Jayme Closs, the 13-year-old girl missing since her parents were shot to death in their Barron, Wis., home three months ago, was found bedraggled and malnourished but alive Thursday after seeking help from neighbors in a remote rural area in northwestern Wisconsin.
Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald announced late Thursday afternoon that his agency had been notified by the sheriff in Douglas County, two counties to the north, that Jayme had been found there.
According to the Douglas County sheriff, Jayme was found east of the town of Gordon at 4:43 p.m. Thursday, and a suspect was arrested minutes later. She was being examined at a hospital late Thursday night and was to be reunited with family members.
Before dawn Friday in Barron, the Dairy Queen sign was flashing, "Welcome home Jayme. Thank you for bringing her home."
Some of the cars passing the Barron County Justice Center honked as they drove by, apparently in celebration of Jayme's return.
Residents of an area of woods and cabins about 9 miles east of Gordon described the dramatic moment when Jayme was found. Kristin Kasinskas, a teacher at the nearby Northwood School who lives on S. Eau Claire Acres Circle with her husband, Peter, and children, said that around 4 p.m., a neighbor walking a dog frantically knocked on their door.
Standing with her was a skinny, dirty girl with matted hair, wearing shoes too big for her feet.
"This is Jayme Closs! Call 911!" the neighbor said.
Jayme was quiet, her emotions "pretty flat," Peter Kasinskas said.
The woman who found Jayme asked that her name not be used, saying she was exhausted and unnerved by the dramatic events of the day. In a phone interview late Thursday, she said that Jayme "came up to me and said she wanted help."
She said she was pretty sure who the girl was, adding that most everyone who lives in Wisconsin has seen Jayme's photo on the news or on posters hung up by businesses.
Any doubt the woman had was erased when Jayme gave her name. The two quickly made their way to the Kasinskas home.
In the 20 minutes Jayme was in their home, the couple tried to make her feel more comfortable, they said. They offered her water and food, but she declined both. Kristin introduced Jayme to their new puppy, Penny.
Jayme told the Kasinskases that she didn't know where she was or anything about Gordon. From what she told them, they believe she was there for most of her disappearance.
"I honestly still think I'm dreaming right now. It was like I was seeing a ghost," Peter Kasinskas said. "It was scary and awesome at the same time. My jaw just went to the floor."
The area where Jayme was found is in Eau Claire Acres, a cluster of about 30 homes originally built about 50 years ago as cabins near the Eau Claire River. According to Denny Kline, chairman of the town board, most of the homes are unoccupied during the winter months.
It's a sparsely populated area about 8 miles east of Gordon's town hall. The land is hilly and heavily forested. What homes do exist are often set back among the trees.
On Friday morning, police had erected roadblocks preventing visitors from entering the development. State Patrol vehicles clustered near the entrance as investigators combed the scene.
Closs's aunt, Jen Smith, told ABC's "Good Morning America" that the girl escaped from where she was being held. Smith said that investigators told her that Closs escaped, but provided no other details about the case.Late Thursday, investigators blocked all streets leading to a cabin in the 14100 block of S. Eau Claire Acres Circle as they combed for evidence. The residence is believed to be that of the 21-year-old suspect, who is reportedly being held in the Douglas County jail.
Authorities declined to release any details late Thursday but plan a 10 a.m. Friday news conference in Barron County.
Jayme disappeared Oct. 15 from her rural home about 2 miles outside of Barron, where her parents, James and Denise, were found shot to death. She had not been seen or heard from since. Several intensive searches took place in the area, but none yielded any clues, and for weeks Fitzgerald has been saying that authorities had no new leads.
Everywhere, tears of joy
Sue Allard, Jayme's aunt, overwhelmed and crying, could barely express her joy after learning the news. "Praise the Lord," she said during a phone interview, between sobs. "It's the news we've been waiting on for three months. I can't wait to get my arms around her. I just can't wait."
Allard said she and other family members didn't have a lot of details about what happened, and they were asked by authorities not to say too much about what they do know.
Earlier Thursday evening, Fitzgerald had knocked down a rumor spreading on social media that Jayme had been found in Walworth County in southeastern Wisconsin after people reported a large police presence there, saying that it was "false news."
"That was just fake stuff that was out there," Jayme's grandfather, Robert Naiberg, said by phone late Thursday. But the news he got about 7 p.m. was real, he said.
"I'm going to hug her. Squeeze her," Naiberg said, his voice cracking. "I've been in the dumpster for three months."
The news that Jayme had been found alive swept quickly through Barron, a town of 3,300, and well beyond its borders. There were tears of joy, gasps of disbelief and shouts of gratitude.
Jasmine Hightower, manager of the McDonald's in Barron, said people are full of unanswered questions, but that for now they're just happy to hear that Jayme is alive.
Pamela Currans, who was working the Thursday night shift at the Subway in town, said she never gave up hope. "I stayed positive," she said. "I knew she would be found alive."
When she learned the news, Currans said she cried.
"Tears of joy," she quickly added. "This is very awesome."
Star Tribune staff writers John Reinan and Pam Louwagie contributed to this report.