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– The signs proclaimed the newfound joy throughout town on a sunny Friday, adorning businesses, churches and a government building with the warmest of wishes:

"Welcome Home Jayme," read one outside city hall.

"Thank You For Bringing Her Home," an electric sign flashed at the Dairy Queen.

"Welcome home Jayme thank you God," read the message outside the First Baptist Church.

Finally, after three months of living under a pall of worry and fear after James and Denise Closs were shot to death in their home, their 13-year-old daughter, Jayme, apparently abducted, residents in this northwest Wisconsin community had something to celebrate: Jayme had escaped from her captor and was returning to her family, authorities had announced.

Elated residents couldn't help but gush.

"Amazing," they said. "Astonishing." "Unbelievable."

"It's a happy day in Barron," said former longtime Mayor Bard Kittleson. "Thank God for miracles."

The past 88 days had been dark and draining for this normally quiet rural county. Residents rallied their support and poured their hope into vigils, volunteer searches and gifts of casseroles.

But with each hour, day and week that passed with no credible leads, many couldn't help but quietly prepare for the worst.

"To be very honest, everybody had hope but I think it was getting dimmer with time moving on," Kittleson said.

Then, in the instant late Thursday, the pall lifted — at least for the moment.

"Everybody's coming in with a smile on their face this morning," said Rachel Svendsen, a baker's assistant at the Barron Bakery downtown. "They're overjoyed that she's coming back. Our heartstrings have been pulled by this."

It was the best possible ending that the Closs story could have had, and after nearly three solid months of grim determination since her disappearance, the town of Barron was left surprised, proud of Jayme and relieved.

"We're very happy to have her back," said Mark Bell, publisher of the local newspaper, the Barron News-Shield, which printed a green ribbon on the top of the front page every week Jayme was gone, a symbol for missing children that was used to signify hope for Jayme's return.

Bell said he was at a high school basketball game Thursday night when Barron High School Principal Chad Buss stopped it to announce that Jayme had been found alive.

Sports teams had been a wellspring of support for Barron, Bell said. Visiting cross-country runners wore green ribbons in their hair. Hockey players taped their sticks with green tape. A visiting squirts hockey team showed up with big green bows.

"It's a way for kids to have an outlet," he said.

At a Friday night wrestling match in Barron, the announcer took a moment to talk about Jayme.

"Thank you to Bloomer, to Colfax, and all the surrounding communities for all of your support over the last 88 days," he said. "Jayme Closs is home and we are so happy and relieved."

The joyful mood on Friday was a welcome change, Bell said, but it's easy to forget what else has been happening.

"It's just human nature to focus on the Jayme Closs story, but you forget that this family's also dealing with a double homicide, an unsolved double homicide," he said. "So, this family, I can't imagine what they've been through. At least now they have a little rainbow there at the end of the storm."

Residents know the road ahead will be long, they said, and full of more harsh details as the case winds through the justice system. Many acknowledged there are still questions that need to be answered about the murders, Jayme's abduction and the community's safety. But Friday, people relished being joyfully stunned.

"It was just amazing to hear that she's actually coming back today," said Monika Audette, a Barron County Restorative Justice worker who had stopped for lunch with co-workers.

Audette said she got to see a photo that relatives had taken of a smiling Jayme in the hospital after her escape.

Audette and many others said people understand Jayme will need a lot of support after her ordeal.

Mayor Ron Fladten said he expects that, along with professionals, regular residents will step up.

"I'm sure people will continue to hope and pray that Jayme can have a recovery," he said. "Make a successful comeback and have a successful life. The community will help her. … She's got an awful lot of support."

Kimberly Lee, who worked with James Closs at the Jennie-O Turkey Store in Barron, said Jayme's survival rekindles hope.

James Closs spoke frequently about his "baby girl," Lee said, and he would want to know that she is home and safe.

"He loved that little girl," Lee said. "I know he wouldn't be at peace without her being safe."

pam.louwagie@startribune.com 612-673-7102

mckinney@startribune.com 612-217-1747