BARRON, Wis. – Jake Patterson bowed his head and took a deep breath as his attorney leaned in and laid a hand on his shoulder.
Then he looked up at the judge sitting in front of him and, in a trembling voice, uttered the word all of Barron had long waited to hear.
“Guilty,” he said three times, pleading to the brutal shotgun murders of James and Denise Closs in their Barron home and the kidnapping of their 13-year-old daughter, Jayme, in the dark of an October morning last fall.
In a dramatic hearing that lasted less than 20 minutes Wednesday in a packed Barron County courtroom, Patterson, 21, fought back tears as he admitted to the crimes that shocked this town of 3,400 residents some 90 miles from the Twin Cities.
As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors dropped one count of armed burglary against him. They also agreed not to prosecute him for any crimes he may have committed in Douglas County, 70 miles north, where he kept Jayme prisoner for 88 days, often under a bed in the shabby family cabin where he lived alone.
By pleading guilty, Patterson spared the Closs family a painful jury trial. The plea also means that Jayme won’t be called to testify about her ordeal.
Judge James Babler scheduled Patterson’s sentencing for May 24. Before doing so, however, he explained to Patterson that his sentence could lead to life in prison for the killings of Jayme’s parents and up to 40 years in prison for kidnapping the girl, who escaped from the cabin Jan. 10.
As Patterson was led from the courtroom by a guard at the end of the hearing, he turned to the courtroom audience and in a clear voice said, “Bye, Jayme.”
Jayme wasn’t in the courtroom.
Armed deputies escorted both Closs and Patterson relatives from the courthouse to their vehicles.
Both families left without commenting.
Police, prosecutors and defense attorneys also declined to comment to a media horde numbering in the dozens.
Nodding and smiling
Legal experts said it’s very unusual for a defendant to plead guilty at this stage in the criminal proceedings, but that was Patterson’s intent “from the day we met him,” defense attorney Richard Jones told Babler. “He’s been consistent with that.”
Jones said the legal team discussed all of Patterson’s plea options with him, including a possible insanity plea, “and he’s rejected all of that, and he’s decided that this is what he wanted to do. We’ve gone back and forth on what we suggested he do or give us time to do.”
Wearing an orange prisoner’s uniform, his hands manacled at the waist to a wide leather belt, Patterson nodded and smiled at his family as deputies led him into the courtroom Wednesday afternoon.
Patterson’s father, seated just a few feet behind him, sobbed silently throughout the hearing, leaning forward with his shoulders heaving and frequently wiping his hand across his face.
Patterson gave clipped, one-word answers to Babler in a series of routine questions affirming his desire to plead guilty.
“We are satisfied that this is knowing and voluntary,” Jones said in answer to a question from the judge.
“Mr. Patterson has wanted to enter a plea from the day we met him, and we wanted to consider our own due diligence. We wanted to read the discovery and go through all the details, but have been unable to do so.”
A night of horror
Patterson’s plea wasn’t completely unexpected.
Earlier this month, he wrote a letter to KARE 11, a Twin Cities TV station, to say that he had “huge amounts” of remorse for the crimes he allegedly committed and intended to plead guilty.
And he confessed to the murders and kidnapping almost as soon as law enforcement caught up to him after Jayme’s escape.
“I did it,” he told deputies after they pulled him over Jan. 10, and again when detectives questioned him hours later.
Patterson, who grew up in Gordon, Wis., where he held Jayme captive, told authorities that he picked Jayme at random after seeing her board a school bus while he headed to work one morning last fall.
He didn’t know her name or anybody at her house, but he told authorities that he knew he wanted to take her.
He said then that he twice approached the Closs home off Hwy. 8 with the intention of kidnapping Jayme, but was scared off by cars in the driveway or by the sight of people walking around inside the house.
Shortly before 1 a.m. on Oct. 15, he returned to the Closs house for a third time, fatally shooting James Closs at the front door and then Denise Closs, who was barricaded in the bathroom with Jayme.
Patterson then grabbed Jayme and threw her in the trunk of his car, driving north to his family’s cabin outside Gordon, where he kept her for nearly three months.
Over the next several days and weeks, the murders and Jayme’s disappearance galvanized the community.
More than 2,000 people volunteered to search for the missing teen, and posters and ribbons were put up across town to mark their commitment to finding her.
She finally escaped after he left her alone on the afternoon of Jan. 10 and she stumbled upon a neighbor walking her dog, who helped alert police.
Patterson’s guilty pleas Wednesday brought a measure of relief in Barron, where residents hope to put the terrible episode behind them.
When Patterson appeared in court at 1 p.m., some here paused in their day to watch the livestream of the hearing. Most had heard through media reports that he planned to plead guilty.
They hoped and they waited as they watched.
Kate’s Bar in town fell silent.
“We all stopped what we were doing,” said Tricia Sprague, a bartender.
For some, watching Patterson walk into the courtroom stirred up anger over the horrific crimes, and resentment that a small town’s innocence was shattered because of him.
But they were grateful his guilty pleas will spare Jayme, her family and the town from rehashing the details of that October night.
“A trial would retraumatize Jayme and her family,” said the Rev. Ron Mathews, pastor at First Lutheran Church. “They would have to relive that night again on a public platform. It would add insult to injury. Now they can progress in their healing.”
As a minister, Mathews heard something in Patterson’s guilty pleas that others might not have.
“A sense of remorse, perhaps,” he said.
That may help the Closs family heal, he added. It may also help Patterson’s family.
“How do you cope with a loved one who has done something as horrific as this? How do they forgive him and love him?” Mathews said.
“Forgiveness is not easy, but it’s possible.”
Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.