BARRON, WIS. – The “welcome home” signs celebrating Jayme Closs’ return are long gone. So is the house where the 13-year-old’s parents were shot dead and she was taken. Only a propane tank and hostas ringing what’s left of a ragged tree trunk provide any clue a home once stood there, tucked back from a busy highway.
But even without visible reminders, those who live here can’t erase the memory of the horrific crime that gripped this rural Wisconsin community and grabbed global attention. They are, however, moving on, not just for themselves but also for Jayme.
These are the folks who turned out by the thousands to scour ditches and farm fields in search of clues after she went missing. When days turned into weeks, they refused to let her abduction fade from people’s minds. They put her face on billboards, fliers and social media posts. When she escaped her abductor and returned home in January, they celebrated and orchestrated fundraisers.
Now this community is giving Jayme what the experts say she needs — privacy and a chance to carve out a new life.
“We need to let this girl be a girl,” Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said recently.
The teen, who now lives with her aunt, attended community events throughout the summer, returned to school this fall and is moving on with her life with the help of her family and professional experts, Fitzgerald said during a recent interview.
“She’s doing well,” he added. “If they need anything, they will reach out to us.”
In the meantime, he said, the community is following the advice they got from Elizabeth Smart, who was 14 years old when she was abducted from her Utah home in 2003 and held captive for nine months. When she came to Barron in March, residents jammed a school gymnasium, eager to hear how they could help Jayme.
“She told us, ‘If you knew [Jayme] before, say hi to her,’ ” Fitzgerald recalled. “ ‘And if you didn’t know her before, you don’t need to say anything to her because you don’t know her.’ ”
Her other recommendation: Take down the “Welcome home, Jayme” signs.
The next morning, every sign throughout the entire county was gone, Fitzgerald said. “It was like a light switch had been flipped,” he said, snapping his fingers for emphasis. “Life could move forward. People just needed to be told.”
But as the leaves once again turn to gold and red, many here easily recall waking up last October to grim news.
A shocking crime
A 21-year-old man, Jake Patterson, made a plan to kidnap Jayme after spotting her board a school bus. Twice he drove to the Closs home on the outskirts of Barron but was scared off each time. He came a third time on Oct. 15, about 1 a.m., shooting Jayme’s father, James Closs, when he came to the front door. Then he shot her mother, Denise Closs, who moments earlier had dialed 911 with her arms wrapped around Jayme as they barricaded themselves in the bathroom. Patterson dragged Jayme to the car, put her into the trunk and headed north to the cabin where he lived near Gordon, Wis.
During the 911 call, the dispatcher heard yelling. “We thought it was a domestic or some kind of fight,” Fitzgerald said. “Then our team walks in and finds two deceased bodies.”
They soon learned that the couple’s daughter should have been in the house and began adding up what little they knew: Jayme’s blood wasn’t at the scene and there was no evidence she was injured. “I just believed that she was taken for a reason,” Fitzgerald said. “Her cellphone was there, and what kid goes without a cellphone?”
“Was it human trafficking? Was it someone who was mad at James or Denise? The motives on our crime wall grew exponentially,” Fitzgerald said. “It could be anything.”
Over time, investigators sorted through more than 4,000 tips that poured in, including those from psychics.
“We would get a map with an ‘X’ and nothing else,” Fitzgerald said. “You would have to check where the ‘X’ was because you couldn’t leave a tip undone. That’s why it took 300-plus officers to work on this every day.”
Most cases like this, FBI experts warned, don’t usually turn out well. But Fitzgerald genuinely believed she was alive, becoming even more convinced by the end of November after 400,000 deer hunters had tramped through the woods.
“It was to our benefit to have them out there because, good or bad, we were trying find something,” Fitzgerald said. “When they didn’t, it gave you more hope. … Part of that was that I didn’t want to find a 13-year-old’s body.”
On Jan. 10, as investigators wrapped up for the day, a Facebook post that Jayme had been found in Walworth County went viral, setting off a frenzy among Fitzgerald’s team and the news media. The Walworth sheriff confirmed they were working on a major case but it wasn’t Jayme. Fitzgerald immediately quashed the rumor with a post on his department’s Facebook page.
An hour later, a detective walked into his office. “We’ve got her,” he told Fitzgerald.
“No you don’t,” the sheriff said. “It’s fake.”
Not this time, the detective told him. Douglas County officials said they have Jayme.
“I told him, ‘Get in your car and drive there. When you have her in your hands, call me,’ ” Fitzgerald said. The sheriff stayed in his office and waited, time dragging until his phone rang. “We have her,” the detective told Fitzgerald. “She’s alive.”
After 88 days of captivity, Jayme seized the opportunity to escape when Patterson left the house that day. A woman walking a dog found her and got her to safety. Soon after, police found Patterson. “I did it,” he told deputies when they pulled him over in his car, and then confessed details to a detective a few hours later.
Months later, Patterson pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
About 450,000 children are reported missing every year, but stranger abductions and children held captive are rare, said Bob Lowery, a former cop who is now with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“Investigators worked night and day … but it was like the proverbial needle in a haystack,” Lowery explained. “She didn’t know the offender. The offender didn’t know her. She was taken 70 miles away. There was very little connection to that family that could have led law enforcement to that home.”
Jayme’s resiliency and her courage to escape after witnessing what Patterson was capable of when he killed her parents are amazing, Lowery said.
“Nothing about Jayme’s case was typical,” he said. It’s now up to the experts who deal with trauma to help Jayme find a “new normal,” Lowery said.
“I don’t think any of us can imagine how difficult it was for her,” he said. “She’ll never get over that experience, but maybe each day she’ll learn to live with it.”
Hope and courage
A year later, the folks who live here remember how their lives changed after the murders and Jayme’s abduction.
“It shakes you up,” Dennis Wenger of nearby Almena explained as he and his two sons ate homemade ice cream at the recent annual Barron County Co-Op Days. He thought about his own daughter. When strange footprints appeared near his patio door one night, he was unnerved.
People started locking their doors at night. They became more observant, more cautious, more suspicious.
Time has eased some of those feelings, Wenger said. “We’re not living in fear,” he added.
Fitzgerald is cognizant that the anniversary of the murders and abduction could cause secondary trauma for those who lived through it, and he knows the media will return to town for an update. To that end, he’ll manage the situation during a news conference on Monday. He’ll honor his investigative team, remember Denise and James Closs, and talk briefly about Jayme. But mainly he wants the message to be about hope and the power to do good.
“There’s no use dwelling on the past,” he said, taking a break from greeting those who stopped to thank him for his work on the Closs case. “There are other missing kids and other crimes out there that we should be concentrating on. … Let’s take all the energy and power that we had during the 88 days of the Closs case and do some good with it.”
The community came together for a 13-year-old girl, proving a community that cares can do anything, he said. “And a 13-year-old girl showed us what courage is, and now there’s a new courage out there,” Fitzgerald said.
The Closs case proves no one should give up on anyone or any case, he said. “There’s no reason to give up hope. That’s the message I’m going to say over and over again for the rest of my career.”