Contradictions, denials and changing stories. Or, as Circuit Court Judge Margaret Noe, put it, “just plain lies.”
Despite the objections of the defense, Judge Noe chose to exceed state sentencing guidelines Thursday morning and sent John Skelton to prison for a period of 10 to 15 years.
The Morenci resident pled “no contest” last month to three charges of unlawful imprisonment following the disappearance of his three children last Thanksgiving. Although the sentence was handed down for each child, prison time is served concurrently for each charge.
Sentencing guidelines called for incarceration for 43 to 86 months, but Judge Noe explained her decision to increase the sentence to 120 to 180 months.
“There are substantial and compelling reasons to justify departure,” the judge said. “The long-term effect of this crime has not been measured adequately by the guidelines.”
Judge Noe spoke of the psychological pain suffered by the boys’ mother, Tanya Zuvers, and family members, and extended that to Morenci school children and to the entire community.
“The guidelines do not account for the loss which is much more like that suffered by families of murder victims. Most people could not even imagine the pain of not knowing if your children are in good care, dead or alive. It is deplorable.”
Skelton’s court-appointed attorney, John Glaser, responded by telling the court that Skelton is in as much pain over the situation as the boys’ mother.
Skelton told the judge that he loves his children and looks at their photos every day.
“I don’t think I’d do anything different,” Skelton said. “Maybe I should say I would have done things different if I felt like the system didn’t fail me.”
Tanya Zuvers read a statement criticizing the explanations given by her former husband.
“Not once in the past nine and a half months has the defendant given the same account of where my sons are or who may have them,” she said. “His stories are inconsistent and far-fetched. I am appalled at the fact that John Skelton doesn’t seem to know or care where Andrew Ryan, Alexander William and Tanner Lucas are.”
Zuvers also spoke of the effect of the situation on other people beyond family members. She’s heard accounts of children being afraid to sleep alone, and children in divorce situations not wanting to visit their non-custodial parent for fear of never coming back home.
“No child should ever have to fear their parent,” she said.
Earlier in the proceeding, Judge Noe asked the defense if there were any challenges to the pre-sentencing report. Glaser said his client had more of an explanation than a challenge.
For example, he said, Skelton now claims he never intended to kill himself. Initially he told investigators that he didn’t want the children in the house when he committed suicide and so he gave them to a woman named Joann Taylor.
Skelton now says he was hospitalized in Toledo for a broken foot. Police reports indicate he was treated for that injury in Wauseon before he was transferred to Toledo for mental health assessment.
“Your Honor, he prefers not to give the facts on how he broke his foot,” Glaser said.
Skelton disagreed with the words “false information” used in the report, and he said he did not disrupt the lives of his children to punish their mother.
Although the report says that Joann Taylor does not exist, Skelton claims she exists and created a website with him.
“He can ask me to infer whatever he would like,” Judge Noe said, “but the reports were made available to me and my conclusions and the basis for accepting the ‘no contest’ plea remain intact.”
Skelton also disputed the reasons given for the justification used to exceed the sentencing guidelines, such as the description of him creating fear and anxiety.
“Andrew is 9 years old; Alexander is 7 years old and Tanner is 5 years old,” Judge Noe responded. “I can’t imagine that being taken from their family, from everything that they know, everything that is comfortable to them would not create fear and anxiety.”
Prosecuting attorney Jonathan Poer, in justifying the charge of predatory behavior, pointed out that the two older children were removed from school without the knowledge of their mother and taken to Florida in an effort to obtain custody.
Glaser objected to the phrase “could have been killed” that was made in the sentencing report.
“My client’s not here on murder charges,” he said. “He’s not been charged with that. He’s not been convicted of that. It’s just ludicrous.”
Glaser reiterated Skelton’s claims that the children were not given to strangers. Skelton said the children knew the people.
“You would agree in the end, however, that Mr. Skelton alleged that he doesn’t know where the children are,” Judge Noe said. “He can’t tell us that they’re not with strangers.”
“At this time he can’t tell us where they are, that’s right,” Glaser said. “If he were out of jail, he could make some contacts and feels he could find the boys’ whereabouts.”
Assistant prosecuting attorney Douglas Hartung gave the most stinging attack on Skelton, calling him a coward and challenging him to tell the truth.
Hartung shot down Skelton’s claims that the boys were in danger by being with their mother.
“Your honor, it is absolutely astonishing where we are today, given that John Skelton claimed his children were being abused by their mother,” Hartung said.
He noted that Skelton was initially represented in his divorce proceedings by a former prosecuting attorney who formerly served as a probate court judge—someone who looks after the welfare of children.
“It’s mind-boggling to think that Mr. Skelton would not have advanced these claims through that process,” Hartung said, “and if he had, those claims would have been brought before Your Honor.”
Skelton also failed to mention his concerns to the Morenci police or the state police.
“The only real question today is whether Skelton is man enough to stand up and finally tell the truth so the mother knows what happened. Does he have the courage to tell the truth or will he continue his cowardly ways?”
Hartung quoted a statement from the probation report citing Skelton’s contempt of court in failing to comply with any court orders if it involves the boys’ mother having access and custody of the children.
“It is difficult to imagine a more significant case of unlawful imprisonment in the State of Michigan,” Hartung charged.
Skelton at first claimed abuse by the mother, but later stated he would be interested in getting back together with her under the right circumstances.
“The disrespect you’ve done to your sons’ lives is immeasurable,” Hartung continued. “All the evil that you have done to your sons will never take away the memories, will never take away their hearts, never take away their souls.”
Judge Noe justified her decision to exceed the guidelines by noting the inconsistencies in Skelton’s accounts.
“Your explanations have been ridiculous, albeit more sad than anything else,” she said. “Police and FBI reports are wrought with your worthless explanations. Just plain lies promoting your deception.
“You have said you do not want the mother of these children to have memories of her sons. Your actions are wrong, your actions are criminal and you have failed. Their mother, their family, the school children, the community of Morenci will never lose their memory of these three children. They will lose their memory of you.”
Hartung’s final words echoed the hope of law enforcement officials who expect to gain new evidence in the case while Skelton is imprisoned.
“Don’t get too comfortable in prison,” he said, looking into Skelton’s eyes. “These gentlemen are continuing to investigate this case. They’re getting pretty good at it. Hopefully they’ll be back to get you very, very soon.”