When Jayme Closs, 13, appeared along a rural Wisconsin road Thursday, she ended an 88-day search by hundreds of investigators. Chris Fitzgerald, the sheriff of Barron County, Wisconsin — where Jayme’s parents were found dead in their home on the night Jayme disappeared — was at the helm of that desperate search, which drew thousands of tips from around the country.
On Saturday, a day after Fitzgerald announced that Jayme was safely back, and that a suspect, Jake T. Patterson, 21, was being held on suspicion of murder and kidnapping, many details about what happened remained unknown, even for Mr Fitzgerald. Investigators were still trying to learn why Jayme, whose family was not known to have made any previous contact with Patterson, was targeted and how she was kept out of sight for months.
But the sheriff answered questions about the case and how it has affected his small community in western Wisconsin.
Mr Fitzgerald, 45, has worked in law enforcement for 21 years. He grew up in Barron County, the son of a part-time sheriff’s deputy, and dreamed, he said, of working in law enforcement since he was five. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What has this case meant to Barron County and how has it changed the place?
A: It’s made people more cautious. It scared a lot of people. Even still today, we have the suspect in custody, but the reason why is still a question out there. People hold their kids a little tighter. I’ve got two kids of my own. You just worry a little bit more when something like this happens. This was a very traumatic and gruesome case.
Q: How does this compare to everything else you’ve seen in your time as sheriff?
A: We had a tornado that killed somebody. We’ve had a domestic abuse turn violent and had people killed. So we’ve seen some crimes, but never a kidnapping of a kid.
So many people wanted to help bring this kid home. There are so many people smiling this morning. It’s so awesome to think about everybody sitting around having a cup of coffee smiling because she woke up in a safe home for the first time in 88 days today.
Q: Knowing now where Jayme was being held — in a town 60 miles north of you — is there anything you would have done differently on the investigation?
A: I don’t think we could have done anything differently because this was random — and yet well planned out. This was what we believe was a random pick of Jayme by this suspect, and then a well-planned-out execution. I think when we get all the details of what he did and what Jayme experienced, we’ll review this case.
But boy, I can’t see anything right now. I’m not patting myself or our team on the back, but they worked hard day and night. They left their families. They worked weekends. They wanted to do it to bring Jayme home.
Q: Was there an earlier moment in the investigation when you thought the end was here — the case was solved?
A: There were a lot of days. I was hesitant when we got the call that they had Jayme. Because we’ve had those calls before: “This is definitely Jayme at the Subway in Michigan.” Or, “She’s at the park in Los Angeles.” So even when we got the call that it was Jayme Closs, I said, “No, don’t react yet.” And when my detective was standing in my office and he said, “We got her,” then it was like — wow! Go there. Get there. It’s 60 miles away. Go and get her and never let her go.
Q: You have two kids — a 13-year-old and a 16-year-old. How has this case affected you personally and your family?
A: I just think about it all the time. You go to bed and you’re thinking about it. You’re like — did I do everything we could have done today? I talked to many of our detectives about that and they felt the same way. They’d wake up at two in the morning and take notes about something — did I miss that word? Is there a text message I’m missing? Is there a phone call? Is there a friend we didn’t interview? This case was like nothing anyone has ever seen around here. Personally this case, it took its toll on me and my family.
We live nine miles from the sheriff’s department but they were always in bed and I was always leaving before the sun came up.
Q: When you thought about what the outcome of this could be, how does the real outcome compare?
A: This is something I dreamed about — being able to bring her back to Barron County. We were able to do that last night. It was something that we had to hope for and never gave up hope on, but after 88 days of this, hope was dwindling.
Q: Did Jayme know that so many people were searching for her?
A:I don’t know. I don’t think we pressed that. We’re letting Jayme go at her pace now. When she wants information, we’re giving it to her. When she wants to give information, we’re taking it from her. Hopefully, we’ll be able to shield her as much as we can and let her work at her own pace to get back to the normalcy that she can get to.
New York Times