say, ‘The children will hibernate until they graduate.’”
Skelton later told other investigators another version, the judge said. On the evening of Nov. 25, 2010, he said that he wrapped his children in blankets, placed a stuffed animal in each of their hands and drove them away.
He said the boys could be found in a two-story brick school house.
“Later he asked if the investigators searched a park. Later again, he drew images from what he referenced as dreams and nightmares, saying the boys may be near or behind a Dumpster. He asked the investigators to locate the contents of a specific Dumpster to find the children’s stuff, blankets, stuffed animals, perhaps the boys themselves.”
Later Skelton acknowledged that he did not contest that Joanne Taylor was fictional and that he created e-mail messages to make it look as though she had written.
“Approximately one week before the children disappeared,” Judge Noe said, “his internet records show research on the topic of how to break a neck.”
On Nov. 26, Skelton took some personal property of the boys, including their winter coats and toothbrushes, to his aunt’s house. He said he didn’t need them anymore and he didn’t want the boys’ mother, Tanya, to have the memories.
Judge Noe concluded by saying that Skelton did not want his wife to have custody of the three boys and so he restrained and confined Andrew, Alexander and Tanner in a location that has been and continues to be a secret, and a finding of guilt is accepted.
Sentencing is scheduled at 8:15 a.m. Sept. 15. Judge Noe said Skelton is not be given a copy of the pre-sentencing report. Public defender John Glaser can discuss in detail the report, but not give him a copy.
Sentencing would keep Skelton in prison for a maximum of 15 years, however, sentencing guidelines will shape the sentence and imprisonment will likely be less, said Chief Weeks.
Although Skelton was charged with three counts, the unlawful imprisonment charges will be served concurrently, Weeks said, as are most crimes.
The Detroit Free Press consulted legal experts who agreed that prosecutors took a prudent approach with the plea agreement. Although the plea dismissed kidnapping charges—carrying the possibility of a life sentence—law enforcement officials will have time to continue their investigation of the case while Skelton is in jail.
Chief Weeks announced in December that the case changed from a missing persons investigation to one of murder. Rather than risk losing in court with the existing evidence, investigators will continue to build a murder case.
Chief Weeks and county prosecuting attorney Jonathan Poer made an announcement last week stating the plea deal does not hamper the investigation and they will continue to actively pursue final resolution.
“We just consider this one more step toward everyone’s goal of fully resolving this case,” the release read.
The Zuvers family gave its support of the action. They thank people for their continued support, said family friend Kathye Herrera, and remind people that it’s not over until the boys are found.