Updated: Tuesday, 30 Nov 2010, 9:20 AM EST
Published : Tuesday, 30 Nov 2010, 7:36 AM EST
MORENCI, Mich. (AP) - When his wife filed for divorce in September, the father of three Michigan boys who are now missing picked two of them up from school early and drove out of state.
On Sept. 13, John Skelton packed his two oldest sons in the family van and drove to nearby Ohio — only to return and then take off with them again to Florida.
It was the start of a nasty custody battle and possible precursor to all three boys' disappearance last week before their dad's suicide attempt.
Police, the FBI and volunteers have been scouring woods, fields and roadsides around the small southern Michigan community of Morenci and south across the Ohio state line over the past few days. The boys, 9-year-old Andrew, 7-year-old Alexander and 5-year-old Tanner have not been seen since Thanksgiving Day, when they were playing in their father's backyard.
Authorities have said their father, John Skelton, lied to police when he told them from his hospital bed that he gave the boys to an acquaintance to return to their mother. Skelton has been hospitalized since Friday for injuries suffered in the suicide attempt and "mental issues," Morenci Police Chief Larry Weeks said. He has not been ruled out as a suspect, Weeks said.
Search efforts resumed Tuesday morning.
"I think the best way to describe the searches is 'just determined,'" Morenci Fire Chief Chad Schisler said.
Searchers and residents of Morenci, about 75 miles southwest of Detroit, continue to hope for a positive ending, Schisler added.
Tanya Skelton reported the boys missing Friday. An Amber Alert was issued that night after John Skelton told police he had tried to hang himself and didn't want the boys at home when he committed suicide.
Lenawee County Circuit Judge Margaret Noe told The Associated Press 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.
After John Skelton returned the boys from Florida he had been seeing them "with no issues," said Kathye Herrera, who identified herself as a spokeswoman for Tanya Skelton.
Tanya Skelton said in a motion filed the same day as the divorce complaint that John Skelton's work as a truck driver kept him "on the road for weeks at a time." When he is home it's for a maximum of "two to three days at a time," she claimed.
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.
Sunday night, following a church vigil for the boy's safe return, Herrera had 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 married in 2002 and filed for bankruptcy in 2003. The bankruptcy case was cleared later that year. Tanya Skelton asked for alimony and child support when she filed for divorce.
Both had earlier marriages that ended in divorce.
John Skelton spent time in jail in 2009 for failing to pay child support to his previous wife for their daughter.
Tanya Skelton's former husband filed for divorce shortly after she was charged in the criminal sexual conduct case. They had two daughters.
Associated Press writer Ed White in Detroit contributed to this report.
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