GORDON, Wis. – One question plays endlessly in the minds of people here along the rural roads deep in the North Woods.
What happened to Jake Patterson?
He was an ordinary, well-behaved kid, people here say.
Teachers and classmates at his small country school described him as smart and quick-witted — quiet, but not a loner. He had friends and was well-accepted among the 34 members of the Class of 2015 at Northwood School, most of whom had been together since kindergarten.
He played video games, board games — “Risk” was a favorite — and devoured Tom Clancy spy novels.
So what could possibly have transformed this lean, prematurely balding and reserved young man into the alleged perpetrator of a brutal crime that shocked a nation?
Whatever the answer, it lies along the stretch of Hwy. 53 that runs roughly 100 miles from Barron, Wis., to the shores of Lake Superior.
It’s here where the 21-year-old Patterson spent most of his days, living in a series of small towns dotting the highway before settling in at his father’s remote cabin 9 miles east of Gordon.
And it’s there, he told police, where he kept Jayme Closs imprisoned after fatally shooting her parents with a 12-gauge shotgun in their home just outside Barron back in October.
“Something just got stuck in his head,” said James Moyer, Patterson’s maternal grandfather. “I can’t imagine anybody thinking about this, let alone doing it.”
Living off the radar
An hour north of the Closs home, the tiny town of Gordon, with a population of 645 residents, “was not on our radar,” Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said in the hours after Jayme escaped Jan. 10 and Patterson was arrested.
And if you want to stay off the radar, northwestern Wisconsin is a good place to be.
A maze of two-lane rural roads, closely lined with tall pines, reaches deep into the wilderness off Hwy. 53. Homes and cabins are spaced far apart, often set back and hidden in the woods.
People mind their own business here, community ties grow slowly.
In Haugen, a village of about 270 residents some 45 miles south of Gordon and home to Patterson’s mother, Deborah Frey, few noticed Jake when he visited. “It’s a very close-knit town,” said one resident. “If you haven’t been here three generations, people don’t really know you.”
Frey, who drives a school bus for the nearby Rice Lake district, has lived in town only a short time, but locals know who she is by the bus that’s sometimes parked in front of her home.
“She’s friendly. She’d wave when she went by,” said Jim Hill, owner of the Village Grocery. Hill said last week that he didn’t see Jake often, but remembers him stopping in the store occasionally for cigarettes.
“Marlboros,” Hill said.
Frey and Jake’s father, Patrick Patterson, had a troubled marriage and divorced when Jake, the youngest of three children, was 11. Court records show that they filed for divorce in 2005, reconciled, then ended their marriage in 2008 after 19 years.
The divorce decree provided scant details other than outlining the financial arrangements and joint child custody. Both parents were required to take a class titled “Effects of Divorce on Children.”
Moyer said the divorce bothered Jake, “like it would any kid.” But he’s not sure of the lasting impact.
As Frey moved from one local town to another over the years, Jake began spending more time at his father’s home in Gordon, according to Victoria Fisher, whose son Dylan was a close friend of Jake’s through middle school and high school.
Dylan Fisher, who lives in nearby Minong, said he often went to the Patterson house to play Risk and other board games. “His dad, brother and sister were at the house when I was there,” Fisher said last week.
Marine Corps washout
Fisher said to his knowledge, Patterson never dated. In fact, he never discussed the topic. “He never said anything [about girls],” Fisher said. “It never seemed to be a pressing concern.”
In his high school yearbook, Patterson said his plan after graduation was “Marine Corps infantry.”
His senior quote: “I’m finally done with school.”
Three months after graduating, Patterson headed for the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. But he returned to Gordon after five weeks, a washout as a Marine Corps private.
“The character of his service was incongruent with Marine Corps’ expectations and standards,” the Corps said in a statement last week.
It was a bitter experience, Patterson’s grandfather said.
“It was profoundly disappointing when he didn’t make it in the Marines,” Moyer said. “He had health issues. He wasn’t able to hold up to the regimen.”
Asked what the health issues were, Moyer replied, “It was internal.”
Once back home, Patterson distanced himself from his high school friends.
Fisher said he tried several times to reach him in the months after graduation but never got a response.
“I haven’t talked to him in three years,” Fisher said.
Other classmates also were rebuffed. “I wish I had known he was around,” Fisher said. “I wish I could have done something.
“He was a normal person. He had a sense of what’s right and wrong.
“He was a good person. … He laughed, he smiled, he cried. He wasn’t an empty person.”
Mother is ‘petrified’
Since her son’s arrest more than a week ago, Frey hasn’t left her home in Haugen, said Michael Bednar, who lives across the street.
“She’s petrified,” said Bednar, adding that he’s never seen or talked to Jake Patterson.
Bednar’s wife, Susan, who has been walking Frey’s black Lab, said the mother “feels terrible. She never saw any signs of violence. She feels bad that she didn’t see it.”
Patrick Patterson apparently didn’t see anything either — although according to the criminal complaint filed in the case, he typically visited his son on Saturdays during the time Jayme was held captive at the house.
Frey and her ex-husband have repeatedly declined media interviews. As Patrick Patterson stopped at the Barron County courthouse one morning last week, he told a CNN reporter, “All I care about right now is Jayme’s family.”
Fisher and others, meanwhile, say they have no idea how Jake got by.
“I don’t know that he was even working,” Moyer said. “I think he was looking for work. He wasn’t a real assertive person.
“He didn’t have the drive to push those opportunities very hard.”
Several years ago, Patterson worked for one day at the Jennie-O Turkey Store in Barron, where Jayme’s parents, Denise and James Closs, worked for years.
Earlier last fall, he worked for two days at a cheese factory outside Almena, a small town about 8 miles west of Barron. It was on the way to that job one morning, he told police, that he spotted Jayme boarding a school bus, which set in motion his plan to kidnap the girl he’d never seen before.
And on the day that Jayme escaped from his house after 88 days in captivity, Patterson submitted a résumé and an online job application to a liquor wholesaler in Superior. On it, he described himself as an “honest and hardworking guy. … Not much work experience but I show up to work and am a quick learner.”
‘Not ordinary sad’
The carved wooden sign over the door of Patterson’s house in Gordon reads “Patterson’s Retreat.”
In the driveway are six old and snow-covered vehicles that look as if they haven’t been driven in a long time.
A battered snowmobile sits in the yard, along with the usual odds and ends that accumulate at a rural residence — shovels, rakes, tools. Bits of rope and stacks of lumber. There’s a red, barn-shaped bird feeder hanging from a birch tree and a trampoline out back.
The two-story home is worn, with peeling paint and a rusty security door with a broken lock. A wooden deck is strung with Christmas lights, a welcome mat is placed by the front door.
It’s here, Jake Patterson told police, where he kept Jayme prisoner beneath a twin bed. And it’s here where the quiet life he once knew came to an end.
“It’s profoundly sad. It’s not ordinary sad,” Moyer said softly. “We lost our grandson, too. It’s like a death.”
Said Fisher, Patterson’s best friend: “I’ve been trying to figure it out, and I can’t.”
Staff writers Brandon Stahl and Pam Louwagie contributed to this report.