BARRON, WIS. – As she ducked and wove her way through a field of tangled, rustling stalks of dried corn Tuesday, Sara Karcher imagined what Jayme Closs might have gone through in the eight days since she disappeared from her home, her parents killed by intruders.
“If she is out here, what kind of shape would she be in? What would she have endured?” Karcher wondered aloud as she scanned the muddy ground for any clue — however small — about what might have happened to the girl.
Karcher thought of her own 15-year-old daughter back home in Taylors Falls, Minn., of the dangers in a fast-changing world, of parents’ instincts to protect their children. She shook her head and shuddered. “It hits close to home.”
Karcher, her husband David “Butch” Karcher, and a sea of other volunteers from around the region streamed into a staging area outside the town of Barron on a day’s notice to help comb the countryside in a massive search for answers.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald called the outpouring of support “overwhelming.”
Jayme Closs, 13, was still missing and considered endangered while authorities had cleared more than 1,100 tips out of 1,400 received, the statement said. The statement said authorities were assessing items recovered by searchers but added, “None of the items collected, thus far, appear to be connected to the disappearance.”
Searchers, separated into teams, walked in lines 10 to 20 feet apart, hoping to cover 2 square miles each. They trudged through towns and farm yards, across fields and wetlands, into woods and atop riverbanks.
“It’s a sad case that we’re all here,” Terry Asleson of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources told members of a team she helped lead.
Look for girls’ clothing, cellphones, “anything of interest that could be related to a 13-year-old girl,” Asleson told her group.
‘What if that was my child?’
The volunteers, bundled against a biting morning wind in hunting garb and snowmobile jackets, wool hats and mittens, set out, some carrying backpacks or walking sticks.
Kristine Schroeder came from New Richmond, Wis., “because what if that was my child, my family member?”
T.J. Heinen drove from the Twin Cities area with his daughter to show her the importance of contributing in a community.
“People always talk about helping, but very few do the action,” he said.
Part of what had been labeled Group 12 — one of the last to leave the staging area — the Karchers set out close to 11 a.m. and walked first atop soybean stubble, through a small ditch, over a road and into a cornfield.
When putting out a call for help on Monday, sheriff’s officials had said they would cap the number of volunteers at 2,000. By Tuesday evening, nearly 1,500 volunteers had covered about a dozen square miles, said Wisconsin DNR Lt. Russell Fell, a warden supervisor working at the search command center Tuesday.
More than 50 law enforcement officers — from the DNR and State Patrol to local police and fire departments — led teams of about 150 volunteers. More officers acted as evidence technicians, he said.
As the investigation entered its second week, authorities have released few details. They have asked the public to watch for vehicles that were seen in the area about the time of the crimes: a 2008-2014 red or orange Dodge Challenger and a black SUV: either a 2006-2010 Ford Edge or a 2004-2010 Acura MDX.
Anyone with information is asked to call a 24-hour tip line, 1-855-744-3879, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The funeral service for James Closs, 56, and Denise Closs, 46, is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday in nearby Cameron. Visitation will be from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at St. Peter’s Catholic Church.
At the search on Tuesday, several volunteers said they simply wanted to help.
“It’s just such a tragic story,” Sara Karcher said, as she trudged in her black boots and puffy red vest, she and her husband taking a day away from a business that they run.
Support for the family
They came because of “a sense of community” and support for the Closs family, explained David Karcher, dressed in camouflage. “I’d want people to help us.”
Searchers were told not to touch anything they found but to point it out to their group’s leader. Near a thicket of woods along the bank of a wetland, someone in the group called out: “There’s a plastic bag here.” But it was old.
“Beer cans,” someone else mentioned minutes later. But they were both dirty and had been there a long time, it seemed.
After walking several hours, Sara Karcher said it’s hard not knowing what happened to Jayme. “Is she alive? Dead? Sitting somewhere?” she asked.
She paused to admire the beauty of a bend in a small river, an idyllic scene with an afternoon sun glowing on the water.
“Look for colorful clothing along the water,” her husband, David, reminded her.
Karcher shook her head. “It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”
Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report. Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102