Jennifer Brooks
See more of the story

Here’s to Jayme Closs, age 13, who saved herself.

We would have saved her if we could. Everyone tried so hard, through months of investigations and overtime, candlelight vigils and heartbroken volunteers searching the fields around Barron, Wis.

But in the end, it was Jayme — hurt and hungry and braver than I’ll ever be — who slipped into a pair of oversized shoes and escaped through the snow. It was Jayme who found her way to a retired social worker out walking her dog on an icy road in Wisconsin cabin country, who brought her to safety.

It was Jayme who led authorities to the suspect — the stranger accused of shooting his way into her home, killing her parents and dragging her away into the night.

Jayme Closs found safe. That was the word we got from breaking news alerts and jubilant investigators who almost never get to call press conferences to share good news.

“For 88 days, I have stood before you and told you we would work tirelessly to bring Jayme Closs home. Today, I can report we have done just that,” Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald told throngs of reporters Friday morning.

I understand the urge to take a victory lap. I really do. Local, state and federal investigators sifted through thousands of tips and chased countless leads that led everywhere but to that out-of-the-way cabin in Gordon, Wis.

They did great.

The dog walker who led Jayme to safety and the family who took her in and stood guard with a shotgun, just in case the bad guy tried to come for her again — they did great.

Barron, a town blanketed in remember-Jayme ribbons, did such a great job of keeping her face and her story in the public eye, every dog walker in Wisconsin could have recognized her on sight.

But we didn’t find Jayme.

Jayme found us.

I hope she never forgets, in the hard days ahead, that she was the hero of this story.

In early September 2017, a 15-year-old western Minnesota girl escaped three captors and swam across Thompson Lake in Grant County to freedom. Elizabeth Smart, abducted from her bedroom in Utah at age 14 and held captive for nine months, was one of the many voices welcoming Jayme’s return. More proof, if any was needed, of just how resourceful and resilient kids can be.

By Friday night, Jayme was out of the hospital and curled up with an aunt and with Molly, her dog. There will be hard days ahead, but the cops who searched for her will be there to protect her. The neighbors who kept vigil will be there to nurture her.

And the reporters who covered her story with their hearts in their throats will never forget her.

Jayme found her way back to us. So many other missing kids and their families still need help.

“Missing kids are out there,” said Patty Wetterling, whose search for her son Jacob spanned almost three decades and expanded into advocacy for all the lost boys and girls. “It really takes an incredible investigation to stay with them as time goes by. We’re so immediate in this country; we want to find them right away or we presume they’re dead. And you can’t ever do that.”

Patty and Jerry Wetterling were a thousand miles away when the news broke about Jayme, at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington, D.C.

It was wonderful “to walk into that building and just see that huge collective smile,” Patty Wetterling said. “They all just told me, ‘This is why we work here. This is what we’re fighting for.’ They were just thrilled.”

When a stranger snatched 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling off his bike in 1989, the recovery rate for missing children was 62 percent. The search for Jacob ended when his killer confessed in 2016 and led investigators to the pasture where he’d buried the remains. Today, Patty Wetterling said, 97.5 percent of missing children make it home again.

“Something inside [Jayme] was courageous enough to find her way out,” she said. “I had a sense with this one … I just believed in my heart, she’s out there.”

If you go to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website, you can see the faces and stories of some of the other lost boys and girls who are still out there, including 28 faces from Minnesota.

If you have a minute to look them over, you can read about Cylas and Cameron Spears of Minneapolis, who would be 11 and 13 by now and who haven’t been seen since April 2018. Or LeeAnna “Beaner” Warner, the 5-year-old from Chisholm who was walking to a neighbor’s house when she vanished 15 years ago.

Jayme Closs didn’t give up. Neither should we.

Correction: Previous versions of this article misstated when Cylas and Cameron Spears of Minneapolis disappeared. It was April 2018.