MORENCI, Mich. (AP) - The father of three missing Michigan boys was out of work, his marriage had fallen apart and he'd lost custody of his children in the months before he told police that he gave the boys to an acquaintance and tried to kill himself.
Police said Monday that they don't believe John Skelton's claim that he handed his children over to a woman he met online and had crews searching areas in Michigan and along an Ohio highway where the FBI said Skelton's blue minivan had been seen Thursday or Friday. Morenci Police Chief Larry Weeks said police spent several days searching extensively in records and by other means for the woman and couldn't find any evidence she existed.
Skelton's sons — Tanner, 5, Alexander, 7, and Andrew, 9 — were last seen Thursday in the backyard of their father's southern Michigan home, and authorities said they believe they are in danger. Weeks did not name Skelton as a suspect in the boys' disappearance, but he said investigators haven't ruled him out. Skelton, 39, has been in an Ohio hospital since Friday, receiving treatment for "mental health issues" after telling police he tried to hang himself, Weeks said.
The boys were reported missing Friday by their mother, Tanya Skelton, who was awarded custody after filing for divorce on Sept. 13. They had been with their father as part of court-ordered visitation.
The Skeltons married in 2002. It was the second marriage for both.
Jennifer O'Brien, who said she was John Skelton's cousin and had introduced the couple, told the Detroit Free Press that John Skelton had been secluding himself for years and Tanya Skelton had wanted to separate. O'Brien did not return a message left Monday by The Associated Press.
The day Tanya Skelton filed for divorce her husband picked up their two oldest sons from school and texted her from Ohio that he was taking them to Florida, according to her motion for custody. Tanya Skelton called Weeks, who contacted John Skelton and convinced him to return the boys. But later that day, John Skelton picked them up at home and drove to Florida with them, the motion said.
John Skelton later returned the boys and had been seeing them "with no issues," said Kathye Herrera, who identified herself as a spokeswoman for Tanya Skelton.
But court records show the custody fight continued to be nasty. John Skelton filed a motion for custody on Sept. 27, saying his wife was a registered sex offender.
Tanya Skelton, 44, pleaded guilty to fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct in 1998, according to court records. Her misdemeanor plea was part of a plea bargain after she was accused of having sex with a 14-year-old boy who had worked for her and her former husband at rental properties in Morenci. Her divorce attorney, David McFarland, declined to comment.
Herrera said early Monday that Tanya Skelton's conviction was not relevant to the children's disappearance. She did not return a call later Monday after the AP obtained records detailing the complaint.
Lenawee County Circuit Judge Margaret Noe told the AP that Tanya Skelton received exclusive custody after John Skelton returned from Florida with the boys, but the couple subsequently negotiated an agreement that allowed visitation.
"The agreement was without my intervention," Noe said. "It is not unusual for judges to encourage parents to engage in agreements between themselves relative to visitation because they best know the circumstances."
She said the brothers' disappearance was "sad and unfortunate" and declined further comment.
Tanya Skelton's original divorce motion asked for custody because John Skelton was a long-haul truck driver gone for long periods of time, but Herrera said John Skelton hadn't worked in a while. Tanya Skelton, who described herself in court documents as an at-home mother, attends a local college or community college, Herrera said.
The couple had filed for bankruptcy in 2003, and the case was cleared later that year. Tanya Skelton asked for alimony and child support when she filed for divorce in September.
Authorities and volunteers searched Monday afternoon along busy U.S. 20 in northern Ohio highway for evidence of the boys. Cambridge Township fire chief Scott Damon said he had a crew searching east of Pioneer, Ohio, about 12 miles from the boys' home in Morenci.
"It's pretty flat land. We're just walking along," Damon said. "We're looking for any type of evidence. My group has not found anything."
About 50 people spent nearly three hours searching the Lazy River Resort Campground in Pioneer. The owner, Doug Rowland, said he was told cell towers in the area carried calls from John Skelton's phone last week. The campground is closed, but some trailers are parked there for the winter.
"They looked in every nook and cranny," Rowland said. "They peered in windows of campers and checked doors to see if they were locked. I just feel bad. I wish they would find something so the mother could get some resolution. The search turned up empty."