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The father of three missing Morenci children last seen around Thanksgiving pleaded no contest this morning to criminal charges of unlawful imprisonment, but not before the judge revealed his conflicting, chilling statements to investigators.
Whether the plea deal with Lenawee County Prosecutor Jonathan Poer will lead to an explanation of what happened to Andrew, Alexander and Tanner Skelton, then ages 9, 7 and 5, is unclear.
John Skelton, who has been jailed on a multimillion dollar bond since his arrest shortly after Thanksgiving at an Ohio hospital where he was receiving treatment for an alleged suicide attempt, entered pleas today before Lenawee County Circuit Judge Margaret Noe.
He pleaded no contest, meaning he accepts criminal responsibility for three counts of unlawful imprisonment. Other charges, including the felony crime of kidnapping, will be dropped by the prosecutor when Skelton is sentenced. Sentencing is set for the morning of Sept. 15. The crime carries a maximum sentence of up to 15 years. Kidnapping can result in up to a life sentence.
Morenci Police could issue a statement later today. Poer's staff has said he will make no public statement on the case.
The judge read into the court's record today from several investigative reports, saying Skelton's story about his sons' disappearance had changed several times. Noe said he once told investigators he had planned to commit suicide and took the boys away so they weren't there when he did.
"That story changed, however," Noe said in court.
She also said he told others he wrapped each boy in a blanket, gave each a stuffed animal and placed them in his van. And, Noe said he had told yet others, "They will hibernate until they graduate," according to a WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) video recording of the judge's comments in court today.
Noe said Skelton told others about dreams or nightmares in which he saw the boys and their belongings in or behind a Dumpster. She said he made drawings and told about leaving the boys in a park and an abandoned schoolhouse.
Noe also said investigators found that a week before the boys' disappearance, Skelton had searched online for how to break a neck.
As Noe read the charges, the boys' mother, Tanya Zuvers, quietly sobbed, according to videotape of the court proceeding.
Regarding the charges to which Skelton pleaded guilty, Noe said, "He forcibly restricted their movement, forcibly confined each of his children so as to interfere with their liberty without their consent or without lawful authority."
Skelton has steadfastly claimed the boys are alive and in the hands of an organization — the United Foster Outreach and Underground Sanctuary — that he claimed keeps children safe. Investigators have said the organization doesn't exist.
Skelton has told authorities he took his sons in the midst of a messy divorce from their mother to protect them from sexual abuse. Zuvers has served prison time and is on the Michigan Sex Offender Registry because of a sexual relationship in 1998 with a 14-year-old neighbor boy. She has denied abusing her children. She took her maiden name this summer after being granted a divorce from Skelton.
Morenci Police Chief Larry Weeks has said he believes John Skelton killed the boys, and three months after a search of expansive farm fields surrounding the Michigan and Ohio border town turned up no clues, Weeks declared the missing person investigation was switched to a murder investigation.
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