BARRON, WIS. – They left their homes and their jobs at midday Thursday to answer a sheriff’s call to help look for one of their own.
Trudging through knee-high brush, dozens of volunteers from the small towns of northwestern Wisconsin turned out in early afternoon to scour the ditches of Hwy. 8 near this Barron County town, desperately searching for the tiniest of clues that could lead them to a 13-year-old girl who vanished in the night and who may well be in danger.
In all, there were 100 of them, from places like Rice Lake and Almena and Cameron. Working under a cloudless October sky with state and law enforcement officials, they covered 14 miles of road, all in hopes of turning up a key piece of evidence that could lead them to Jayme Closs, who disappeared early Monday after her parents were fatally shot while she was in the family’s house on the outskirts of Barron.
“I want to stand with the community,” said Renee Decker, who left her home in Rice Lake to help search.
“I’ve got kids,” she added as her eyes welled with tears. “They’re grown. But this is still tough.”
Despite the volunteer turnout, Thursday’s ground search ended in frustration. Four days after James and Denise Closs were murdered and their daughter disappeared, investigators seemed no closer to solving the mystery of what happened Monday morning in the Closs home or what has become of Jayme.
Investigators have no suspects, they have no weapon. Thursday’s search, which lasted several hours, turned up “nothing of evidentiary value,” Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said.
But the volunteers brought all the determination they could muster.
As they gathered before the search in an open field next to a cemetery, they talked quietly among themselves.
The last four days have been stressful for a community searching for answers and wrestling with emotions ranging from fear to heartache.
“There’s a black cloud hanging over the community,” said one volunteer who didn’t want to be identified.
Yet despite the tragic news and overwhelming sadness, he and the other volunteers wanted to do what they could to help.
So many volunteers showed up to help search on Thursday that dozens were turned away because Fitzgerald had limited the number to 100.
Divided into seven-member teams, they wore reflective vests as they walked abreast along the highway ditches, eyes focused on the uneven, dry ground, the sound of their feet shuffling through sometimes shoulder-high brush.
They waved away bugs and moved from one side of the highway to the next, picking up litter to see what might lay below.
“This has been devastating,” said one searcher, a volunteer with the Barron Fire Department who also didn’t want to be identified. “If we could just find some leads, some clues to bring her home.”
While volunteers and law enforcement officials worked the road, several Wisconsin government and police agencies sent trained therapists, school resources officers and comfort dogs to the Barron Area School District, where Jayme is a student.
Not far from the Closs home, neighbor Joan Smrekar sat at her kitchen table, wishing she could turn back time.
Smrekar and her husband, Tom, had gone to bed about 12:15 a.m. Monday when minutes later she said she heard “BOOM!” Within seconds came another but more muffled bang.
“Was that a gunshot?” she asked her husband.
“Yeah, from a really big gun,” he told her.
Hearing gunshots in this rural and wooded community isn’t unusual. “Maybe it’s just a neighbor trying to keep a bear away from their dog,” Tom Smrekar said to his wife.
About a half hour later, Joan Smrekar got out of bed, as she often does. Their English shepherd seemed to be snuffing around a bit, too, so she looked out her front windows to see what was up. But, she said, she saw nothing unusual.
What she didn’t know was police were responding to a 911 call to the Closs residence about 200 yards away. She figured she wasn’t aware because deputies didn’t turn on the sirens, and the dense woods and brush between the homes would have kept her from seeing the emergency lights.
It wasn’t until dawn broke and an officer knocked on their door that they learned the devastating news — Denise and James Closs had been murdered and their daughter was missing.
In the days since, investigators from the FBI to local law enforcement have searched the Smrekar’s home and yard along with the those of their neighbors looking for clues.
“I look out the kitchen window every day and say, ‘If you’re out there, come home to us, Jayme,’ ” Joan Smrekar said. “I’m hoping they can find her and take care of her.”
As she talked Thursday, Smrekar paused, her eyes red and filling with tears.
“I just feel like I should have done something different,” she said. The two loud bangs just seemed too loud, too close, she said.
“I should have called police,” she added. “Maybe I could have saved Jayme. … I want to tell her I’m sorry.”