BARRON — The best advice Elizabeth Smart had for the Barron community is to leave Jayme Closs alone as she gets adjusted to being home again.
“As Jayme reclaims her life, it’s important to give her space,” Smart told a packed crowd topping 1,000 spectators Friday night at Barron High School. “If you see her, it’s OK to smile, but don’t stare. If you want to talk to her, write her a letter, and let her decide if she wants to read it and respond.”
“As much as (her abduction) has affected everyone in this room, it’s affected Jayme a thousand times more,” Smart added, referring to the 13-year-old Jayme, who was abducted from her rural Barron County home on Oct. 15 and held captive for 88 days before escaping.
Smart, 31, became famous when she was abducted from her Utah home at age 14 in 2002. Smart was held hostage for about nine months. She was tied up, raped frequently, and threatened with death if she attempted to escape. Her story has been the subject of a handful of TV movies. One of her kidnappers was sentenced to two life terms in federal prison.
Smart has become an activist and advocate for missing persons, and that includes presentations like her 30-minute speech Friday.
Smart spoke about her own abduction, from the day she was kidnapped to the repeated rapes, to her eventual escape and reunification with her family. She said it is up to Jayme if she ever wants to speak of her own experience.
“We should respect her privacy,” Smart said. “And if she does decide to share her story publicly, we will be there on the sidelines, cheering her on. The things she suffered are hers and hers alone to share.”
People shouldn’t ask Jayme about if she could have done something differently to escape earlier.
“You should never ask a question of ‘why didn’t you,’ because they hear ‘you should have,’” Smart said.
Smart indicated she had been in Barron a couple of days, and she was awed and impressed by all the signs of support for Jayme that are still up.
“It’s beautiful to see the welcome home signs around town,” Smart said. “But it’s OK to take them down. Jayme will want her anonymity someday.”
Smart shares her experience
Smart delved into her own story, telling the crowd she wanted them to understand what it means to be a victim.
“It was the most terrifying experience of my life,” she said. “When I was kidnapped, it brought a whole new meaning to terror. They told me I was going to be their wife, that I was going to be their slave. If I didn’t do what he wanted, he would go and kill my family.”
The horrors began immediately once she arrived at a camp, which was hidden in a mountainous area, with plenty of supplies. She realized her captors had thought this out well before taking her.
“Within minutes of being brought into the camp, he raped me,” she said. “I wondered if I still had value, if I could be worthy of love.”
Even as she escaped, she struggled to tell law enforcement who she was.
“I didn’t immediately speak out and admit who I was because I was terrified,” she said.
She was thrilled to go home and see her family, and all her clothes, which suddenly no longer fit. But she had a renewed outlook on life.
“I remember wanting to live every second of my life to the fullest,” she said. “It felt like my life was given back.”
Smart said when she got home, she realized that she couldn’t just go back to being an anonymous teenager.
“I thought I could go back to who I was, before I was kidnapped,” she said. “But I didn’t know that little girl that I was. I couldn’t go back to being her. I came home to a whole different world.”
Instead, when she went out to grocery stores, she saw her face on the cover of magazines. She struggled to go shopping or to movies.
“I couldn’t go anywhere without people recognizing me,” she said. “It’s hard to fall back into that rhythm when it’s constantly interrupted.”
Smart praised law enforcement for keeping Jayme’s story in the media, and making all the posters that kept her face in the public’s eye.
“Seeing her face, over and over, helped rescue her and bring her home,” Smart said.
Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said he wouldn’t comment on if Smart had met with Jayme during the trip.
Fitzgerald was awed by the size of the crowd, as more chairs were brought into the packed gymnasium right up until the speech began.
“This is unbelievable,” Fitzgerald said as he looked out at the packed bleachers. “We’re thrilled to have her here. Obviously, (the crowd size) shows this community cares.”
Her appearance comes less than two weeks before Jake T. Patterson, 21, of Gordon will enter a plea March 27 for kidnapping 13-year-old Jayme Closs and killing her parents, James and Denise Closs, on Oct. 15.
Patterson is charged with two counts of first-degree intentional homicide, kidnapping and armed burglary. He remains incarcerated on a $5 million cash bond.
At this point, it appears unlikely that Patterson will face additional charges in Douglas County, where he reportedly held Jayme Closs until she escaped Jan. 10.
Patterson was arrested shortly after Jayme Closs escaped from his isolated home east of Gordon.
When interviewed by authorities, Patterson admitted to both the homicides and the abduction, saying “he never would have been caught if he would have planned everything perfectly.” Patterson told authorities that he was driving on U.S. 8 when he saw Jayme Closs for the first time. The Barron girl was getting on a school bus at the time. He instantly decided he wanted to kidnap her, according to the criminal complaint. He had no ties to the Closses.
Jayme told police that she was ordered to stay under his bed, and he placed heavy totes and laundry bins containing weights around it to keep her captive. He would have friends over, but she was ordered to be quiet or “bad things would happen to her.” He also “would turn music on in his room so she couldn’t hear what was happening if there was anyone else in the house with him.”
Jayme stayed under the bed for up to 12 hours at a time, with no food, water or bathroom breaks.
On the day of Jan. 10, Patterson told her he was going to be gone for five or six hours, and he left the house. Jayme “stated she was able to push the bins and weight away from the bed and crawl out,” according to the criminal complaint.
Transportation and other state budget issues took center stage Friday as area legislators highlighted their priorities at a legislative breakfast sponsored by the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is proposing an 8-cent per gallon gas tax increase to fund transportation issues.
State Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona, said he only met one constituent during last fall’s campaign who was firmly against a modest gas tax increase. He believes most people would support an 8-cent increase.
But James warns people not to get their hopes up as far as addressing all the major transportation issues in the next budget.
“I don’t think a long-term fix will be determined in this budget for transportation,” he said. “We will discuss gas taxes, registration fees and tolling, but I don’t know how it is all going to play out.”
State Rep. Warren Petryk, R-Eleva, supports Evers’ proposal to increase state aid for highway rehabilitation, which would mean an increase in aid for local units of government.
“I’m absolutely on that page,” he said.
Evers’ proposed $83.4 billion 2019-21 state budget calls for about $6 billion more in spending than Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s last budget.
Transportation would be a good area to use some of that extra spending but state Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, warns that the next state budget won’t have an extra $6 billion in spending after it is enacted.
“I know we are going to eliminate a lot of the spending increases,” he said of the Republican-controlled state Legislature.
A gas tax increase “is a good starting point to figure out how we are going to go from there,” Summerfeld said, adding that the Legislature also needs to examine the possibility of toll roads and addressing potential increases in vehicle registration fees.
Summerfield said he is supportive of putting additional money into broadband expansion for rural areas of Wisconsin, which would benefit both school districts and small businesses.
State Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, said she is encouraged by Evers’ proposal for increased foster care funding and automatic voter registration “but the devil’s in the details.”
And regardless of how it is done, additional funding is needed for transportation, she said.
“It’s the local and county roads that are suffering the most,” Bernier said. “We have to do something.”
State Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, said she dreads her weekly trips from here to Madison on Interstate 94, and hopes more emphasis can be placed on mass transit, bicycle trails and a rail system.
“I would be thrilled if there was some train I could hop on and not pay a gas tax,” she said.
Emerson noted that Evers held listening sessions with state residents to get feedback on what should be in the next state budget.
“This is something that hasn’t happened in a very long time,” she said. “It’s a very different budget under Gov. Evers. We are calling it the peoples’ budget. I hope it brings people together.”
Petryk would like to see job creation play a more significant role in Evers’ budget.
“The word workforce hasn’t come up. I will make it my No. 1 priority going forward,” he said. “We have to get people the skills they need for the jobs that are out there.”
Summerfield does have one concern about the proposed budget.
“This budget is quite Madison/Milwaukee-centric,” he said. “We have to make sure rural Wisconsin is not forgotten in this budget.”
James doesn’t support the governor’s proposal to allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates to attend college after living here just three years.
Veterans moving to Wisconsin have to wait five years before they are eligible for in-state tuition, he said.
“There’s some disparity there,” James said. “We need to take care of our veterans.”
Emerson likes the investment in education and government fairness through proposed nonpartisan redistricting, two items that are included in Evers’ budget.
“This is a forward-thinking budget,” she said.