Morenci Police Chief Larry Weeks recently served as a guest spelling-test presenter for a fifth-grade class, and afterward invited the students to ask questions. Amid the usual queries about weapons and uniforms came one from a girl that reminded him how hard the southern Michigan town has been hit by the disappearance of three young boys who would have attended the school.
"She raised her hand and asked how often I have investigated cases where parents have stolen their children," Weeks said. "I struggled with responding to the question. ... It concerns me how it's changed their outlook. Kids should have the opportunity to be kids. To be thinking of that tells me that they're worried, they're concerned. And that bothers me immensely."
One year later, Weeks can point to successes in the case, such as the conviction of John Skelton, the boys' father and prime suspect, on unlawful imprisonment charges. But Weeks, the boys' family and other residents of the close-knit community remain haunted by one reality: Andrew, Alexander and Tanner Skelton have never been found.
The Skelton brothers were 9, 7, and 5 years old, respectively, when they went to spend last 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 nearby if he returned them the next day.
When John Skelton didn't return them, Zuvers notified police, who arrested Skelton and launched what became a massive search effort in the following 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 searching fields and roadways in the often bitter cold, the search produced nothing.
The unlawful imprisonment charge pertains to Skelton's failure to return the boys to Zuvers the day after Thanksgiving. Skelton said he doesn't know what happened to his children after he handed them over to a group he hasn't identified to protect them from their mother.
Skelton pleaded no contest to the charge in July in exchange for prosecutors dropping a charge of parental kidnapping. He was sentenced in September to 10 to 15 years in prison. His lawyer, John Glaser, objected to the severity of the sentence, telling the judge, "My client is not here on a murder charge."
Police don't believe Skelton's story but are nonetheless pleased to have him behind bars.
"It gives us some breathing room to continue our investigation and search for the boys," Weeks said. "The alternative is that he is released and the primary suspect is on the loose."
Authorities plan to conduct what they're calling a "road canvass" from about 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. Friday along U.S. 127. Weeks said it coincides with the time exactly one year earlier that police believe he made the 40-mile roundtrip from Morenci to Holiday City and "disposed of the boys."
And while Friday's search area is not necessarily a hot target, Weeks said it's significant in terms of timeframe and terrain.
"It is one year later, and memories are foggy," he said, adding that it could bring something back for early morning hunters or Black Friday shoppers. "Maybe it sparks a memory for them. ... Maybe it sparks a conversation."
An event to mark the one-year anniversary of the boys' disappearance is scheduled for Sunday in the Morenci High School gym. Weeks will speak about the case and Mayor Keith Pennington is scheduled to provide an update on a reward fund.
The Associated Press left a message for Zuvers, who told The Daily Telegram of Adrian for a story this week that the program will include a slide show of her sons and items such as magnets, window decals and shirts will be sold to raise awareness about the case. Proceeds will be used to cover production costs.
She said it's important to keep "eyes looking" for the boys.
"My family has not given up hope that we are going to bring the boys home and they will come home alive," she said.
As for Weeks, he shares the community's anxiety and desire to solve the case. He said police have received about 1,200 tips and are confident with the pieces they have been able to put together.
"The year has allowed us to review and reflect what we've done," he said. "I think we have a better understanding of what's transpired. We're ready to act on new information as it's developed."
Jeff Karoub can be reached at _http://twitter.com/jeffkaroub