Kidnappings by strangers, like the Jayme Closs case, are rare. So are positive outcomes

Jayme Closs
Barron County Sheriff's Department
Jayme Closs

Jayme Closs, who disappeared when her parents were murdered in October, escaped from a house where she was being held captive in rural Wisconsin Thursday. She was found by a woman out walking her dog.

Thanks to the 13-year-old’s description of his vehicle, a suspect was taken into custody by law enforcement.

Jake Thomas Patterson, 21, was charged on Monday with two counts of first degree intentional homicide, for the murder of Closs’ parents, one count of kidnapping and one count of armed burglary.

Despite the tragedy that started the ordeal, the discovery of Jayme Closs was a relief to anyone following the case. But that kind of outcome is, unfortunately, not what experts necessarily expect.

Stranger kidnappings rare

Law enforcement had been looking for Jayme for months. Volunteers had combed the area around the Barron, Wisconsin home where her parents were murdered Oct. 15. There was very little evidence: no DNA, no fingerprints and no footprints.

“This case was challenging given the proactive steps the suspect took to avoid detection. In cases like this we often need a big break, and it was Jayme herself who gave us that big break,” Justin Tolomeo, FBI special agent in charge of the Milwaukee division, told reporters at a news conference last week.

Barron County
Jake Thomas Patterson
Kidnappings by strangers are rare. The vast majority of missing children cases are kids who run away, are taken by a non-custodial parent, or accidentally go missing, said Michelle Jeanis, an assistant professor of at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who studies missing children.

In Closs’ case, authorities do not believe Patterson had prior contact with the family, though he very briefly worked at the same location as her parents a few years ago. Patterson said he decided to take Jayme after he saw her board a school bus one morning, according to charging documents. He confessed after he was arrested.

The number of children who are abducted by a stranger, as Closs appears to have been, has been in decline, said John Bischoff, the executive director of the missing children’s division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Of more than 25,000 cases in which the center assisted law enforcement in 2018, less than 1 percent were non-family abductions.

“It’s rare for kids to be kidnapped. It’s profoundly rare for kids to be kidnapped by what’s perceived to be a stranger, or (someone who) has very little contact with them,” Jeanis said. “Usually, it’s someone very close to the family or a family member.”

A success story

In stranger kidnapping cases, many children who are missing for more than 72 hours don’t turn up alive, Jeanis said. As time ticks by, the offender can get farther and farther away from the abduction site.

In a case like this, Jeanis said, “Usually when we have those cases, we don’t have a positive recovery if we get a recovery at all.”

Offenders who target children are sometimes sexually motivated. When that’s the case, it’s not uncommon for them to murder their victim, usually quickly, as a means to destroy their only witness, Jeanis said.

A Washington State Attorney General’s Office review of child abduction murders across the U.S., published in 1997 and updated in 2006, found that in 76 percent of cases studied where children had been abducted and murdered, the child had been murdered within three hours of being abducted. In 89 percent of cases, the child had been murdered within 24 hours.

Every case is different, but one example of this type of case is 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling, who was sexually molested and killed by Danny Heinrichs in 1989 hours after he was kidnapped in central Minnesota.

Cases like Closs’, where an abducted child is found after being missing a prolonged period of time are uncommon, but not unprecedented, Bischoff said. He cited the kidnappings of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, abducted and held against their will in Cleveland for years until they were found in 2013; Hannah Anderson, who was abducted after cheerleading practice in California in 2013 and rescued later that year; Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped in California in 1991 and found in 2009; and Elizabeth Smart, who turned up nine months after she went missing in Utah.

It’s rare for offenders in these cases to have the ability to keep the children they abduct in captivity.

“We think of child predators as these scary monsters in vans and stuff, but in actuality they tend to be people with families. So if you want to keep a child against their will you probably don’t have the logistics to do that in your own home,” Jeanis said. “Plus, (offenders) are probably struggling with stuff mentally — they have trouble controlling their emotions and all of these other things.”

The role of media

There’s one other thing Jeanis said she’d note about Jayme Closs’ case. Shortly after she was kidnapped, Jayme’s picture was everywhere. When she was found Thursday, she was immediately recognized. That underscores how powerful media can be in helping solve missing persons cases, Jeanis said.

But it’s also important to note that not every missing child gets the same treatment.

Research shows missing white women are much more likely to show up in news coverage than missing women of color, a phenomenon researchers call “missing white woman syndrome.” Those cases are also more likely to be covered intensely.

In some cases, public awareness can make all the difference in the search for clues, and in eventually bringing offenders to justice.

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