Barron contractor Bill Balts stepped to a microphone early Saturday afternoon, May 4, at Barron High School, to announce that “a special young lady was coming” to a community benefit that drew well over 1,000 people to the school gymnasium and commons.
He was right.
Shortly before a ceremony at 2 p.m., Jayme Closs accompanied her aunt and uncle, rural Barron residents Bob and Jennifer Smith, into the gym.
The benefit was held to raise funds to increase the size of the Smiths’ home, to better accommodate their niece.
Jayme has been living with the Smiths for nearly four months following her escape last January from a rural Douglas County home, where she’d been held captive since the previous October.
Balts said he and other volunteers who organized the benefit wanted to protect Jayme as much as they could, and ensure that this first public appearance since her escape would go smoothly and uneventfully.
“I knew she was coming,” Balts said Monday, May 6. “A few of us were aware that it was going to happen. Jayme was even there on Friday night (May 3) while we were setting up. But we didn’t want people to come just to see her. We were hoping it wouldn’t be a spectacle. We didn’t want to spill the beans. Some things have to be private.”
When he announced Jayme’s impending arrival Saturday, he asked that there be “no photos, no hugs and no contact.”
Just six months have passed since the murders of Jayme’s parents, James and Denise Closs, and her abduction at the hands of her confessed kidnapper, Jake Patterson, who will be 22 shortly after his upcoming sentencing Friday, May 24, in Barron County Circuit Court.
Jayme has been in counseling since her escape, and Balts said that had to be kept in mind as the May 4 event drew nearer on the calendar.
“Some of her counselors said yes, it was OK for her to come,” he said. “Some said no. Bob and Jennifer made the final decision.”
Organizers did their best to shield the Smiths from the media, spelling out ground rules as TV crews, reporters and photographers arrived.
All photo equipment was banned from the gymnasium before the 2 p.m. ceremony.
Of course, anyone with a smartphone could have taken photos, but Balts said he didn’t see anyone doing so.
“I talked about that with (Barron Area School District Administrator) Diane Tremblay,” Balts said. “It’s possible someone snapped a photo. But you have to take people at face value, and you obviously can’t take their phones.”
She saved herself
Phones and media attention aside, the event—which Balts termed more a celebration for Jayme’s safe return than a mere fundraiser—was a success.
Highlighting the 2 p.m. ceremony was the presentation of an award by Barron County American Legion Auxiliary members, in recognition of Jayme’s bravery and resourcefulness.
According to Cindy Otto, an Auxiliary member for the Barron Brown-Selvig Legion Post #212 the award had been under discussion since the local group’s March meeting.
“We submitted the information to (the Wisconsin American Legion) Auxiliary,” Otto said Tuesday, May 7. “We did not know Jayme would be there. We were asked not to have any applause, just to let her be.”
Although the award was meant for Jayme, it was presented to her aunt, Jennifer, Otto said.
Cameron resident Cal Briggs, county American Legion commander, said the award is intended “for a teen who displays the grown-up smarts necessary to save a life. In this case, she had the bravery to engineer her own escape.”
A family affair
Two hours before the ceremony, the commons and gymnasium were already busy.
Scores of volunteers were outfitted in T-shirts that said “JayMazing,” “Live Generously” and “Small Town Strong.”
Balts patrolled the commons, fielding questions from TV crews and reminding them there would be no press coverage allowed after 1 p.m.
Sitting with some friends over a spaghetti lunch, he asked Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald not to “tell all the volunteers in the gym that I’m sitting out here having a meal while they’re working.”
Friends Duane and Julie Reese walked up, carrying a large gift basket filled with T-shirts, LED bulbs and towels. They had won it at one of the paddle raffles in the gym.
“That looks like something I need,” Duane Reese told Balts. “Yeah, just don’t get concrete dust all over it,” Balts replied.
Two of Balts’ granddaughters were on hand with helium-filled balloons, including Isabelle Smith and her cousin, Brielle Balts.
Almena resident Duane Symbal was among the guests that day.
He said that on Oct. 23, 2018, he worked a 160-acre field searching for Jayme.
“We had a team leader from Augusta,” he said. “The search was well organized.
“When we finished late in the afternoon, we followed the railroad track back to the place where our ride was waiting for us,” Symbal added. “We got back to Hungry Hollow at dusk. We didn’t find anything, so we just prayed that Jayme would come home safe. And she did.”
Proceeds approach $40,000
Although a complete accounting hadn’t been finished by press time on Tuesday, May 7, Balts estimated some $40,000 in proceeds was raised at the May 4 celebration.
“My estimate was that we had between 1,000 and 1,300 people,” he said and between 700 and 800 people were served a meal.
Although the event took place on opening day of the Wisconsin fishing season, Balts said, “We had to pick a day we could get the facility. We looked at the calendar and saw Mother’s Day, graduations and whatnot. So we chose May 4. A lot of the helpers gave up their fishing to do this.
“We didn’t care so much about the numbers, it was the celebration that counted,” he said. “Bob and Jennifer were ecstatic.”