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Jayme Closs "had a good night" at home with her aunt

Jayme Closs spent Saturday morning like a normal teenage girl — curled up on the couch, playing with her dog, Molly, after getting a long-overdue good night’s rest, said her aunt, Jennifer Smith.

“She feels comfortable here. We had a good night,” Smith said of her niece, who was abducted from her rural Barron County home on Oct. 15 in a case that has garnered national headlines. “She slept good last night.”

Closs escaped from a home near the small town of Gordon in Douglas County Thursday and was found by Eau Claire resident Jeanne Nutter, who was walking her dog near her cabin there. The two then went to a neighbor’s home and Barron County law enforcement authorities were called.

Smith, whose sister was Jayme’s mother, Denise Closs, said she has always been close to Jayme. Smith, who lives in Barron, is Jayme’s godmother, and she saw Jayme frequently.

“We signed papers (Friday) for guardianship,” Smith said. “I did daycare for her, for 12 years of her life.”

Jayme has her own room already set up in Smith’s home.

“(My family) went and purchased her a new bed, new sheets to make her feel comfortable, and decorated it for her,” Smith said.

Smith said the curtains in her house are shut, trying to shield Jayme from media and others who want to talk to her. She added that they have police protection outside the home too.

Smith said there are so many questions she wants to ask Jayme, such as if the girl was in Gordon the entire 88 days since she was abducted, or how Jayme was kept captive, or how she managed to escape Thursday afternoon from her suspected captor, 21-year-old Jake Thomas Patterson. But she isn’t pushing those topics.

“She’ll talk when she’s ready,” Smith said.

When asked if Jayme was aware about the media attention and all the thousands of volunteers who helped search for her, Smith wasn’t sure.

“That’s one of the questions I want to ask her. I don’t want to overwhelm her,” Smith said. “I showed her the (decorated) trees, and all the pictures on my phone, and the bridge that was lit up (as a vigil for her).”

Jayme has always been shy and a little quiet, so Smith is unconcerned that the teen isn’t talking much yet about the experience.

“When she’s ready to talk about things, she knows I’m here,” Smith said.

Good news

Smith first heard that Jayme Closs was possibly found on Thursday from a Twin Cities reporter, who had learned the good news and called Smith. Smith was unsure; only hours earlier, there was a report that Jayme was seen in Walworth County, only to have that rumor debunked.

However, about 20 minutes later, Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald showed up at her house, with a wide smile on his face, and Smith knew immediately that this rumor was actually good news.

“I knew it had to be good news,” Smith said. “We broke down in happy tears.”

Smith was able to see Jayme a short time later. Officers warned her to not expect much of a reaction, because it is unclear what type of trauma Jayme has been through.

“When she saw me, she came fast to me, and gave me the hugest hug,” Smith said. “It was the best feeling ever.”

Jayme appears to be in good health, Smith added.

“We’ve got to put some meat on her bones. She’s a little thin,” Smith said. “She’ll be fine. She has some healing process to do.”

Part of that healing will be reuniting with family. The family of Jayme’s father, James Closs, was coming over to Smith’s house Saturday to see her for the first time since she escaped.

While Jayme was comfortable and relaxed in her aunt’s home Saturday, Smith said she is taking a casual approach to when they decide to go out, whether it is for a shopping trip or returning to school.

“We talked about school. She misses her friends,” Smith said. “We’ll do it when the time is right.”

Patterson arrested

Patterson is scheduled to appear in court on Monday, where he is likely to be charged with two counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of James and Denise Closs, as well as kidnapping. He is incarcerated in the Barron County Jail.

Smith said when she ran through the list of possible suspects over the past three months, she never considered a seemingly random stranger from Gordon who apparently targeted Jayme.

“I had not a clue,” Smith said. “It just blows my mind. There are no connections to the family whatsoever.”

Police arrested Patterson in his car, which Jayme had described, just down the road from the cabin in Gordon. He likely was out driving, looking for Jayme after she escaped.

Fitzgerald said that Patterson, who was unemployed, took “steps to conceal his identity” over the past three months, including shaving his head.

Patterson graduated from Northwood School District in Minong, where the school superintendent described him as quiet and a one-time member of the school quiz bowl team. Patterson’s parents divorced in 2007, court records show.

Records show that Patterson’s father, Patrick, transferred the title of the cabin where Closs was apparently held to Superior Choice Credit Union on Oct. 23, eight days after the Oct. 15 attack at the Closs family’s home, the Associated Press reported. The cabin was appraised at $79,300.

Eau Claire woman's time helping immigrants at border impactful

A man from Central America who covered his face and spoke only in whispers because he feared death at the hands of drug lord emissaries.

A family from that same part of the world who had walked more than 1,000 miles with others seeking a chance at a better life in the U.S.

A man from another Central American country who said if he were denied asylum in the U.S. he would ask a judge to imprison him rather than return to his homeland.

As Eau Claire resident Mireya Sigala listened to the adverse situations faced by those refugees and others seeking asylum in this country during a trip last month to the U.S.-Mexico border at Tijuana, she saw not only their faces but those of her parents.

Juan and Carmen Sigala entered this country illegally in the 1970s from Mexico when Juan learned of jobs at Jerome Foods in Barron that offered the couple a better life. They eventually settled in Barron and became citizens, raising a family and making a new life here.

“The stories these people told me, they were so powerful and personal,” said Mireya, who spent Dec. 11 to 24 at the border port of entry into this country at Tijuana. “I am of Mexican descent, and as I listened to them, I thought of my parents, of the hardships they endured, of all they went through ... I felt I had to do something to help these people who also face so many challenges.”

Mireya is no stranger to helping others. The 41-year-old mother of three is active in El Centro de Conexion de Chippewa Valley, an organization that works to educate others about the Latino community and to provide resources to that population and activities intended to combine Latinos with the rest of the Eau Claire-area community.

She also is a member of the Joining Our Neighbors, Advancing Hope Immigration Task Force, a group of local residents who work on immigration-related issues, and she works for the state of Wisconsin helping resolve benefits eligibility issues.

The U.S.-Mexico border has garnered national headlines in recent weeks as a standoff between President Donald Trump and Democrats regarding Trump’s demand for funding to build a border wall has shut down some government operations as a much-publicized caravan of refugees made its way to the border.

As Mireya learned more about the situations faced by immigrants at the border, she decided she needed to get involved. She researched opportunities to assist and applied for a position with New Sanctuary Coalition, one of multiple organizations helping refugees seeking asylum. She was pleasantly surprised she was chosen for that work and was assigned to help educate those seeking asylum with the process of doing so.

As her airplane departed from Minneapolis and headed to the border, Mireya’s mind raced with anticipation about her upcoming adventure.

“I was excited to be doing this work but nervous about what I would find when I landed,” she said.

‘Daunting’ wall

The large wall at the U.S.-Mexico border at Tijuana is tall and imposing, the barbed-wire strung along its top is a menacing message against crossing there. The U.S. side of the border is a militarized zone, armed guards stationed at many points.

As Mireya approached the structure after landing in San Diego, Calif., and heading to the border, her nerves tingled with a sense of fear and oppression.

“Until you are standing there, you can’t imagine how daunting that wall, that militarized presence, feels,” she said.

Mireya was directed to work with refugees in the Barretal encampment, the largest of multiple camps of 2,300 seeking asylum gathered there after the refugee caravan was settled at the site. She was struck immediately by the crowded, Spartan conditions.

Hundreds of tents were clustered tightly together on the cement floor with little space between them. Thin, worn mattresses served as beds. Portable toilets and garbage lined the encampment, lending foul odors. The bathrooms were far too few for a gathering of that size, Mireya said, and personal hygiene basics such as soap and toilet paper were missing.

“It was hard to believe I was actually seeing people living in those conditions,” she said. “It is a cesspool waiting for some sort of disease to break out.”

Despite their tough situations, people camped there worked to try to clean the site, Mireya said, “and that gave me a sense of hope, that these people are trying to do the best they can.”

Real dangers

Gaining asylum into the U.S. is a challenging process that includes many conditions and steps, Mireya said. Certain categories of people, such as those with an education or specialized skills, tend to be granted asylum at a higher rate than the working poor, she said. Those seeking entry also need sponsors.

Most of the people seeking asylum know nothing of the process to gain it. Mireya and workers like her tried to help them navigate the system and provide them with as much information as possible. Those with attorneys working on their behalf have the best chance of gaining asylum, she said. Most who seek it are not granted asylum, and some decide against doing so and resettle in Mexico rather than risk being returned to dangers in their home country.

Many of the people Mireya worked with face very real danger if they return to their homes. Unfortunately, for many she helped prepare to seek asylum, that was the case, Mireya said. Stories of people who had fled their homes after being targeted by drug lords or gangs were commonplace, she said, as were meetings with people whose family members had been killed by those groups.

“Whether they are granted asylum is really a matter of life and death for some people,” she said.

Firsthand accounts from Mireya and others who have visited the border are especially important as people hear differing accounts of the situation faced by refugees hoping for asylum, said Eau Claire resident Joyce Anderson, who serves as co-chair of the JONAH Immigration Task Force along with her husband, Dave.

“We hear conflicting news about what is going on at those (border) locations,” Anderson said. “People are curious and compassionate about what is going on at the border, and they want to know about the conditions immigrants face.”

Better life

The longer Mireya stayed at Barretal, the more she felt tied to the people she was trying to help. Some said they had been there for several months hoping for an asylum hearing. All spoke of their desperation to make a better life for themselves, and in many cases, their families.

“The more I tried to help these people, the more I realized that this work is beyond important,” she said. “You cannot begin to understand their lives until you talk to them and get this small window into what they are going through.”

In many cases, Mireya said, simply gaining the trust of refugees was a significant hurdle. “With the lives many of them lead, they don’t trust anybody,” she said.

On her last day at Barretal, Mireya was recognized for her efforts with refugees there. The enormity of that work and the struggles those she attempted to assist overwhelmed her, and she lowered her head and sobbed.

The faces of the people she worked with flooded her mind during her flight home. Who would gain asylum? What would become of those who did not?

Since her return to Eau Claire, Mireya has continued to wonder about those she helped. She keeps in contact with some of them, exchanging texts and providing support as best she can. She and immigration lawyer Kara Lynum will share their experiences working at the Tijuana border site during a forum titled “Our Friends and Neighbors at the Border,” from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 31 at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 3214 Golf Road.

Her experience at the border struck a personal note with Mireya. She plans a return there in the near future, she said, and feels a calling to turn that work into a future career.

“Working at the border made me appreciate my life here in Eau Claire so much more,” she said. “Now I want to help others have a chance at that kind of life.”

Jayme rescuer: "The stars were aligned"

Jeanne Nutter says she hates the phrase “everything happens for a reason.” But a series of small events led her to be in the exactly right place, at the absolutely right time, to bump into Jayme Closs on the road outside her cabin in rural Gordon on Thursday afternoon.

Nutter, of Strum, left her home later that day than she wanted to. She wound up making several quick stops in Bloomer, Rice Lake and Minong before getting to her cabin. Her dog, Henry, was antsy and wanted to go for a walk. Nutter went to leave, only to return to the cabin to put on anti-slip cleats over her shoes.

“Why did I do all these silly little things before I went for my walk?” Nutter wondered Saturday morning. “I don’t know what happened with the stars, but they were aligned. I’m glad I dilly-dallied on my way up here.”

Nutter, who has a background as a social worker and who is a part-time academic advisor for the UW-Madison school of social work, was seemingly the perfect person to run into a distressed girl in need of immediate help.

“I’ve been a social worker since 1976,” she said. “I work on adoptions and with foster kids. It’s been my life, taking care of kids.”

Nutter is a part-time academic advisor for the school of social work in Eau Claire.

That background was essential when Closs approached her on the street, told her who she was, and that she needed help.

“I quickly went into my social worker skills, of getting this child to a safe place, but you stay calm,” Nutter said. “My first reaction was to scream and say, ‘You’re alive!’ I didn’t ask her questions, even though all those thoughts (of what happened to her) were in my head. I just reassured her as we walked toward (my neighbor’s) house. I just wanted her to be calm. That was my goal.”

Nutter explained that she didn’t want to go into her cabin because she’s not there all the time, and the suspect, 21-year-old Jake Thomas Patterson, might think to stop there to look for Jayme if he saw Nutter’s car.

“All this was going through my head, that my place wasn’t safe,” she said. “There is only one road, and I didn’t want to drag her through the woods.”

So Nutter decided to go to the nearby home of Pete and Kristin Kasinkas, who are year-round residents there. Fortunately, Kristin Kasinkas was home.

Kasinkas called 911, and eventually Nutter spoke to the dispatcher.

“I’m so glad they believed us,” Nutter said. “I stayed on the phone with the dispatcher until the officers arrived. Don’t ask me how I stayed so calm.”

Nutter objected to a media report that described Jayme as being “dirty,” but she said the girl clearly wasn’t appropriately dressed for being outside and was obviously in distress.

“She looked thin,” Nutter said. “Wherever she was, she left in a hurry.”

Nutter said she’s glad that Patterson was quickly apprehended, and that Jayme is already safely back with her family.

“It was a privilege to have a little part in helping get her home,” she said.