BARRON, WIS. – The unsolved kidnapping of Jayme Closs and the brutal shotgun murders of her parents had this town on edge for months.
But when the details of Jake T. Patterson’s horrific acts were spelled out in court Monday, it confirmed this rural community’s worst fear: Closs was picked at random, the crimes meticulously planned.
Closs escaped and is home safe now and Patterson is in jail, but unease lingers. How does a community guard against such an arbitrary crime? And how can anyone feel safe again?
“The randomness of it is the tough part here and I think that is a struggle for the community,” said Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald, the top law enforcement officer in Barron County. “We were hoping it wasn’t and it turns out it was random, but very well planned out, which are two of the worst things as a sheriff you can have for any crime.”
Closs, 13, escaped on her own last week from Patterson’s home in Gordon, Wis., about an hour north of Barron. Patterson had been careful not to leave evidence when, in the middle of an October night, he shot James and Denise Closs and kidnapped Jayme, a girl he had seen board a school bus one morning as he drove to work.
He didn’t know her name or anybody at her house, he told authorities, according to a criminal complaint, but he knew he wanted to take her.
A national search yielded thousands of fruitless tips over the three months he held Jayme hostage, making her hide under his twin bed when visitors came, according to the criminal complaint.
His motivation for taking her is still unclear.
“People are uncertain. They’re frightened,” said local newspaper editor Bob Zientara, who has the ear of a town that, in an instant last week, became overwhelmed with joy at Jayme’s return. “It’s tempered joy because now [people] realize that things like this can happen here.”
So random, so bizarre
Some parents in Barron and nearby communities will reassure themselves that such random, brutal crimes are rare and won’t likely happen again, Zientara said. Others will be paranoid and drive their kids everywhere, afraid to take their eyes off them.
Stacey Frolik, director of Barron County’s Health and Human Services Department, understands the mixed emotions and reactions.
“We live in a quiet, little community and these things aren’t supposed to happen here. But this is their new normal,” she said.
People can diligently take precautions and protect themselves. “But how do you protect yourself from something so random, so bizarre?” Frolik asked. “A community can’t live in fear because it would paralyze us.”
At the Barron Area School District, Superintendent Diane Tremblay said administrators will meet Thursday to work on a plan to address the trauma students may be feeling.
“It was definitely a random act of evil,” Tremblay said. “We have to not focus on the things we don’t have control over … don’t let it infiltrate you and make you negative. Stick to the positive: Jayme is home.”
While the main focus for teachers, administrators and counselors will be to listen to students, she said, their message will be that the children continue to be safe at school and at home.
“What would the point be of telling them anything else but that?” Tremblay said. “What sense does it make to change your lifestyle because of evildoing?”
Barron Mayor Ron Fladten said the crimes and the details behind them are “unheard of in Barron.”
To some degree, reassurance is something people have to work on individually, he said.
“You can’t prevent the eruption of evil. You can’t predict it. Unfortunately we live in the real world and we can’t control everything that happens,” Fladten said. “It is the scariest thing possible, but I think people need to go on with their lives and try to look up and be positive and be optimistic.”
The effects of Patterson’s crimes could ripple beyond Wisconsin, experts said.
Widespread news coverage brought it into the homes of viewers around the country, said Abi Gewirtz, professor of family science and child development at the University of Minnesota. “You could have people in New York City saying, ‘If this could happen in Barron, then it could happen anywhere.’ … When you have something like this that is so horrifying, we magnify it even more.”
To help calm a child’s fears, parents should turn off the news. They also need to listen to their children because what may be playing out in their heads may be worse than reality, Gewirtz said. Parents should answer a child’s questions but should be careful how much information they give, she added.
“They need to tell them that school buses are really safe. Our town is really safe,” she said.
Community drawn closer
In Barron, leaders say they are confident that community members will support each other.
“We always have had the mission of the sheriff’s department … to get to know your neighbors,” Fitzgerald said.
He urged residents to let their neighbors know when they’re out of town and keep an eye out for each other’s property and well-being and anything suspicious.
Already, he and others said, the ordeal has shown that the community is tight and has drawn people closer.
“Everyone’s got each other’s backs around here,” Tremblay said. “Times like these really accelerate that relationship.”
And when people are struggling, community leaders said, they need only look at Jayme’s strength and bravery.
“You should never live in fear,” Fitzgerald said. “If a 13-year-old girl has the courage and hope and will to survive, we as adults can do anything.”