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Originally published August 27, 2010 at 7:30 PM | Page modified August 27, 2010 at 9:27 PM

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Body of Las Vegas woman found in clutter at home

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 ...

The Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — A four-month search for a Las Vegas woman ended 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 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 her.

Then he noticed feet poking out of a floor-to-ceiling pile of junk Wednesday.

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 junk.

"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 and quickly notified police of his discovery.

One thing is not in doubt: Billie Jean James loved to hoard. It's a behavior that has received new attention 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 cul-de-sac near the Las Vegas Strip. 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 10-foot basketball hoop.

Inside, Cassell said James' piles of clutter left just small pathways to walk and strong odors, generated by animals, decomposing garbage, food, clothes and other stuff that hindered their search.

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.

Bill James declined to be interviewed.

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Cassell said initial reports had Billie Jean James last seen walking away from the house in late April. He said that 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 loved hiking, camping and the arts. Nine digital billboards publicized the search.

"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 the search.

"I'm trying to figure out how a body couldn't smell so bad," she said. "It's the million-dollar question right now."

The case is not completely surprising given that 2 to 5 percent of Americans are chronic hoarders, said Dr. David Tolin, a hoarding expert from Hartford Hospital who cowrote "Buried in Treasures."

"Every year, there's at least a few deaths that can be attributed to hoarding," he said.

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