– The sun was dipping below the tops of the pines as Jeanne Nutter clipped the leash on Henry, her 3-year-old golden retriever.

It had been a two-hour drive from Nutter's home near Eau Claire to her backwoods cabin here in northern Wisconsin, and Henry needed his walk as soon as they arrived.

Stepping carefully on the icy, remote road, the pair began their regular circuit down a forest-enclosed path through the cluster of about 30 homes nestled along the Eau Claire River. In the deep winter, many of the homes are empty. People are scarce.

Nutter calls it "my place I come for comfort and peace."

Then she saw the girl: skinny, ragged, walking unsteadily. And with such strange clothing: shoes too big for her feet, dirty leggings, an oversized sweatshirt. No gloves or hat in 19-degree weather. Matted, dirty hair.

"I'm lost and I don't know where I am. I need help," the girl said calmly.

Right away, Nutter knew.

The pictures had been everywhere: in the newspapers, on TV, on Facebook, on posters, signs and buttons.

The retired social worker put her arms around Jayme Closs, missing for 88 days, and drew her close.

Two shotgun blasts

For Jayme and her hometown of Barron, the ordeal began Oct. 15.

It was just after midnight and Joan and Tom Smrekar were in bed at their home on the outskirts of town when they heard a loud bang. Then another.

Gunshots aren't remarkable in rural Wisconsin. Maybe someone trying to keep a bear from his dog, Tom thought.

Unknown to the Smrekars, these gunshots were the work of a coldblooded killer.

As the couple settled down to sleep, dispatchers received a strange 911 call. It came from the home of the Smrekars' neighbors — James and Denise Closs.

Nobody spoke when the dispatcher picked up, but shouting could be heard in the background. Within four minutes, deputies arrived to find a horrific scene.

A shotgun blast had blown away the front door. The body of James Closs, 56, was nearby while Denise Closs, 46, was found in another part of the house. Both had been fatally shot.

Missing was a third family member: the couple's only child, Jayme, a sweet, shy 13-year-old who loved dance, sports and cuddling with puppies.

Police quickly fanned out into the woods in a desperate search. In the days to come, the entire community would be galvanized by the hunt for Jayme. In one search, 2,000 volunteers turned out to scour the forests and fields, hoping to find a shred of clothing, a scrap of paper — any kind of a clue.

Nothing.

Nearly two weeks after the killings, on a cold and gray October Saturday, hundreds turned out to remember and bury James and Denise Closs.

Amid the funeral rites at a Catholic church, they wept and prayed for Jayme.

'Wish, wish, wish' for a clue

Days passed. Then weeks.

Initially, more than 200 law officers poured into Barron County to help. The FBI, the State Patrol, sheriffs and police chiefs from across the state. All came to Barron.

But a month after Jayme vanished, the town's mood grew dark.

With no sign of the girl and no clues to her whereabouts, Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald's reinforcements were going home. A big man, Fitzgerald leaned forward intently during a November interview in his spare, immaculate office.

"The motive isn't there. The reason isn't there," he said, chopping the air with his hands to punctuate his thoughts. "I wish, wish, wish every night before I go to bed that we find a clue."

The reporters who had descended on Barron in the days after the crime had gone home, too. Some kept calling to check on the case, but Fitzgerald had little to give them.

He tried to keep the spotlight on Jayme through Facebook and occasional news conferences. He went on local TV and radio, hoping it would lead to a break.

It never came.

Early last week, trying to keep interest in the case alive, he scheduled a news conference in Barron for Jan. 15, wanting to keep Jayme top of mind approaching the three-month anniversary of her disappearance.

Then, out of nowhere, social media exploded Thursday morning.

A huge gathering of police cars had been seen in southern Wisconsin, nearly 300 miles from Barron. Rumors spread quickly that it was Jayme.

Within minutes, Fitzgerald knocked down the chatter with a Facebook post.

"Jayme Closs has NOT been located — this is false news," he wrote.

Not long after, on a quiet road an hour north of Barron, Jeanne Nutter set out on her walk with Henry.

As Nutter approached Jayme, she tried to keep calm.

The two headed straight to the nearby home of Peter and Kristin Kasinskas and pounded on the door.

"I thought it was UPS or something," Peter Kasinskas recalled. "And then Jeanne walks Jayme in and says, 'This is Jayme Closs — call 911!'

"And then my jaw about hit the floor."

The 911 dispatcher was skeptical.

"I think 911 thought I was lying, because there was that whole false story that happened just hours prior," Kristin Kasinskas said. "I kept saying, 'This is for real, she's sitting in my room. She knows details, this is for real!' "

Jayme told the Kasinskases that her captor's name was Jake Patterson.

She said Patterson had kept her in his cabin, hiding her when people stopped by. He left her alone that day, she said, telling her he'd be back at midnight.

Sometime after, she made her break.

'My God. I know him.'

The Patterson name rang a bell with Kristin Kasinskas, a science teacher at Northwood School in the next county.

My God, she thought. "I know him," she exclaimed. "I've had that student."

Acting on the information Jayme provided, police found Patterson within five minutes. He was driving his car along area roads.

Police believe he was looking for Jayme.

Saturday afternoon, the day after seeing the 13-year-old granddaughter he feared might be gone forever, Robert "Grandpa Red" Naiberg pulled a green ribbon off the mailbox in front of his house in Cornell, not far from Barron.

Earlier, he had taken the "Bring" off a sign that used to read: "Bring Jayme Home."

After spending three months worrying about her — bringing back an ulcer, he said — Naiberg could rest easy. Finally, he knew his granddaughter was safe.

He saw the girl the night before when family gathered at Jayme's aunt and uncle's home to shower her with love.

They saw the bedroom that had been newly refurnished and decorated for her. They saw her dog, Molly, nestle into her arms.

They saw her smile and even laugh.

"I was happily surprised," said her cousin Robie Smith. "She seemed happy, obviously, to be around family."

They were careful not to push Jayme for details of what she'd endured, or exactly how she had escaped. There will be plenty of time when Jayme is ready.

"We don't know a whole lot," Naiberg said. "Nobody's pressing her."

But they do know they are proud of the strength their petite girl has shown. They knew she had it in her.

"She's the one that deserves the reward," Naiberg said. "I'm proud of her for doing it. Very proud. It took some spunk for her to do it."

Naiberg expects Jayme to visit him soon. He'll give her the Christmas present that he bought for her, purchased with the conviction that she would come home.

john.reinan@startribune.com 612-673-7402

pam.louwagie@startribune.com 612-673-7102