LAS VEGAS -- A four-month search for a missing Las Vegas woman came to a ghastly end this week when her husband found her corpse in their home amid a labyrinth of squalor that had been impassable even to search dogs.
Bill James apparently had no idea that the body of his pack-rat
wife, Billie Jean, was under the same roof as he helped police
scour the home and the Nevada desert for any sign of her.
Police say they searched the home several times - even using
dogs from a unit that helped locate bodies at ground zero after
Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina.
But they were unable to find the
body of amid the piles of clothes, knickknacks, trash and other
"For our dogs to go through that house and not find something
should be indicative of the tremendous environmental challenges
they faced," police spokesman Bill Cassell said.
Clark County Coroner's office spokeswoman Jessica Coloma said it
could take weeks to determine when and how the 67-year-old woman
died. The husband has been cooperative throughout the investigation
and quickly notified police of his discovery.
One thing is not in doubt about the case: Billie Jean James
loved to hoard.
It's a behavior that has received new attention
this year with two popular reality TV shows - "Hoarding: Buried
Alive" and "Hoarders" - that chronicle the lives of people who
live in absolute squalor because they cannot bring themselves to
throw anything away.
A similar situation could be seen at the James' home in a
desert-front cul-de-sac near the Las Vegas Strip.
In the driveway
sits two huge trash bins that require industrial-sized trucks to
haul them away. The front patio is filled with knickknacks
including old chairs, smaller trash bins and a 10-foot basketball
Inside, Cassell said James' piles of clutter left just small
pathways to walk and strong odors that hindered their search -
generated by animals, decomposing garbage, food, clothes and other
"If there had been any indication that there was a remote
possibility that somebody was back underneath that stuff we would
have taken the appropriate action," Cassell said.
Sari Connolly, who walked dogs with James and her husband daily
at a nearby park with a group of friends, said the woman bought
things at thrift stores each day and accumulated them in the house.
"She became this hoarder person and she wouldn't let anyone
come in her house," Connolly said.
Connolly said one of Billie Jean James' closest friends once
asked to use the bathroom at the home after a camping trip, but
James wouldn't let her in.
"It sounds like it was beyond control," said Connolly, who had
a big banner made to help find James during the search.
Approached at the home Thursday, Bill James declined to speak
with an Associated Press reporter.
Cassell said initial reports had James last seen walking away
from the house in late April. He said along with the dogs, police
visited the house several times and searched the desert with a
helicopter equipped with infrared detection.
Friends and family searched the nearby desert several times on
foot, horseback and with all-terrain vehicles. They created a
Facebook page to help coordinate efforts, while the family offered
a $10,000 reward in hopes of finding a woman described as a peace
activist who to loved hiking, camping and the arts.
Nine digital billboards publicized her search amid the bright
lights of Las Vegas to draw attention the search, and Connolly said
they hired someone to hold a banner in a spot near the home where a
woman reported possibly seeing James.
"This was certainly something that was not glossed over,"
Cassell said. "We did everything that we could."
But Connolly said she and friends think police may have botched
"I'm trying to figure out how a body couldn't smell so bad -
that's what everyone's saying," she said. "It's the
million-dollar question right now."
The case is not completely surprising given the fact that 2 to 5
percent of Americans are chronic hoarders, said Dr. David Tolin, a
hoarding expert from Hartford Hospital who co-wrote "Buried in
Treasures" to help people who compulsively collect things.
"Every year, there's at least a few deaths that can be
attributed to hoarding," he said.