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Jayme Closs found alive; reports say she was walking on rural Douglas County road; suspect arrested

“Jayme Closs has been located.”

Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald set off a firestorm with those words in a statement that went out at 7:56 p.m. Thursday announcing that the Barron County teen — missing for almost three months after her parents were slain in their home — had been found in rural Douglas County. And she was alive, just as he had always hoped.

Fitzgerald released few other details but said a news conference is set for about 10 this morning.

“It’ll be exciting to see how this came about,” said Eau Claire County Sheriff Ron Cramer, who sent staff from his office to Barron County to assist Fitzgerald and his office after James and Denise Closs were found shot to death in their home west of Barron on Oct. 15 and their 13-year-old daughter, Jayme, believed to have been home at the time of the killings, was missing.

“This investigation was such an unusual one,” Cramer said. “A lot of investigators we talked with over coffee were baffled. … There were so many theories bouncing around.”

The Douglas County sheriff's office confirmed on its website that Jayme was found at 4:43 p.m. Thursday in the town of Gordon, and that a suspect was taken into custody 11 minutes later.

Neither statement gave any further information about the suspect. Jayme's grandfather, Robert Naiberg, told the Star Tribune in Minneapolis that Jayme was being treated at a hospital.

Chippewa County Sheriff Jim Kowalczyk, who also sent staff to assist Barron County authorities, learned Jayme had been found Thursday night through a call from dispatch.

“Unbelievable,” said the longtime law enforcement officer. “To find her alive after three months, wow! When something like this goes on so long, there often isn’t the result.”

Fitzgerald said Jayme was expected to be reunited with her family Thursday night.

Sue Allard, Jayme's aunt, told the Star Tribune that she could barely express her joy after learning the news Thursday night.

"Praise the Lord," Allard said between sobs. "It's the news we've been waiting on for three months. I can't wait to get my arms around her. I just can't wait."

Gillian Drummond, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Justice, and Leonard Peace, a spokesman for the FBI in Wisconsin, declined comment Thursday evening. Both agencies have been involved in the search for Jayme.

Jayme has been missing since her parents, James and Denise Closs, were found shot to death Oct. 15 in the family's home near Barron. Investigators said Jayme was quickly ruled out as a suspect.

Throughout the nearly three-month ordeal, Fitzgerald continued to believe Jayme was alive.

“Sheriff Fitzgerald, I give him a lot of credit,” Cramer said. “He called a lot of resources in — the FBI, local agencies. He stuck with it, keeping the story in the media’s and the public’s eyes.”

Detectives pursued thousands of tips, watched dozens of surveillance videos and conducted numerous searches in the effort to find Jayme. Some tips led officials to recruit 2,000 volunteers for a massive ground search on Oct. 23, but it yielded no clues.

Fitzgerald said in November that he kept similar cases in the back of his mind as he worked to find Jayme, including the abduction of Elizabeth Smart, who was taken from her Salt Lake City home in 2002, when she was 14 years old. She was rescued nine months later with the help of two witnesses who recognized her abductors from an "America's Most Wanted" episode.

"I have a gut feeling she's (Jayme's) still alive. I've always been a glass half-full kind of guy," Fitzgerald said at the time.

The town of Gordon lies about 40 miles south of the Lake Superior shoreline and 65 miles north of Barron. Gordon is home to about 645 people. The area is heavily forested. Logging is the top industry in the region.

Town Chairman Denny Kline said Jayme was found about six miles east of town. He described the area as a small-town development with single-family, cabinlike homes.

He said he first learned Jayme had been found while listening to a police scanner, adding that he heard Jayme was walking down a road and someone stopped near her. Kline said he heard over the scanner that Jayme told them who she was, and they brought her to their home.

"A lot of people were very concerned, did a lot of praying and all that," he said. "Prayers were answered, for finding her, anyway."

Resident Kristin Kasinskas told the Star Tribune that a neighbor waking a dog knocked on her door Thursday afternoon. Standing with her was a skinny, dirty girl with matted hair, wearing shoes too big for her feet.

"This is Jayme Closs! Call 911!" the neighbor said to Kasinskas. Jayme was quiet, her emotions "pretty flat," Kasinskas' husband, Peter, said.

The woman who found Jayme asked the newspaper not to use her name.

In the 20 minutes Jayme was in their home, the Kasinskas tried to make her feel more comfortable, they said. They offered her water and food, but she declined both.

Jayme told the couple she didn't know where she was or anything about Gordon. From what she told them, they believe she was there for most of her disappearance.

"I honestly still think I'm dreaming right now. It was like I was seeing a ghost," Peter Kasinskas said. "My jaw just went to the floor."

The Associated Press was not able to verify the Kasinskases' account with authorities late Thursday. The nonemergency line at the Douglas County sheriff's office rang unanswered, and Sheriff Thomas Dalbec didn't respond to an email.

Barron Mayor Ron Fladten said Thursday night he hadn't heard any details about Jayme's discovery yet but was overjoyed at learning she is alive.

"There was a lot of discouragement because this took quite a while to play out," Fladten said. "A lot of people have been praying daily, as I have. It's just a great result we got tonight. It's unbelievable. It's like taking a big black cloud in the sky and getting rid of it and the sun comes out again."

He acknowledged that Jayme may not be the same person she was before she disappeared.

"I hope that she's in good shape," the mayor said. "She's no doubt been through just a terrible ordeal. I think everybody wishes her a good recovery and a happy life going into the future."

The notification that Jayme had been found came just four hours after Fitzgerald had taken to Twitter to debunk a report that she had been found alive near Walworth County in southeastern Wisconsin. Douglas County, where Jayme was found, is hundreds of miles northwest of Walworth County.

In the brief statement he sent out Thursday, Fitzgerald thanked the law enforcement agencies statewide and across the country that assisted his office in the case.

“We also could not have endured this case without the support of the public, and I want to thank them for all the support and help,” Fitzgerald wrote.

“Finally, we want to especially thank the family for their support and patience while this case was ongoing. We promised to bring Jayme home, and tonight we get to fulfill that promise.”

Former Packer LeRoy Butler talks about facing bullying, LaFleur hire at Altoona High

ALTOONA — For much of his childhood, the man who created the Lambeau Leap needed help simply walking.

“My feet were extremely pigeon-toed,” said former safety and Packers Hall of Famer LeRoy Butler, who spent his entire 12-year career with Green Bay. “They looked as if they were having a conversation. Most kids when they’re 5 or 6 years old, they’re running and jumping, chasing butterflies. They go to the pool. I didn’t do any of that.”

Butler spent time in a wheelchair and leg braces and faced ridicule in school for his hand-me-down clothes and disability while growing up in Jacksonville, Fla. But he took his mother’s lessons to heart and never let any of it get to him or divert him from his dream. He knew since he was little he wanted to play in the NFL, and when he realized he no longer needed assistance at around 8, he worked hard to make that dream a reality.

It’s a message he feels every kid needs to hear, and one he shared Thursday afternoon with students in the Altoona High School gymnasium as part of his Butler vs. Bullying campaign.

“I was in special education, I was disabled, I couldn’t read, but I knew what I wanted to do,” Butler said after posing for countless autographs and seemingly signing everything the Packers could slap their logo onto. “It’s just important to me to have kids know that just because you see the jersey, it doesn’t mean it’s all been peachy.”

Butler, a Super Bowl XXXI champion, shared anecdotes of his childhood, including the time an oak tree was picked ahead of him in a pickup football game, or when he went out back of the school with the janitor to find cardboard to close up the holes in his shoes. Altoona students from the high school and middle school listened closely as he made the latest stop on a tour that’s included trips to Fall Creek and Cadott.

He harped on the importance of education and the ability to look past insults flung his way from grade school to high school.

“When I’m telling my story, you see them nodding their heads like, ‘I’m going through the same thing,’” Butler said.

At the end of his speech, Butler called the Altoona audience his best yet since there were a pair of No. 36 Butler jerseys in the crowd. He summoned both of the boys down from the bleachers to have him sign their uniforms.

“I got it from my uncle,” Altoona senior Cole Auger, one of the two brought down to the gym floor, said of his jersey. “I just thought I’d dig it out today since he’s coming. … I was a little surprised (he called me down), but it was pretty cool.”

While Butler spends much of his time these days speaking at schools, he’s still plugged in with the Packers and is not afraid to share his opinion. He broadcast his approval of the team’s head coaching hire of Matt LaFleur on Twitter Monday, tweeting, “GREAT HIRE BY THE @packers MATT LaFleur! I’m very excited!!!” On Thursday he said the former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator fits the mold he was hoping for.

“I wanted somebody young, innovative,” Butler said. “Give him an opportunity. He’s never been a head coach before. It almost makes me feel like a Mike McCarthy deal in a way. I wasn’t looking for a flashy name. I just wanted somebody that’s close to Aaron (Rodgers) in age where they respect each other and give Aaron, and not only Aaron, everyone a chance to succeed.”

Contact: 715-833-9212,

Lawsuit targets GOP laws reducing Evers' power

MADISON — A coalition of liberal-leaning groups filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to void laws passed by Wisconsin Republicans that reduced the powers of the newly elected Democratic governor and attorney general.

Republicans derided the lawsuit as a frivolous attempt by bitter Democrats to score political points.

The legal challenge is the first seeking to undo all the measures approved during last month’s lame-duck legislative session. The lawsuit argues the session was unconstitutional because it amounted to an illegal gathering of lawmakers.

Then-Gov. Scott Walker, who was defeated by Democrat Tony Evers in November, quickly signed the legislation before leaving office.

The new laws include taking away Evers’ ability to withdraw the state from lawsuits without legislative approval, which would prevent Evers from fulfilling his campaign promise to remove Wisconsin from a multistate lawsuit seeking repeal of the federal health care law. The laws also prevent Evers from rescinding federal Medicaid waivers approved under the Walker administration.

Another new law gives the Legislature, rather than newly sworn-in Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, the power to decide how to spend money obtained from lawsuit settlements.

The coalition’s lawsuit hinges on the procedural move Republicans used to call themselves into what is known as an “extraordinary session.” The lawsuit argues that the Wisconsin Constitution only allows for the Legislature to meet “at such time as provided by law” or in a “special” session, which is a session called by the governor. The lawsuit contends the session held in December didn’t fit either category.

The groups that filed the lawsuit in Dane County Court are the League of Women Voters, Disability Rights Wisconsin, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities and three Wisconsin voters.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, called the lawsuit frivolous and said Democrats were “throwing a tantrum.” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he was “absolutely, positively certain this lawsuit won’t have merit.”

He circulated a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Council — attorneys who advise lawmakers — that said the Legislature has the constitutional authority to determine its own rules. Furthermore, the memo said the Wisconsin Supreme Court has made clear that organizational issues like this are for the legislative branch to deal with “free from interference from the judicial branch.”

“Courts are unlikely to aggressively interpret the law and inject themselves into the legislative process,” said Rick Esenberg, head of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said the governor expected such a legal challenge and that he would consult with his attorney about his next move.

“This legislation was a hasty and cynical attempt by Republicans to override the will of the people,” Baldauff said Thursday.

Legislative “extraordinary sessions” are common in Wisconsin, but the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau said the session held in December was the first time it had been used to restrict the powers of an incoming governor and attorney general.

The lawsuit comes as state Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, filed a complaint with the Dane County district attorney seeking to void the lame-duck laws. Anderson is paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair. He contends Republican lawmakers violated the state’s open meetings law by not revealing when they would vote on the bills.

Anderson, who said he can’t be in his chair more than 16 hours a day, missed the early morning vote that came after Republicans negotiated the bills in private all night long.

Tom Kamenick, an attorney with the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, said Anderson’s allegation was baseless because the state Supreme Court has already ruled courts can’t hear open meetings law complaints against the Legislature.

“I’m not aware of any cases or interpretations of open meetings law holding that a session can be ‘too long’ such that it excludes somebody,” Kamenick said.

Assembly Republicans outline priorities to Evers

MADISON — Wisconsin Assembly Republicans delivered what they called a “gesture of our goodwill” to the newly installed Democratic governor on Thursday, outlining some areas where they think they might find common ground.

In a letter delivered to Gov. Tony Evers, the GOP lawmakers said they were trying to be helpful in detailing such areas, including an income tax cut, a school funding increase and a reduction in borrowing to pay for roadwork.

The move comes after Republicans convened a lame-duck legislative session following Evers’ November defeat of Republican Scott Walker to weaken the powers of the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general before they took office. Republicans are also adding staff to prepare for possibly writing an alternative state budget to the one Evers will propose.

Still, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, insisted at a news conference Thursday that Republicans are looking for common ground with Evers. To that end, he said Republicans in both the Senate and Assembly will hold an unusual joint meeting on Tuesday so they can speak privately with Evers.

“We know that we are in divided government. It’s different times,” Vos said. “This is a good faith effort for us to say we’re looking at what he promised, what we think we can deliver and find ways to be able to do that together.”

Evers’ spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, said Evers hopes Republicans will work with him to make progress on major issues such as health care access, transportation and education.

“However, actions speak louder than words,” Baldauff said in a statement.

The Republicans said the first bill they intend to pass is a state-level guarantee that people with pre-existing health conditions can’t be denied insurance, which is already guaranteed by the federal health care law that Republicans have strenuously opposed since its inception during Barack Obama’s presidency. The Assembly passed a pre-existing conditions bill in 2017, but it died in the Senate, and on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, r-Juneau, said he didn’t want to “overpromise” by suggesting it would fare better this year.

Evers has many of the priorities outlined by the Republicans but supports different approaches to reaching those goals. For example, he wants to cut income taxes by 10 percent but wants to compensate for it by reducing a tax break for corporations by $300 million, a move Vos said would amount to a “massive tax increase.”

The Republican letter did not put a dollar amount on how large of an income tax cut they would support or how it would be paid for.

Vos also opposes Evers’ call to expand Medicaid to cover about 75,000 more adults living just above the poverty line. That move would actually save the state an estimated $180 million a year, but Vos has raised concerns about putting more people on assistance programs without also raising reimbursement rates for providers.

Evers has proposed increasing spending on K-12 education by 10 percent, or $1.4 billion. A bipartisan task force released a report last week that also called for significant increases in funding, but it did not say by how much.

Evers, that task force and Assembly Republicans all say they want the state to provide two-thirds funding for schools, which would increase overall state school aid by about $130 million a year.

Some of the other Republican priorities:

• Enhancing high-speed internet access.

• Expanding the SeniorCare prescription drug program to cover flu shots.

• Working to reduce homelessness.

• Providing more options to reduce the cost of child care for working parents.

• Increasing access to clean water. Vos earlier this month formed a clean water task force following reports of contaminated wells in southwestern Wisconsin.

• Investing more in state-owned properties.

• Doing more to attract and retain highly qualified state employees.