Thirteen-year-old Jayme Closs survived three months being held captive by the man who allegedly murdered her parents — then she put him behind bars.
Authorities had been scrambling to find the teen since Oct. 15, when they found her parents, James and Denise Closs, shot to death in their home along Highway 8 in the tiny Wisconsin town of Barron.
The murders rocked the close-knit community of just over 3,300 people and sparked a months-long manhunt for Jayme, her captor and her parents’ killer, but officials were at a loss for answers.
On Thursday, they got their big break in the case — from Jayme herself.
The girl had escaped her abductor while he was out of the remote cabin where she had been held captive 65 miles from her own home. Fleeing onto the street, she flagged down a woman walking her dog. That woman alerted two local residents and 911 was called.
Gaunt, dirty with matted hair and shoes that were too big, she provided police with a description of a car, which led them to pull over and arrest 21-year-old Jake Thomas Patterson — the man they say is responsible for her disappearance and her parents’ death.
“Jayme is the hero in this case. There is no question about it,” Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald told reporters Friday.
“She is the one that helped us break the case.”
Patterson was preliminarily charged with two counts of first-degree intentional homicide and one count of kidnapping as authorities began working to piece together the last three months of Jayme’s life.
Already they have concluded that the teen was his intended target, and that the suspect spent time planning to cover up the abduction.
“The suspect had intentions to kidnap Jayme and went to great lengths to prepare to take her,” Fitzgerald said.
But many mysteries remain as authorities grill Patterson and Jayme recovers from her ordeal.
The “key question,” said Fitzgerald, is “why and how he hid this for 88 days.”
Wisconsin natives James and Denise lived a quiet life with their only child, Jayme. He was a diehard Green Bay Packers fan and she a nature buff who loved to tend her garden. The couple, who married in 2003 in Las Vegas, worked together at the Jennie-O Turkey Store in Barron for 27 years, according to their obituaries.
Hours before they were gunned down, Jayme and her mother had attended a family birthday party for the teen’s cousin, her grandfather Robert Naiberg said.
James had to skip out because of work, but his “thoughtful” wife, Denise, brought “a little gift for everybody” at the get-together, Naiberg recalled.
The Closses’ deaths paralyzed the residents of Barron, a town no bigger than three square miles.
“This is someone killing someone else, and it is right next door,” neighbor Joan Smrekar said in the days after the slayings.
Smrekar and her husband, Tom, awoke at around 12:30 a.m. on Oct. 15 to the crack of gunshots.
“Those two shots were so loud,” Tom recalled.
A 911 call came in just before 1 a.m. from Denise’s cellphone. But the caller never got a chance to engage with the dispatcher, who could hear only “a lot of yelling” before the line went dead.
No gun was ever recovered, and police refused to release details of the parents’ deaths pending their autopsies.
Police believed Jayme was home at the time of the murders, and they immediately ruled her out as a suspect.
She wasn’t a runaway, they said. She was in danger.
“I’m telling you, Jayme is missing and endangered,” Fitzgerald insisted to reporters. An Amber Alert was issued.
With the help of some 2,000 volunteers — nearly two-thirds of Barron’s population — authorities searched for Jayme. They used drones and infrared equipment to scour the area around the family’s home, as deputies interviewed the teen’s friends and classmates.
Thousands of tips poured in early on, including one the day after the murders. A tipster said someone resembling the 5-foot, 100-pound girl with green eyes and wavy strawberry-blond hair was spotted at a gas station in Miami. The claim was proven false.
Meanwhile, the residents of Barron rallied around one another, holding vigils and what they called a “gathering of hope” in Jayme’s honor.
Jennifer Smith issued an emotional message to her missing niece.
“Jayme, we need you here with us to fill that hole we have in our hearts,” the aunt said. “We all love you to the moon and back. And we will never stop looking for you . . . Your dog, Molly, is waiting for you. She’s sleeping in one of your sweatshirts.”
The FBI announced a $25,000 reward for information leading to Jayme’s whereabouts, and three days later, James and Denise Closs were laid to rest in Cameron, a village next to Barron.
James’ siblings, Jeff Closs and Kelly Engelhardt, meanwhile, , however, zeroed in on a piece of the puzzle that authorities would later confirm as true.held out hope their niece was alive. With no real enemies, the slain couple could not have been the killer’s target, the siblings reasoned, it had to be the girl.
“That’s why our gut feeling is, they wanted Jayme,” Engelhardt said.
During the months of November and December, the case crawled to a near halt.
But the small town remained optimistic that Jayme would be found alive, hosting a “tree of hope” lighting ceremony ahead of Christmas on Dec. 12.
Nearly a month later, Fitzgerald, the sheriff, said he was in the middle of dispelling yet another erroneous tip about Jayme’s whereabouts when he learned that she had turned up for real, about an hour from Barron.
“My legs started to shake, it was awesome,” Fitzgerald told reporters on Friday.
Jayme had managed to escape from Patterson, who had been hiding her at his home on South Eau Claire Acres Circle in Gordon, a rural town of just 277 people, according to police.
He was out of the home when she made a run for it, authorities.
Disheveled, the teen approached Jeanne Nutter, who was walking her dog on the same winding street. Jayme identified herself, prompting Nutter to rush to the nearby home of Kristin and Peter Kasinskas and pound on the door for help.
“Call 911, this is Jayme Closs!” Nutter barked to Kristin, according to KARE 11 TV.
Nutter said Jayme appeared disoriented.
“She just said, ‘I’m lost, I don’t know where I am,’ ” Nutter recalled. “She said, ‘I don’t know where I am,’ a couple of times.”
Nutter added, “When I knew who she was, I said, ‘Jayme, you’re really only an hour and a half or so from home, if that gives you some perspective.’ Because she had no idea where she was.”
Ten minutes after police arrived, Patterson was pulled over and arrested thanks to Jayme’s description of his car.
“We believe that the suspect was out looking for her when law enforcement made contact with him,” Fitzgerald said.
The case, he said, proved nearly impossible to crack because of the “steps he took” to conceal his tracks, as well as the girl’s.
That included shaving his head on the night he stormed the Closses’ home so as not to leave any hair behind.
Jayme was taken to a hospital in Duluth and evaluated overnight.
Her family requested privacy as they reunited with the girl on Friday.
Meanwhile, Patterson, who is unemployed and has no criminal record, was cooling his heels in county jail and was scheduled to be arraigned Monday.
Fitzgerald credited the residents of Barron for keeping hope alive and Jayme’s tenacity to stay alive.
“It’s amazing, the will of that 13-year-old girl to survive and escape,” the sheriff said. “That comes from the hope and the prayers in this community.”
With Wire Services