Rarely do I advocate watching more TV.
But when I tuned in to Monday’s edition of “The Voice” to check out the performance of Barron singing sensation Chris Kroeze, I couldn’t help but wish millions more people were watching when he dedicated his performance to his hometown and displayed a green ribbon on his guitar in honor of missing 13-year-old Jayme Closs.
Not because anyone who failed to watch Kroeze’s soulful rendition of the Beatles’ “Let it Be” missed a great performance, which is true, but because anyone who saw that show on NBC got a glimpse of Jayme’s photo and heard the story of how she went missing on Oct. 15 — the same night her parents, Denise and James Closs, were shot to death in their home about two miles outside of Barron.
The more eyes that see Jayme’s smiling face, the better the chance that someone might recognize her and provide the tip that helps investigators solve the case.
While it’s easy to lose hope in such tragic cases, residents of west-central Wisconsin have witnessed a happy ending to a scenario with several similarities.
That case involved another 13-year-old girl, Jessyca Mullenberg, who was abducted from her father’s mobile home in September 1995 by then-38-year-old Steven Oliver of Eau Claire.
Just as with Jayme’s case, Jessyca’s disappearance generated national news coverage, tremendous concern among local residents and more than 1,000 tips that proved to be dead ends.
The key difference is authorities knew Oliver had taken Jessyca, but no one knows what happened to Jayme.
The FBI eventually recovered Jessyca from a Houston hotel, where Oliver had abused her and kept her locked up for 3½ months.
Her abductor had cut and dyed Jessyca’s hair and threatened to kill her and her family if she didn’t go by a fake name and pretend to be Oliver’s daughter.
The breakthrough finally came after an Eau Claire sheriff’s office investigator appeared on Fox’s “America’s Most Wanted: Final Justice,” a national TV show that highlighted cases of people sought by law enforcement.
While the initial airing didn’t produce any promising leads, a repeat of the show prompted a woman from Texas to report that she recognized Oliver and Jessyca as a pair posing as father and daughter and staying at a Days Inn in Houston.
About an hour later, Jessyca had been found safe and Oliver was in custody before eventually being sentenced to 40 years in prison on felony charges of kidnapping and transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes.
Just a couple of hours after Jessyca’s recovery, I experienced one of the happiest and most memorable moments of my journalistic career — yes, reporters are people too — when I got a phone call from Eau Claire FBI agent Jerry Southworth informing me of the successful rescue mission and conducted a middle-of-the-night interview to learn all of the joyous details.
Though the experience was traumatic and had long-lasting effects on Jessyca, she now is married and has a family of her own in the Stevens Point area.
The search for Jessyca was successful in part because people never lost hope, even though investigators acknowledged the longer she was missing, the less likely the case would have a positive resolution.
Contacted recently, Jessyca said Jayme’s story “hits very close to home” because she went missing at about the same time of year and at the same age.
“The news of another missing child is heartbreaking, and when I heard about Jayme Closs all the memories of my abduction came racing back,” Jessyca said.
Still thankful for all the media and public did to keep her abduction in the public eye 23 years ago and convinced those efforts are why she is alive today, Jessyca encouraged people to keep Jayme’s story alive by posting on social media, putting up posters or simply continuing to talk about it.
“Trust me, anything you can do will help bring Jayme Closs back home,” Jessyca said, recalling that she drew strength during her own captivity from knowing her family and friends were looking for her.
“I just pray that they find her soon because it’s going to get cold soon and the longer she is missing the odds of her coming home are smaller and that is just devastating,” Jessyca said. “We just have to find her.”
Let’s hope that somehow history repeats itself, and nationwide TV coverage can help bring Jayme home.
Even famed country singer Blake Shelton, a judge and Kroeze’s coach on “The Voice,” called priceless attention to the case when he told Kroeze on the air, “Hopefully this tonight will have a happy ending, and that 13-year-old girl will be found.”
Though Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald also had hoped “The Voice” segment might lead to a break in the Closs case, he said Friday the show hadn’t yet produced any promising leads in the search for Jayme. Still, he agreed the extra exposure on a show with several million viewers can’t hurt.
In addition, since audience votes saved Kroeze in the singing competition, that means he will get a chance to perform again today as one of the top 11 contestants and perhaps bring even more attention to Jayme’s cause.
“It’s good to keep the message out there and keep Jayme’s story alive,” said Fitzgerald, who has been vigilant in his optimism since news of the case shocked the region. “The right person just hasn’t seen it yet.”