The father of three boys missing from their Morenci home since Thanksgiving was sentenced Thursday to a guideline-busting 10-15 years behind bars after pleading no contest to their unlawful imprisonment.
But authorities warned that John Skelton — who has insisted since his arrest nine months ago that he gave his 9-, 7- and 5-year-old sons to a secret child protection organization — will be charged with murder and face life without parole if his sons are found dead.
"A lot can happen in the next 10 to 15 years," Morenci Police Chief Larry Weeks said Thursday after Lenawee Circuit Judge Margaret Noe rejected a routine sentencing guideline recommendation calling for minimums of 31/2 to seven years.
Investigators said no credible trace of Andrew, Alexander and Tanner Skelton has been reported since they were seen playing in the backyard of their Morenci home Nov. 25. A prosecutor on Thursday said conflicting and chilling statements Skelton has given investigators are lies, and the secret organization doesn't exist.
The judge noted Skelton remains in contempt of court for failing to reveal their location as she earlier ordered.
"It is my belief that justice may never be served in this case, that you should serve each and every day in prison that Andrew, Alexander and Tanner remain missing," Noe told Skelton on Thursday.
Skelton told the court before sentencing that "I do love my boys. I look at their pictures all the time."
But he admitted, "I would have done things differently if I felt that the system didn't fail me."
Skelton has claimed he took the boys to protect them from abuse by their mother, Tanya Zuvers, who is on the state sex offender registry for a 1998 relationship with a then-14-year-old neighbor boy. But investigators said Skelton researched neck breaking on his computer and told an FBI agent that he wrapped each boy in a blanket with a stuffed animal and placed them in his van before driving away from Morenci.
Skelton told of nightmares in which he saw the boys and their belongings in or behind a Dumpster. He made drawings and told about leaving them in a park and an abandoned schoolhouse. He said, "They will hibernate until they graduate."
"The only question today is if Mr. Skelton is going to be man enough to tell the truth about what happened to his children or will he continue his cowardly ways," said Lenawee County Assistant Prosecutor Douglas Hartung. He later issued a warning to Skelton: "Don't get too comfortable in prison. These gentlemen are still investigating your case. … They will be back to get you later."
Skelton's court-appointed lawyer objected to many factors considered in the sentencing report, including what he said was a suggestion that the judge should give a longer sentence because, "the defendant has killed or turned his children over to strangers."
"My client isn't here to be sentenced for murder or an intention to injure. To use that possibility as a consideration is improper," John Glaser said.
Skelton's no-contest plea equated to acceptance of responsibility for illegally taking the boys with whom he had visitation during a bitter divorce, in exchange for dismissal of life felony kidnapping charges.
The judge said she considered his crime an extension of an incident in which Skelton took two of his sons to Florida and tried to get court-ordered custody of them there.
A Michigan judge ordered them returned.
"You have said you do not want their mother to have memories of her sons. You have failed," Noe said, explaining Zuvers, the boy's family, friends and the community all will remember his sons. "They will not remember you."
Skelton was given 289 days' credit toward his sentence for the time he's already spent in the Lenawee County Jail in lieu of a $9 million bond.