A Michigan man suspected of killing his three young sons, who have been missing since visiting his home on Thanksgiving, was sentenced to up to 15 years in prison on Thursday _ a punishment that will keep him behind bars while police pursue murder charges.
Before hearing her sentence, John Skelton told Lenawee Circuit Court Judge Margaret Noe that he has cried every day since he last saw his sons. He and his ex-wife were going through a bitter divorce and she had been granted sole custody of the boys, and Skelton insists he gave them to a group to protect them from their mother, although he has refused to identify the group.
Skelton told Noe that he would have acted differently had the system not failed him.
If he was hoping for sympathy, he didn't get it. Noe sentenced him to 10 to 15 years in prison, a stiffer penalty than the 4 to 12 years the state recommends for the unlawful imprisonment charge he pleaded no contest to in July. She called Skelton's version of events "ridiculous," and admonished him for putting his ex-wife and the community through the agony of not knowing what befell the children.
"For months I have asked you to return Andrew, Alexander and Tanner. You have refused to answer me truthfully," she said. "I have asked you to tell me where the children are located. You have refused, telling one conflicting story after another to explain their circumstances since they were last seen.
Skelton was led out of the courtroom in shackles and was not made available to comment. His lawyer, John Glaser, had objected to the severity of the sentence, telling Noe there was no cause for exceeding the guidelines because there was "nothing here to conclude a person was injured or killed."
"My client is not here on a murder charge," he said.
Skelton maintains that he didn't harm the children, and he agreed to the no contest plea, which is not an admission of guilt but is treated as such for sentencing purposes, in exchange for prosecutors dropping a charge of parental kidnapping.
Skelton hasn't been charged with murder, but police said early on they suspected he killed his children. After Thursday's hearing, Larry Weeks, the police chief in Skelton's hometown of Morenci, said he's pursuing murder charges.
"We want resolution now ... but it's a marathon, not a sprint. ... I believe that John Skelton murdered those boys," Weeks said.
Andrew, Alexander and Tanner Skelton were 9, 7, and 5 years old, respectively, when they went to spend Thanksgiving at their father's home in Morenci, about 70 miles southwest of Detroit near the Ohio state line. The boys' mother, Tanya Zuvers, had exclusive custody of them, but agreed to let them visit their father if he returned them the next day.
When Skelton didn't return them, Zuvers notified police, who arrested Skelton and launched what became a massive search effort over the next few weeks. Cell phone records indicated Skelton left home the day after Thanksgiving and drove at least as far as Holiday City, Ohio, about 20 miles southwest, before returning home. Despite the help of hundreds of volunteers, the search produced nothing.
The unlawful imprisonment charge pertains to Skelton's failure to return the boys to Zuvers the day after Thanksgiving. Skelton says he doesn't know what happened to his children after he handed them over to the unidentified group.
Zuvers has denied ever mistreating her sons.
In a prepared statement she read in court Thursday, Zuvers accused her ex-husband of lying and said her sons' disappearance has been her "worst nightmare come true."
Zuvers said the start of the school year has been particularly painful for her. The boys loved playing soccer, but Andrew was going to switch to football this year.
"I see his friends going to practice and know that he should be here to enjoy this new experience."