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Tree lighting honors missing Michigan boys

MORENCI, Mich. -- They came in flannel shirts, hunting jackets, ski caps, and blankets, some 400 to 500 of them from Morenci and surrounding towns near the Michigan-Ohio border where Lenawee and Fulton counties meet.

MORENCI, Mich. -- They came in flannel shirts, hunting jackets, ski caps, and blankets, some 400 to 500 of them from Morenci and surrounding towns near the Michigan-Ohio border where Lenawee and Fulton counties meet.

There really was little doubt they'd come. This is what small-town America does best: Pull together and comfort neighbors in a time of tragedy, whether it be a heartbreaking disappearance of three spunky young boys or some other sad event.

So what was disguised as a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Wakefield Park last night could be much more aptly described as a loving holiday tribute to 9-year-old Andrew Skelton and his brothers, Alex Skelton, 7, and Tanner Skelton, 5, who have been missing since Thanksgiving.

Authorities have said they are presumed dead, although the Rev. Donna Galloway and others here said they are not giving up hope.

"We have been visited by darkness here and we don't understand it," Pastor Galloway told the crowd moments before the decorative lights were turned on as the onlookers shivered in the freezing cold.


The lights had been put up shortly before Thanksgiving by a group of about 30 people, including the boys.

Ms. Galloway, pastor of Morenci United Methodist Church, which the Skeltons attend, told people not to dwell on the tragedy. They should realize, through it and God's love, they have become more united as a community, she said.

"Tonight as we light up the town, be assured that Alex, Andrew, and Tanner see the light. And be assured they're coming home," she told people, many of whom were carrying flashlights as a symbol of light during hard times.

But as people stood there doing their best to ignore the falling temperature, a light dusting of snowflakes turned into a decent little squall.

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The timing of that wasn't lost on a tearful Michelle Pilbeam, a good friend of Tanya Skelton, the boys' mother. Her estranged husband, John Skelton, is being held in the Lucas County jail in Toledo on three child-abduction charges. He is fighting extradition to Lenawee County.

Ms. Pilbeam said she has been with Ms. Skelton almost every day since the boys disappeared, and the tragedy has been every bit as hard on the mom as people can imagine.

They've spent a lot of time not only speculating about what might have happened, but also re-living pleasant memories. Such as camping. And goofing around with the Pilbeams' two youngest children, Sarah, 11, and Joel, 7. Their father, Mark Pilbeam, said the Skelton boys loved to fish.


"She has the love and support of a lot of people," Ms. Pilbeam said of Ms. Skelton. "She's doing the best she can do with the situation."

But the snow. Ah, the boys loved snow. And Christmas.

Ms. Pilbeam said those extra, well-timed snowflakes gave her a warm feeling during a sad event.

Not just tree-lighting Pastor Galloway made no secret it was more than just another tree-lighting ceremony as the hoards of people arrived, many holding the hands of their young children. The pastor told the crowd the event was "for the children of the community and to let them know they are loved."

She said she has no answers, other than to accept God's love and recognize how the tragedy has brought people together.

"People don't realize as we come together like this that God is with us. God is faithful. God is love," she said.

Then, after she and the onlookers sang "O Come, All Ye Faithful," Pastor Galloway delivered a prayer in which she asked God to give wisdom and strength to law enforcement -- and to implore anyone with information to speak up.

Elliot Grondin, a sales representative for Yellow Roadway Corp., said he and his wife, Christy Grondin, a substitute teacher, don't know the Skeltons but were inspired to support them.


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They came from Clayton, Mich., after discussing the meaning of Christmas at the dinner table with their daughters, Erika, 9, and Kaitlyn, 7, both students at Lincoln Elementary School in Hudson, Mich. The two parents told their girls how Jesus inspired people to come together in a time of need, Mr. Grondin said.

The girls accompanied them to the event.

"We came out because we hope somebody would come out if it was our children someday," his wife said.

She said her younger daughter was confused why someone might hurt a child.

Crystal Tucker, a Morenci native who lives in Adrian, is the mother of a 5-year-old girl and a 2-year-old girl. Neither attended, but their mother said it was important for her to support her hometown.

"Pretty much everyone's reeling from the impact of it," Ms. Tucker said of the boys' disappearance.

Thinking of the boys One elderly woman, Beverly Fortney, who also lives in Adrian after spending most of her life in Morenci, said she's yearned to help in some way but is physically unable to assist with the search. She said she felt compelled to give something back to her hometown with her presence, too, after dealing with a few setbacks in her life.


"In your heart, you want to be joyful this time of year, but you can't," she said.

Pastor Galloway, who moved to Morenci in July from Alpena, Mich., later told reporters people need to enjoy the Christmas season.

"Celebrate, celebrate!" she said. "Be together, be a family. You think the boys wouldn't want that?"

The pastor said she remembered being amused by the eagerness of the boys on Nov. 21, when they were among 30 people hanging up lights at the park. They were determined to get up on the roof of the park's shelter so they could hang lights shaped like icicles.

"They're just boys. That's what all boys like to do," she said.

They also were among about 30 who put decorative lights up at the church. The boys were so excited about Christmas, they came with a group to her parsonage that night to see how the lights on its 70-foot outdoor tree looked in the dark, Ms. Galloway said.

"There are good people in the world," Ms. Galloway told reporters. "We live next door to them, we live across the street from them. The world will be better because of the choices we make."

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