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A month after Jayme Closs vanished, the feeling in her hometown is 'very dark'

Jayme Closs. (Courtesy of the Barron County Sheriff’s Department)

BARRON, Wis. — After the grim news of what happened at the Closs place last month, some of the children here wonder if it's OK to be happy anymore.

Adults who never thought twice about locking their doors are now double-checking deadbolts and installing security systems.

Even the local sheriff admits that the gruesome details of what happened in the wee hours of Oct. 15 get to him, prompting him to pause and take an extra-long look into his children's bedrooms each night after another day of searching for clues in a haunting mystery that has put this northwestern Wisconsin town of 3,400 residents on edge.

"Who was the target here?" Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said last week, shaking his head. "That's the million-dollar question. Was it a robbery gone bad? Why do you pick that house? I wish I knew.

"The motive isn't there. The reason isn't there. I wish, wish, wish every night before I go to bed that we find a clue."

More than a month after Denise and James Closs were shot to death in their home about two miles outside of town, police frankly admit that they're stumped and desperate for clues as to who killed them and why. They have no leads, no weapon and no motive. What's more, they have no idea of what happened to the Closs' 13-year-old daughter, Jayme, who was home at the time of the killings and vanished.

Authorities have said they don't consider her a suspect.

At least 20 officers, from the county sheriff's department to the FBI, continue to work the case, Fitzgerald said last week. But that's a far cry from the 200 or more law enforcement officers who tracked clues in the hours and days following the brutal killings and Jayme's disappearance.

As the number of tips reported to police dwindles, residents remain anxious for answers, hoping and praying for an arrest and Jayme's safe return.

"A lot of people are scared," said Jennifer Smith, one of Denise's sisters, who lives in town. "I'm scared. I check my doors 10 times a night. ... I peek out my windows. I don't want to go out in the dark by myself."

"It's been very heavy around here, very dark," said Patty Gerber, who was Jayme's Sunday school teacher at a local Catholic church. "Obviously, a lot of people are just sad.

"I think there's a new feeling of the unknown. Not knowing scares people."

The city of Barron, about 90 miles northeast of the Twin Cities, is divided by busy U.S. Hwy. 8 and dominated by the Jennie-O Turkey Store processing plant, where both James and Denise Closs worked most of their adult lives.

The constant roar of big trucks along the brightly lit highway overshadows the town's small and quiet Main Street, just a few blocks away.

These days, the highway is dotted with signs — some asking motorists to pray for Jayme, others expressing support for Chris Kroeze, a local resident who's competing on "The Voice," a nationally televised talent competition. The two developments have put Barron in the strange position of celebrating an unlikely success while also mourning an unfathomable tragedy.

"Chris Kroeze is a nice diversion," Gerber said. "He is bringing something positive that is much needed in our community."

Kroeze wore a green ribbon in Jayme's honor during his "Voice" performance last week, and he has sung to children at local schools in the weeks since she disappeared. Still, his success hasn't dulled the heartache over what happened at the Closs home.

To help address the grief, Gerber said that educators at her church have met regularly with the children to let them talk through their fears. She said some of the kids have wondered if it's wrong to be happy in the midst of such sadness.

"We told them that God wants them to keep living, and it's OK to experience joy even when bad things have happened," she said.

As the community struggles to move on, the Closs family wrestles with the pain of losing two loved ones while holding out hope that they can bring Jayme home alive.

"You go to bed with all these thoughts in your head and it doesn't allow you to sleep," said Suzi Allard, a sister to Denise who lives in Cornell, a town of about 1,400 residents some 50 miles southeast of Barron.

"You sleep for two hours, then you get up and sit and think, 'What happened that day? Why did this happen to a good family like this? How? Who could have done something like this? Where is Jayme?'"

Robert "Grandpa Red" Naiberg, Denise's father and Jayme's grandfather, who also lives in Cornell, said Denise would call him two or three times a day.

"She always had something else to tell me," he said. "I could hear Jayme laughing in the background with her dad."

The loss of his daughter and the disappearance of his granddaughter, he said, have shattered his world.

He said he hasn't been able to put his daughter to rest in his mind because the casket was closed at her funeral, robbing him of the opportunity to see her one last time.

"All I do is think about them all day long — every minute of every day," Naiberg said.

Although authorities haven't ruled out that the home invasion and murders were random, relatives and others can't help but think it was a targeted crime.

"But why?" Allard asks. "We try to come up with theories, but there's nothing."

With so many unanswered questions, the rumors posted on social media and circulating around town have multiplied, Allard said.

"My goodness, I can't believe some of the stuff people come up with," she said.

For now, the police keep searching and hoping for a break.

They are convinced that Jayme Closs didn't run away with a boyfriend.

Jayme's phone was found in the house, along with those of her parents, Fitzgerald said. And there's nothing in the girl's phone to suggest she was communicating with a boy.

"There's no digital footprint that says 'I love you,' or 'Come save me from my mom and dad,'" Fitzgerald said. "If there was, then we'd have something to go on."

Investigators expanded the scope of their search last week, looking at new video from additional stores and businesses along local roadways beyond Barron County. But that effort actually subtracted a clue, Fitzgerald said. A red or orange Dodge Challenger that had been reported in the area was scratched from the potential suspect list after video analysts taking a closer look decided that a car seen in some of the videos might not be a Challenger.

Late in the week, in the hours before Wisconsin's firearm deer season opened, Fitzgerald issued a Facebook plea to local hunters asking them to keep an eye out for "anything suspicious such as clothing, weapons or anything you think (is) just not right on your property."

While frustrated, the sheriff said he's not giving up, nor is anyone else working the case.

"I'm probably more of a glass-half-full guy," he said, adding that investigators take heart from similar cases that turned out successfully, including the disappearance of Elizabeth Smart, a 14-year-old Utah girl who was kidnapped in 2002 and then rescued about nine months later.

But many townspeople mention Jacob Wetterling, who was abducted near his home in St. Joseph, Minn., in 1989 and remained missing for 27 years until his kidnapper and killer finally confessed.

Fitzgerald hears those comments, yet he doesn't believe the outcome will be the same. Still, he's tormented by the constant dead ends investigators have hit while running down more than 2,300 tips.

Jayme's relatives, meanwhile, live in fear that as time goes on, she will be forgotten. They never imagined that a month would go by without finding her, and they know how quickly the public moves on to the next tragedy.

"There's so much happening in the world — so many sad things," Allard said. "I've looked up 'missing kids,' and I look at the dates they went missing," she said. Many have been gone for years.

"I just don't know how you go on," she said.