The nation breathed a sigh of relief when Jayme Closs, missing for 88 days, was found alive Jan. 10 and returned to the loving arms of her family. It is both a certainty and a balm that Jayme's hometown of Barron, Wis., has embraced her and many will stay at her side for the long haul as she takes the first steps forward after surviving an unimaginable nightmare.
As the community rallies, it's important to note that there is another group of Wisconsinites whose contributions to Jayme's care are less public but still immensely important — and their efforts deserve our collective thanks. These are the law enforcement officers and the attorneys in two counties dealing with the prosecution of Jake T. Patterson, the 21-year-old man who has confessed to killing Jayme's parents and holding the 13-year-old captive in his family's secluded cabin near Gordon, Wis.
These officials have the daunting responsibility of sorting out what happened, gathering evidence, bringing charges and then ensuring that Patterson faces the longest possible prison sentence. But the prosecutorial instinct to pile on criminal charges also looks to be admirably leavened here with the desire to protect Jayme from further emotional harm. The compassionate balancing act that officials appear to be grappling with: If Patterson is convicted, can prosecutors put him away for good without detailing the painful, sensitive crimes that Jayme may have endured?
Law enforcement responsibilities are shared between Barron County, where the abduction and parental murders occurred, and Douglas County, where Jayme was held. Public statements from authorities have been minimal. But the dilemma they face is clear to anyone who has read the criminal complaint that has been filed by Barron County against Patterson.
The 12-page document is heartbreaking, with gruesome details alleging how Patterson targeted Jayme and carried off the home invasion with frightening planning and efficiency. The family's house became a horrific crime scene in minutes. Little is left to the imagination about the terror that Jayme experienced as her parents were murdered, she was blindfolded with tape, dragged through the home and thrown into the trunk of Patterson's car.
But details are scant about what happened to Jayme while she was held at Patterson's cabin — other than that she was struck hard with an object when items were moved near the bed under which she was hidden. Those who truly care about Jayme should understand that this information gap represents the laudable care with which local law enforcement is handling this vulnerable young person.
While prosecutors in Douglas County could file additional charges for crimes Patterson may have committed at the cabin, it appears that officials in both counties are not pushing Jayme to rapidly detail what else might have happened, giving her healing space. While authorities in both counties are saying little to the news media, their patience with Jayme and sensitivity are apparent and commendable.
Prosecutors also appear to be grappling with an even more complex facet of the charging considerations. It may not be necessary to bring additional charges for other crimes Jayme may have experienced in captivity to ensure that Patterson is severely punished, meaning put in prison long enough that he never has a chance to commit another monstrous crime. As the story by the Star Tribune's Pam Louwagie notes, "Prosecutors aren't legally compelled to charge every crime ... "
Preventing sensitive information about what happened to her from being made public, and avoiding the need to testify, would give Jayme a strong start down the long healing path she must travel. But the prosecutors' challenge is complex. The murder charges Patterson faces for Jayme's parents, for example, could mean imprisonment for life if he is convicted, according to the Star Tribune story. But judges in Wisconsin have discretion about what "life imprisonment" means and whether the sentences for these crimes and others would be served consecutively or concurrently. It is unlikely that Patterson would be eligible for an earlier release, but it can't be ruled out.
Wisconsin officials face a difficult decision on the extent of further charges. Theirs is a weighty, unenviable responsibility. But their care for Jayme is apparent and appreciated. Putting what is best for her at the center of their decision will serve them well.