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 wife, Billie Jean, was under the same roof as he helped police scour the home and the Nevada desert for any sign of her. Then he spotted the feet of the body poking out of a floor-to-ceiling pile of junk on Wednesday, revealing in shocking detail her penchant for hoarding.
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 amid the piles of clothes, knickknacks and trash.
“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.
One thing is not in doubt about the case: Billie Jean James was a compulsive hoarder. 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 the driveway sit 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 3m basketball hoop.
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 stuff.
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.
The case is not completely surprising given the fact that 2 percent 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.