Episode 019: The Skelton Brothers

November 29, 2021

Three young boys disappear without a trace, and their father has an unbelievable story to tell. But which version is the truth? What happened to Andrew, Alexander, and Tanner?

Episode Media
The Skelton brothers (NCMEC)
Age-progressed images of Andrew, Alexander, and Tanner Skelton 2010-2018 (NCMEC)
Age-progressed images of Andrew, Alexander, and Tanner Skelton 2021 (NCMEC)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a story of three brothers who vanished without a trace. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

John and Tanya Skelton lived in the small town of Morenci, Michigan, about 75 miles southwest of Detroit, on the border of Ohio. They had met in the late 90s, when John moved to town and was looking for new friends. Their relationship blossomed and they soon got married. Both John and Tanya had older children from previous relationships; together, they had three young boys: Andrew, Alexander, and Tanner. The boys were bright and energetic, and Tanya and John enjoyed raising their family in the close-knit town where Tanya grew up.

But within a few years, their relationship began to sour. John was a long-haul truck driver, but he struggled to keep a job, putting a strain on the family’s finances and affecting his ability to pay child support for his oldest daughter. In 2003, the couple filed for bankruptcy, and it took nearly a year for everything to be resolved. Eventually, John got fired from yet another trucking job over a drunk driving incident, and he became reclusive, spending most of his time engrossed in online gaming. 

Frustrated and fighting his growing depression, John began talking about wanting to move to Florida and start over. He felt that the job prospects would be better there, and the boys could grow up close to his family. But Tanya was not in favor of this plan. She let John know in no uncertain terms that they would not be moving to Florida.

Eventually, all of their struggles came to a head. One September day in 2010, Tanya received a phone call from Morenci Elementary School. The secretary told Tanya that John had just picked up the boys and said he was taking them on a trip to Florida and that he wasn’t sure when they would be back. 

Tanya was confused and concerned. She and John had not planned any trips, and she certainly wasn’t aware that he was taking the boys out of school. She worried that John had decided to up and move to Florida without telling her. Tanya called the police, who managed to contact John and convince him to return to Michigan with the boys.

Tanya was so upset that John had taken the children without her permission or knowledge. She reached out to a lawyer in town and filed for divorce. When John found out, he was enraged. In a fit of anger, he loaded the two oldest boys in his van and took off once again.

The next day, Tanya got a call from her sons. They told her they were in Florida, staying with one of their father’s friends. They were excited to go swimming in the pool and hoped they would get to see their grandmother soon. Tanya played it cool, not wanting the boys to know how worried she was and hoping she could get some information about their exact whereabouts. Then, she packed up her car and drove to Jacksonville Beach, Florida.

It took some doing, but eventually John, Tanya, and all three boys were back in Michigan. From there, the divorce proceedings moved forward, and Tanya was granted full custody of the three boys. John was allowed visitation while they worked out the custody arrangements. 

By November, things seemed to have calmed down. John was making an effort to stay involved in the boys’ lives, and Tanya had started taking classes at the local community college. Tanya began letting the boys stay with John more and more – it was an arrangement that benefitted Tanya and seemed to make John happy. Tanya even let John take the boys for Thanksgiving. He would pick them up on Wednesday and return them to her on Friday afternoon so she could take them holiday shopping.

But by late afternoon on Friday, November 26th, Tanya was getting annoyed. John still hadn’t showed up, and he hadn’t responded to her messages or answered his phone all day. Exasperated, Tanya drove to John’s house and knocked on the door. 

But John wasn’t home. He was actually in the emergency room with a broken ankle. He told the hospital staff that earlier that day, he had attempted to take his own life by hanging himself from the second-floor bannister at his home, but then he had changed his mind. When he attempted to climb back over the railing, he had slipped and fallen to the concrete floor below, injuring his ankle. 

But Tanya wasn’t concerned about a broken ankle – she wanted to know where her children were, and John wasn’t talking. She immediately contacted the Morenci Police Department and the search began.

Morenci police moved quickly, gaining access to John’s house, hoping that the boys would be there. But instead, what they found was complete chaos. It looked as if John had destroyed everything in the house. Tanya later described the scene, saying, “If it could be broken, it was broken. If it could be cut, it had been cut.”

It was clear that something was very wrong. An AMBER Alert was issued for 9-year-old Andrew, 7-year-old Alexander, and 5-year-old Tanner. Authorities began working to gather clues, including finding John’s phone records so they could potentially track his movements over the last two days.

Meanwhile, John had been put under a psychiatric hold at the hospital, and he was starting to talk. But the story he was telling kept changing.

First, he told investigators that the boys were just with friends, and they would be back soon. Then he said he had given the boys to a woman he knew; he hadn’t wanted them to be in the house when he took his life. At one point, John even claimed that he gave the boys to an underground Amish organization in order to protect them from abuse.

Eventually he settled on one version of the past day’s events. 

According to John, he had given the boys to a woman named Joann Taylor. He had met Joann and her husband Mark a few years ago when he had helped them with their vehicle, and he and Joann had started an online relationship through email. On Friday morning, John had contacted Joann and asked her to pick up the boys and take them to Tanya’s house. Joann had arrived in a silver van and taken Andrew, Alexander, and Tanner. John said he hadn’t heard from her since that morning.

While John was weaving his tale, investigators were hard at work. Police seized John’s blue Dodge Caravan and removed objects from his home that could prove useful in the investigation. Computer forensic technicians scoured John’s computer and social media accounts, hoping for any clues that may lead them to the boys. Oddly enough, there was no evidence of any online communication between John and Joann Taylor. Then, there were several disconcerting Google searches, including one for rat poison. Detectives also stumbled upon a cryptic message posted to John’s Facebook account on Wednesday, November 24th: “I love my wife very much. May God and Tanya forgive me.”

Officers canvassed the neighborhood, speaking to anyone who may have seen Andrew, Alexander, and Tanner in the days before they disappeared. They determined that the boys had last been seen playing in the backyard at John’s house on Thursday afternoon.

Search teams and K9 units scoured the area, searching fields and wooded areas along the state border. The local school district offered the use of their buses, loading them up with volunteers who searched day after day. Then, police gained access to John’s phone records.

Around 4:30 in the morning on Friday, November 26th, John’s phone tracked him leaving Morenci and traveling southwest into Ohio. Thirty minutes later, it pinged in Holiday City, about 20 miles away from John’s house, then the phone was turned off. At 6:45am, the phone was turned back on and once again pinged in Morenci. Why had John crossed the state line to spend two hours before sunrise in a tiny, rural town? 

Authorities were pretty sure they knew. The search radius was immediately expanded and teams set out for Ohio. The spot where John’s phone pinged was surrounded by large wooded areas, and there was easy access to the Ohio Turnpike. It would have been simple for John to drive there and back without being noticed.

Morenci police put out an alert, asking for anyone who had seen the blue Dodge Caravan on Thursday or Friday to call in a tip. Police Chief Larry Weeks said they were still holding out hope that the boys were alive, but they needed the public’s help. They were also hoping to find the mysterious Joann Taylor and her silver van, but the more police searched, the more they worried that Joann was just a figment of John’s imagination.

As the days went by, John stuck to his story and refused to say where the boys were. On November 30th, John was arrested and charged with three counts of parental kidnapping. He was held under a suicide watch at the Lucas County Corrections Center in Toledo before eventually being extradited back to Michigan for a custody hearing.

At the hearing on December 16th, John surprised everyone by telling the judge that he had last seen the boys on Thanksgiving night, when he handed them over to a stranger in a van that belonged to an organization. Was this the same underground Amish organization he had mentioned that first day in the hospital? When pressed, he refused to name the organization and claimed that he had no idea where the boys had gone after he handed them off. The judge ruled that John would be held in custody indefinitely for being in contempt of court. A month later, at his contempt-of-court hearing, John once again refused to say where the boys were or who they were with.

In February of 2011, the Morenci Police Department announced that the case was no longer a missing persons case, but a murder investigation. Even though investigators were confident that John Skelton had murdered his sons, there were no bodies and very little evidence. Instead of murder charges, John was charged with kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment. He pleaded guilty, and in September 2011, he was sentenced to 10-15 years in prison.

Although John was officially behind bars, the case was far from closed. In 2013, Chief Weeks requested that the Michigan State Police take over the investigation. Greater access to resources and funding would help make sure the case didn’t go cold.

As the years passed, detectives continued to follow every lead, even when the results were disappointing. In 2017, the remains of three children were discovered in a shed in Montana. Although John Skelton didn’t have any obvious ties to Montana, investigators were hopeful. But DNA testing and dental records proved that the remains did not belong to the Skelton brothers. 

Then, in May 2019, police received a new tip from a woman in Ohio who believed she saw a man matching John’s description and a blue van on Thanksgiving Day in 2010. All the information matched up with what detectives already knew, including some information they hadn’t released to the public. Search teams combed through a previously unsearched area near Holiday City that included heavy woods and a pond. 

A cadaver dog searched the ground, while a dive team used sonar to scan the pond, which was about 14 feet deep. Unfortunately, the search didn’t reveal anything, other than finding yet another location that could be ruled out.

Sadly, 11 years have passed with no sign of Andrew, Alexander, and Tanner. John Skelton was denied parole in 2020, and declined to attend his parole hearing in 2021. He will be up for parole again next year, but Tanya is determined to prevent him from getting out. This summer, she started a campaign for people to write letters to the department of corrections, asking them to keep John in prison until he serves the full 15 years of his sentence. 

Tanya has worked closely with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and she has also participated in media interviews and documentaries about the case, making sure her boys’ names and faces stay in the public eye. 

“I will never quit looking. I will continue to fight on their behalf for justice. I hope that at the 20-year mark I’m not having to give interviews to mark that date, that we’ll have answers before then. I could not fathom sitting here, 10 years ago, still asking for answers.”

If you have any information about the disappearance of Andrew, Alexander, and Tanner Skelton, please contact the Michigan State Police at 517-636-0689, or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST.