(Photo credit: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children)
Updated: Wednesday, 01 Dec 2010, 12:43 PM EST
Published : Tuesday, 30 Nov 2010, 11:30 AM EST
MORENCI, Mich. (AP) - A father charged with kidnapping his three missing boys fought extradition from Ohio to Michigan on Wednesday as an army of volunteers set off to trudge through fields, woodlands and dirt roads to search for the brothers who have not been seen since Thanksgiving.
John Skelton, a 39-year-old unemployed long-haul truck driver, sat throughout the court hearing in Toledo, Ohio, in a wheelchair covered by a green blanket, answering the judge's yes-or-no questions in a whisper. His attorney told the judge his client would fight his return to Michigan.
Skelton was arrested Tuesday on three counts of parental kidnapping, and so far, police say, he hasn't told investigators much about where the boys might be. After Skelton fought extradition, the judge in Ohio set bond at $3 million and scheduled another hearing for Dec. 14.
Shortly afterward, Morenci Police Chief Larry Weeks said he expected the search for the boys to continue into next week, and said investigators hadn't spoken with Skelton in "some time." Asked whether he thought the children had been killed, he said he refused to believe that "at this point."
"It is my desire to maintain hope," he told reporters during a Wednesday news conference. "But as I said yesterday, the information we have did not indicate that this is going to have a positive outcome."
Weeks said Wednesday that authorities will ask the small army of volunteer searchers who have been scouring the wilderness in and around Morenci to break for the weekend starting Friday evening. He said authorities want to take the weekend to decide how to proceed with the search next week.
More than 200 volunteers turned out Monday and Tuesday to help investigators comb through fields, wooded areas and campgrounds in search of 9-year-old Andrew, 7-year-old Alexander and 5-year-old Tanner Skelton. The boys were last seen on Thanksgiving playing in the backyard of their father's home in Morenci, a town of about 2,000 residents about 75 miles southwest of Detroit.
A similar search in Ohio was conducted a few weeks ago about 130 miles to the southeast after a mother from Howard, Ohio, her friend, 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son disappeared. Police say the girl was found bound and gagged in a 30-year-old unemployed tree-cutter's basement and that he led them to the dismembered bodies of the other three stuffed in a hollow tree trunk.
Three buses took volunteers from the Morenci fire hall to search areas on Wednesday morning. Michelle Williams was to be among them.
Michelle Williams, 45, said she brought chili to the hall this week for the volunteers.
"I know the family — I've known 'em for years," she said of the Skeltons. "The grandmother taught me to sew. . They're great people."
Her heart sank when she learned of Skelton's arrest.
"It's just sickening. I just can't believe there's people out there that evil who would hurt their own kids," she said. "I'm still hoping that they find them and he's lied about the whole thing, because he's lied before."
Lee Ann Underhill, a Morenci resident who went to school with the children's mother, Tanya Skelton, searched for the boys between her long overnight shift at a plastics factory and a few hours' sleep. She said she knew the boys, and like others here, she said finding them is personal.
"I've been through fields, creek beds and woods," Underhill said after returning from a search Tuesday afternoon. "We're looking for anything out of the ordinary."
Another searcher, Bill Foster, said everyone in the town of 2,000 was hoping for a "Christmas miracle" and the boys' safe return.
"The search has to continue. We won't quit the search until we bring the boys home," Foster said.
Locals began combing through fields and woods Saturday, the day after the boys' mother reported them missing and the day after John Skelton tried to hang himself.
Skelton was arrested by FBI agents Tuesday afternoon following his release from a medical facility in Lucas County, Ohio. He initially told investigators he gave his sons to a female acquaintance to hand over to his estranged wife. Police say he was lying.
Tanya Skelton, 44, filed for divorce in September. A judge gave her custody of the boys, but she and John Skelton reached an agreement on visitation.
Associated Press writers Jeff Karoub in Morenci and John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio, contributed to this report.