Shattered: Black Friday is a podcast investigating the disappearance of the Skelton Brothers from their home in Morenci, Michigan on Nov. 26, 2010.
In episode 10, WDIV's Sandra Ali visits John Skelton in prison and investigators spring a surprise on John.
Listen on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, Google Play. If you have any information about this case call lead investigator Jeremy Brewer at (517) 636-0689. If you want to reach Jeremy and the Shattered staff email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Let me pull back the curtain a little here. My plan was to end this season here. John Skelton recently called us. I thought our conversation was the end. But then things kept happening. More parts to this story surfaced and so much of it is crucial, mind-blowing information. You will hear from John Skelton, I promise. But before we get to our phone call, there’s more you need to know.
Before Tanner, Alexander and Andrew Skelton it was John and Tanya. Before they were a family, they were a couple. Before their marriage fell apart, they were happy.
John moved to Morenci because he had family there. He stayed in Morenci because he fell in love with Tanya. He shattered the lives of many people, because he couldn’t get his way -- at least that’s the way it seems.
There are a lot of people left in the wake of his actions. There’s the obvious, Tanya, who lost her three sons, lost her world and was forced to defend herself as if she’s done something wrong.
There’s Tanya’s family, who lost the boys, but also lost the Tanya they knew. There are the boys' friends -- all the kids who knew them, grew up with them, and had no idea why one day they were just gone. There are the neighbors and the community in general. There’s also John’s family, aunts, uncles and cousins who live in Morenci. They were part of the boys' lives pretty regularly. There’s John's parents and sister down in Jacksonville who didn’t see the kids as much as the family in Michigan, but still seem to love them as much as anyone. And there’s more.
One man has the answers. One man holds the keys. Investigators want more information from him. So does Tanya. Everyone does. But what if this one man has already told us all he knows. What if we are asking for more when there’s nothing more to give?
Back in July of 2017 WDIV reporter Sandra Ali sent a letter to John Skelton. We knew he’d received it, but a fair amount of time would pass without a response. Eventually John sent one back. It read:
"Dear Sandra, I am doing okay. My vision is rapidly going. As far as how I am being treated, I was put in segregation for 4 years! I never did anything wrong and it was never explained to me why they felt I needed to be in seg. When every other prison I was in I was in general population. Just recently, September 30th, 2017, they let me out of segregation."
After asking for transcripts and newspaper articles regarding his case, he reveals a theory he has, his words again:
"MSP says I am still under investigation for some charge they want to pin on me above and beyond my current sentence. I believe they don’t ever want me to get out."
He went on to say:
"I’m sure you don’t want to be a real friend to me, but I wish we could. I don’t get much mail now. That’s also why it took me so long to write you, I was suffering (from) depression. As for people wanting to hear about my need to keep my boys safe, I think Tanya has the victim card and society is against me, not her. I’m the one in prison, not her. She got off the sex offender registry. Tanya has absolutely no concept of nuclear family. She destroyed ours by her selfishness. That is the biggest sore spot with me. We can talk about that more later if you want."
John would also say he doesn’t want his words to get taken out of context and twisted around later in the letter. He feels that’s exactly what happened during his sentencing. He also attached a recipe for chicken thighs and potatoes, which was odd, but I would later find out John fancies himself as quite the chef.
He would sign his letter, "without wax." I had to Google this. "Without wax" translates to sin cera, which over time has changed into sincere or sincerely. It’s actually an interesting origin story. Sculptors would fill in any mistakes with wax, but a perfect sculpture, one without nicks or imperfections would then be, without wax. Interesting that John seemed to imply this letter was him, authentic as can be … no cover-ups.
This letter was a breakthrough. Possibly a start to something, but we didn’t know what exactly. From here Sandra would set-up a J-pay account. J-pay is an inmate email service. This way prisoners can quickly correspond. Once that was done, communication became somewhat regular. John would email here and there, nothing earth-shattering. He would elude to the idea of a phone call many times. And then the missing Skelton boys returned to national attention with a report of the bones of three young children found in Missoula, Montana. (Investigators later learned the remains weren't the Skelton brothers.)
John got quiet. Sandra would write, but John wouldn’t. Sandra even mentioned possibly visiting him inside Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility. John didn’t respond.
But then, in January, there he was again.
Here’s what he wrote to Sandra:
"You are not on my visitor list. I will put you on it. Have you filled out the application? I have not wrote you because I am still processing all the negative stories about me on the news a few weeks ago. I am not ready for an interview. Those news stories really jeopardized my safety and quite a few people no longer speak to me.
I’m glad you liked the recipe I sent. I hope you try it. I have my cinnamon roll recipe I am going to send you. They are very versatile not to mention yummy. If you send an email to the warden asking to see me you may be able to without being on my visitor list, you being a reporter. I will write again. I hope we can be friends. Any progress in getting me those transcripts I asked you for in the first letter? Thank you, John."
He opened the door up again. He and Sandra started talking more about a possible visit and also a phone call. Remember, we haven’t heard John’s voice in over 6 years.
I wondered what his days in prison have been like. His family in Jacksonville told me John wasn’t being treated fairly. I looked into this claim. I sent in a freedom of information act request for any and all incident reports from the prison system involving John Skelton. There are only a couple incidents on record, both were violations John was accused of committing. The first one:
May13th, 2013: John was charged with class 2 misconduct. This is for the destruction or misuse of property. Here’s the description of the violation as told by the reporting officer. He says, “While conducting a routine shakedown of cell Maple 229-L I found a stinger made from a white extension cord. This extension cord was found on the left side of the toilet on the floor inside of a toilet paper roll. This is prisoner Skelton’s area of control per the prisoner guidebook. Restitution sought for the $2.69 for the state extension cord. Prisoner ID’d by frequent contact and Maple unit count board."
John made the case that he and his bunky, otherwise known as a bunkmate, agreed it was his, the “bunky’s,” not John’s "stinger."
What's a stinger? It's prison talk for taking two wires from something that can be plugged into an outlet -- in this case we believe an extension cord stripped of its protective coating to expose wires --- and using the live wires to heat water. This is a dangerous and illegal practice. John had a hearing about this incident. He was found guilty and forced to pay $2.69 in restitution. His privileges were taken away for three days.
On August 18, 2016, John was charged with with throwing his food tray at a guard. The short version of the story is, the officer brought John a tray of food, when John received it, he placed a tray he had from a meal before in the slot, so the officer could not close the slot, John then threw one of the trays at the guard “narrowly missing the guards leg.” The guard says prior to delivering the food, John was screaming and yelling. John and a prisoner witness refuted that allegation. John did admit to throwing the tray, but he said his throw was in the opposite direction and his reason for doing so was because the officer was very forceful when he grabbed the tray. John would be sentenced to 10 days of detention for the offense.
Those are the only incidents reported back to me. Nothing pointing at him being mistreated, like John’s family said.
We also had the court print out transcripts from John and Tanya’s divorce and custody hearing. I read through it and you’ve heard the most important parts already.
I also pulled the transcripts from his divorce and custody hearing with Tanya, which occurred after the boys disappeared. I looked for any other court documents I could, but he waived his right to the preliminary exam in his unlawful imprisonment case, so there’s nothing there.
Judge Margaret Noe presided over the divorce and custody trial. John represented himself in court. He cross-examined Tanya -- Tanya wouldn’t look at him.
Judge Noe went after John, saying, “The judgement of divorce calls for sole legal and physical custody of the minor children”
John responded with, “Right.”
Judge Noe went on with, “So once the children are available to her, she will have sole legal and physical custody.”
John: “My question”
Judge Noe: “Right now they have not seemed to be available to either of you.”
John’s response: “That’s right, and if she is granted custody, they won’t be available to either of us.”
John would ask if the judge was giving Tanya custody, right now, she told him that the papers he signed stated as such. John would respond by saying he signed those papers under duress. He would then decline to consent to signing Andrew, Alexander and Tanner’s rights to Tanya. Later, John would ask Tanya if she believes that John knows where the kids are. She answered, “Yes, I do.”
John followed up with, “Do you believe the kids are safe?”
Tanya: “No, because they’re not with either parent.” You’ve heard that part in a prior episode. Later John and Tanya would talk about personal possessions and financial issues.
Later they would come back around to custody matters. During direct testimony, John would tell the judge, “I’m trying to get to that, your honor. The people that have our children.”
judge Noe said, “I’m not going there with you at this hearing.”
Then John would say, “i’d like to have at least — what was it? Joint? -- joint legal custody right now.”
Judge Noe would then ask, “All right, and are you agreeing that she (Tanya) should have physical custody?”
John: “At this time, yes.”
So John would agree to allow Tanya to have physical custody. I found this interesting. If John’s story about giving the boys to a group is true --what if authorities found the group and the boys and then returned the boys to Tanya, the woman John claimed was abusive. This would defeat the whole purpose of him giving the kids away. If his true intentions were to keep the boys away from Tanya at all costs, why wouldn’t he fight for someone he trusted to get custody of them? The other way to look at this is, he knew the boys would never be found, so this whole exercise was futile and the outcome truly didn’t matter.
It’s been difficult to get to John, but now that he and Sandra were emailing each other, it seemed like something was about to happen and that maybe he was beginning to trust Sandra. But he had already promised her phone calls, many times. He never called. Even in prison he was manipulating people. Those people happened to be us this time.
Eventually after many emails, John agreed to a visit from Sandra. The Michigan Department of Corrections does not allow any kind of recording device. No pens, no pencils -- nothing that could be used as a weapon was allowed in the prison. Sandra would talk with John and have to commit as much as she could to memory.
Following the interview, one of her first reactions: She barely recognized the man we know as John Skelton. He looks like a different human being altogether. The prison allows visitors to take pictures with the inmates. You can see a picture of John and Sandra above. But to describe him, he is balding, bulkier and full in the face. He looks like a big guy now, but you have to keep in mind he’s 5-foot-7. His facial hair is grey and white. He has aged significantly. You can tell by looking at his eyes that it’s John.
Sandra highlighted parts of her discussion with John:
“I walked right over to him, I shook his hand and he started sobbing. He just broke down and started sobbing. And I was completely caught off guard by that. I sat down, the chair that was available was right next to him, so we sat side-by-side the entire time and he said, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to cry like this, but I haven’t shaken anyone’s hand and I haven’t had any contact -- no contact visitors in many, many years.”
The meeting was at lunch time. Sandra offered to get something for John from the vending machines in the visitor’s area:
“He said, ‘Can you look and see if they have Doritos? And I said sure. And he goes, I’d also really appreciate a hamburger.”
The inmates aren’t allowed to get out of their chairs, so Sandra got up, grabbed some Doritos and microwaved John not one, but two double cheeseburgers.
“He kept saying, ‘I haven’t seen or touched a Dorito in, I can’t remember when,’ and then he’d pick up a Dorito, kinda fiddle with it and then put it back down.”
All this time and effort put into getting a chance to speak with John Skelton and now here he was, fixated on a Dorito.
She asked if he felt safe, and he said not since the story from Missoula.
He shared a lot about his last days with the boys.
“He went into great detail,” Sandra recalled. “He talked about the last meal he cooked for them, he said he made their favorite meal, which was fried chicken and they sat at the kitchen table and all ate fried chicken together and he had made a cake, a homemade cake and they sat there and ate the homemade cake and he said, what was left behind, the leftovers of that cake were in the house when police and detectives came through on Black Friday.”
John said they watched a karate movie. Sandra asked about the search history on his computer with queries for killing with rat poison or breaking someone’s neck with your hands.
“He said the boys asked him about a specific scene in the movie where someone slips and breaks their neck,” Sandra said. “And he said that he searched with them on the computer about this neck breaking scene and he said they had a great time, it was a beautiful memory.”
John talked about handing the boys off to people from a group called the “Underground Sanctuary.” The people had been to the house three or four times, and John told the boys they were going to live on a farm with another family for a short time.
“I asked him, did you just stand there and watch this van pull away with your three boys and he said yes,” Ali recalled.
“He specifically said underground sanctuary. And I asked him several times, John who is this group? Who is this group? Who is this group? And he finally, one of the last times I asked him, he said, Sandra, I already told you. I told you their names before, it’s the Underground Sanctuary. And I said where is Underground Sanctuary, where are they from? And he said, today, they have ties to Pennsylvania, but I know they took Tanner, Alexander and Andrew to a farm on the Ohio-Indiana border.”
“So I asked him after all these years, how do you know they’re safe? You’re saying you did this to protect them, so how do you know when you give them away to complete strangers, which is his story. How do you know they’re safe? And he said, I have to have blind faith.”
Sandra met with John in early February of 2017. A little over a month later, John was confronted in prison by someone he claims knows where his sons are.
We’ve been digging, looking for information about the "Underground Sanctuary." I want to make it clear, we haven’t found anything on that group. We haven’t been able to find a "Joann Taylor," Virgil, Sue or Elijah -- all names John offered up in the past. We did stumble onto someone though.
Mose Gingerich grew up Amish. He left the community in 2002 and became a TV personality. His popularity got him some notoriety. He appeared on shows like, "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and "Live with Regis and Kelly," talking about his transition from the Amish lifestyle to modern society. He and his wife also helped kids leaving Amish communities, buying them a car and letting them live with them for free or little money until they could support themselves.
What does any of this have to do with John Skelton or the boys?
In 2012 Mose did a 10-episode TV series on helping people leaving Amish communities, and there's a chance John saw it while in prison. He had limited TV priviliges, but Mose's show would be considered educational, and therefore available to inmates. However he learned about Mose, John pulled him into his world by claiming Mose would know what happened to his boys. So investigators flew the Amish-reality-TV host from Missouri to Michigan to meet with John for several hours in prison.
The meeting caught John off guard, but he recovered quickly, according to Mose.
"He recognized me immediately," Mose said. "As soon as he walked into that room his eyes went to me and i could see him trying to process what was going on here and by the time he was sitting across the table from me he had pieced it together and he’s head and shoulders smarter than i would have given him credit for. Instead of blurting something out, that was like, ‘Oh, you did that TV show.” It took him 3 seconds. 'I saw you in a picture - somebody gave me a picture.' And he was just, i couldn’t believe how smooth he was with how he started out."
It all matched what we'd heard about John. He was smart, dangerously so.
Mose called John out on his lie, making it clear there was no "underground sanctuary" and that he never received Skelton's boys or even heard of them until investigators contacted him six months earlier. John broke down in tears.
"He acted just mind-blown," Mose said. "Sad, tears started coming. He said, 'Well, that was my last hope. That’s the only thing I had left. I was always told that once I get out of jail I can find you and I can contact you and you could tell me where these kids are."
John was telling Mose that he was “the guy.” He thought Mose would have all the answers, and finding out he didn't, things seemed bleak. Mose wasn’t buying it. He started an investigation of his own and nailed down a timeline where John claims the "underground sanctuary" contacted him in 2010 -- two years before he was on TV or had any kind of public profile. He was actually living off the grid in Columbia, Missouri.
Mose's take on meeting with John: “John Skelton has told himself and the world so many lies and so many falsehoods over the last seven years he’s come to believe most of them, I do believe that.”
"His life’s on the line," Mose continued. "Once your life is on the line, you’re going to do anything, any extreme measures to the ends of the earth to try to save your own life. If it means accusing other people randomly that’s no big deal. He’s basically grasping at straws to try to, either prevent staying in jail for the rest of his life or just never getting out.”
Mose plans to stay in contact with John, in hopes of pulling more information out of him.
About Shattered: Black Friday
For past episodes to and to learn more about Shattered: Black Friday at: https://www.shatteredpodcast.com. If you have any information about this case please call the Morenci Police Department at (517) 458-7104. You can reach Jeremy and the staff at Shattered at: email@example.com
Shattered: Black Friday is produced and hosted by Jeremy Allen with support producer Zak Rosen, the WDIV Local 4 newsroom and Graham Media Group.
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