The old tenants had been booted from the rental so it was time to get the place washed and scrubbed. The house — a tiny two-bedroom beige postwar cottage tucked on a residential street corner in Missoula, Mont. — was an empty eyesore last September.
"The tenants were dirty," a neighbor would later grumble to NBC Montana. "It was an unkempt house. The yard was a mess."
The property owner brought in a professional cleaner to tackle the job, including "a significant amount of miscellaneous items that had been left by the evicted renter," according to a search warrant application later filed with the local courts. On Sept. 27 the crew arrived and worked through the house's 896 square feet and the backyard, where a weather-roughened two-car garage and shed stood.
When the cleaners picked through the shed, they found a box in the building. Inside was a horrific discovery: human bones.
"Loose teeth, there was what appeared to be bone from a lower jaw, and others that were not as specifically described, but I would call them pieces of bones," Missoula Police spokesman Sgt. Travis Welsh told KPAX. "There were also rocks in this box."
A laboratory analysis added a layer of tragedy to the find: Not only were the remains recent, they belonged to three children: one between the ages of 5 and 8, one between 6 and 10, and the third between 2 and 4 years old.
When news of the discovery went public this week, Missoula authorities admitted they were stumped. "Nothing we've been able to connect them to yet," Welsh said. "The thing is, there are missing children all over the world. And the thing is, we don't know that this particular case is isolated to the city of Missoula."
But 1,800 miles away in a small Michigan town, the discovery out west sparked a mix of alarm and hope. Seven years ago, three local boys — Andrew, Alexander and Tanner Skelton — went missing, a disappearance that remains unexplained. This week, however, Michigan authorities announced they were working with Missoula police to see whether there is a connection between the bones and the missing boys.
"Further forensic testing has been requested by police in Montana that may provide more answers," the Michigan State Police said Thursday night in a statement, MLive.com reported. "Until this testing is completed and additional investigation by law enforcement in Montana occurs, it cannot be determined if these remains belong to the missing Skelton brothers."
On Thursday night, Tanya Zuvers, the missing Michigan boys' mother, posted about the news out of Montana on Facebook.
"This information has just been presented to our family within the last several hours," Zuvers wrote. "We are processing it and hopeful that we will have answers soon. We are thankful for all your thoughts and prayers."
In 2010, Zuvers and her soon-to-be ex-husband John Skelton were locked in a bitter divorce in Morenci, a town 70 miles south of Detroit. Although Zuvers had full custody of 9-year-old Andrew, 7-year-old Alex and 5-year-old Tanner, she handed over the children to their father for Thanksgiving, the Associated Press reported. When Skelton did not return the children the next day, Zuvers called the police. The boys' father was arrested and a massive search began.
But the boys were never found. Cellphone data showed that on the day after Thanksgiving, Skelton had left his home early in the morning, dipped south into Ohio, then returned home, the AP reported.
When pressed by authorities about what he had done with his sons, Skelton originally said they were with a friend, Crime Watch Daily reported. He later changed his story, saying he had given them to an organization to protect them from their mother. In 1998, Zuvers had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual conduct after she was accused of having sex with a 14-year-old boy. Skelton said she was now hurting his sons. But Zuvers maintained she never abused or assaulted her own children.
Skelton was eventually charged with unlawful imprisonment and parental kidnapping. In September 2011, the latter charge was dropped; Shelton pleaded no contest to the unlawful imprisonment. At his sentencing, the father again refused to name the organization to which he had handed over his children or to explain what may have really happened.
"For months I have asked you to return Andrew, Alexander and Tanner. You have refused to answer me truthfully," Lenawee Circuit Court Judge Margaret Noe told Skelton before sentencing him to 10 to 15 years, the AP reported. "Your explanations have been ridiculous, albeit more sad than anything else."
As Skelton was shipped off to prison, Michigan authorities said they were still building a murder case against the father. "I believe that John Skelton murdered those boys," the Morenci police chief told the AP.
But charges were never filed.
"I wonder, are they scared? Are they crying for me?" Zuvers told a Detroit television station last month on the seventh anniversary of the boys' disappearance. "It's so hard to imagine them hurting for me and not being able to do anything about it."
Back in Montana, police this week have repeatedly searched the property where the bones were discovered, with the assistance of an anthropology professor and graduate students from the University of Montana, according to court filings. The police application for a search record also notes a person of interest with whom police hope to speak.
According to the court filing, a city residential housing code compliance officer told police about a man — his name had been redacted from the document — who had "illegally occupied the backyard of the property last year." The man lived in a camper in the backyard with access to the garage and shed. The inspector told police she felt the man had a "surveillance camera set up to alert him to the presence" of visitors.