Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald speaks to the community at a tree lighting ceremony outside of Riverview Middle School in Barron Dec. 12. It's been two months since someone shot and killed James Closs, 56, and Denise Closs, 46, in their ranch home just outside Barron and apparently snatched their 13-year-old daughter Jayme. In those months, authorities have found very few clues about Jayme's disappearance, Fitzgerald said. For more on Jayme's disappearance and the community's reaction, see page Ax.
BARRON, Wis. — For years, residents here have adorned their Christmas trees with twinkling red and white lights.
On Wednesday, they huddled together in hope, lighting a community holiday tree in green and blue — green denoting hope for missing children; blue to represent a community’s condolences to the deceased.
It’s been two months since someone shot and killed James Closs, 56, and Denise Closs, 46, in their ranch home just outside Barron, Wis., and apparently snatched their 13-year-old daughter Jayme.
It’s now 60 days in, and Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said investigators still don’t know why anyone would target the family. Nor, he said, do the local, state and federal investigators — who have chased down 2,400 leads — know where Jayme is or why she was taken.
The crime and the ensuing mystery have spooked many in the close-knit community, which led others to speculate in a swirl of rumors and sparked a half-dozen Facebook groups of thousands of people from across the nation.
“I’m scared, still scared because there hasn’t been much information,” said Amy Stone, a lifelong Barron resident.
“In this town, they know everything. You can’t change your clothes without someone saying something,” Stone said. “Someone knows something.”
He said evidence — or a lack of evidence — seems to suggest that the killer or killers didn’t get very far into the home sometime after midnight on Oct. 15. Investigators have not recovered any DNA evidence, or fingerprints, nor did they find shoe prints inside the home, he said. He declined to discuss where in the house the bodies were found, how many shots were fired or what kind of guns were used.
What happened that Monday morning?
The sheriff remains steadfast in his belief that the eighth-grader at Riverview Middle School was not involved in her parents’ killings. He also holds out hope she’s alive based on other case examples the FBI has provided, such as the Ariel Castro kidnappings in Cleveland or the abduction of Elizabeth Smart.
Fitzgerald said the case remains his department’s top priority. Investigators are now looking more closely into the timeline of her parents’ lives, hoping to unmask a clue or a tip.
“It’s very difficult to build someone’s life when both the mother the father and the child are gone,” said Fitzgerald.
At 12:56 a.m. on Oct. 15, the sheriff’s department got a 911 from Denise Closs’ phone. But no one was on the line, according to the 911 dispatch log. The dispatcher heard yelling in the background and tried to call back, but was unable to reach anyone.
It is unknown who made that call.
“There’s like a distance to it or something’s covering up the phone like a blanket,” Fitzgerald said.
Police found the phone in the doorway of a bathroom hallway, away from where the two bodies were discovered, he said in an interview with MPR News.
Jayme, who is thought to have been at home during the call, was gone when deputies arrived just a couple of minutes later. The door was open when they got to the house, Fitzgerald said.
A neighbor said she heard two gunshots at 12:31 or 12:32 a.m., Fitzgerald said. He added, however, if the suspect or suspects stayed at the residence for 20-some minutes, it would be nearly impossible that they would not leave forensic evidence inside the home.
“We had four different crime labs go over the scene and we didn’t recover anything,” said Fitzgerald.
The sheriff’s department announced two vehicles of interest a week after the incident — a 2008 to 2014 red/orange Dodge Challenger and either a 2006 to 2010 black Ford Edge or a 2004 to 2010 black Acura MDX — which they said were near the home around that morning.
Fitzgerald said authorities are still taking tips about the vehicles but are not keen on locating those vehicles anymore.
“There’s a lot of discussion taking place that they might not be a Challenger,” he said. “I think we’ve got every vehicle covered in the nation because we have so many tips.”
Asked whether he thinks Jayme may be in the Barron area, Fitzgerald said it’s not clear yet but “there isn’t something to say she’s not local.”
“(James and Denise Closs) didn’t do a lot of things outside of this area,” he said. “So local seems to make more sense than it does with a national abduction or something like that.”
The sheriff called for volunteers for grid searches of the Barron area twice in October, which drew more than 2,000 people. His department is continuing to work with state and federal child abduction experts to try to find her.
“I wish I knew some of those answers,” said the sheriff. “When we get Jayme back, we will be able to determine (what happened.)”
Small town, big heart
James and Denise Closs worked at Jennie-O Turkey Store, a turkey processing factory in Barron, for 27 years. The company is the town’s biggest employer.
Becky Bryan, a lab technician at Jennie-O, worked with James Closs for the past two years.
“Jayme, I know, was the light of his life. He loved his daughter very much. So we heard a lot about her,” Bryan said. “I remember that she had her birthday party not too long ago and he had not planned on going. I think he was going to work and then changed his mind and decided to go at the last minute because he really wanted to be there for her.”
The deaths continue to haunt them.
“It was really hard the first week, that first day because he’s not coming up there,” she said. “No one is expecting somebody that close to be murdered like that.”
Every part of the community has been affected, said the Rev. Ron Mathews of the First Lutheran Church in Barron. Many churches in town have held services for Jayme and her family, providing the community with a place to hold themselves together. Another community-wide memorial was held Saturday — which marked the two-month anniversary of the crime.
“It really caught everybody off guard because we’re not used to it,” said Mathews. “This beat the entire county.”
Resident Dave White said he’s been trying to figure out what happened through conversations with his neighbors and what he’s been reading on Facebook pages devoted to the case.
“I know the rumor mill, which is nonstop. There’s all kinds of things going on, (like) drugs, sex trafficking,” said White. “It’s hard to comprehend what’s going on when the public is not being told.”
Never give up ‘hope’
Hope has transcended the rumors.
About 200 Barron residents gathered at Riverview Middle School last Wednesday evening to light a “tree of hope” for Jayme. The evergreen was decorated by the staff and students of the school. Blue paper lanterns for James and Denise Closs and a green lantern for Jayme were also lit by surviving Closs family members and some of her friends, who released them into the night sky.
“It’s been a challenging time for us all and our staff and our students have been rock stars,” said Barron Area School District Administrator Diane Tremblay. “I truly believe in the good intentions of tonight.”
Chris Kroeze, a native of Barron who is among four finalists of the national TV show, “The Voice,” joined via a video message. Kroeze in November dedicated his performance of “Let It Be” to Jayme.
Mike Closs, brother to James Closs, said he was grateful to the community’s outpouring and support.
“Our family is like you, we just want Jayme home and we pray every day. We just hope her safe return and we can’t thank the community enough,” he said, sobbing.
The Land of Lakes Choirboys and members of the Barron community sang “Silent Night.”
“It’s the Christmas season. It’s time to believe and it’s time to bring hope so we can bring the 13-year-old girl home,” Fitzgerald said.
“While this case is heartbreaking, it’s very heartwarming at the same time and this community has done a remarkable effort to hold us up.”
Jayme is described as 5 feet tall and 100 pounds with strawberry-blond hair and green eyes. Anyone with information is asked to call the tip line at 1-855-744-3879. There is a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.