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. Then he spotted the feet of the body poking out of a floor-to-ceiling pile of junk Wednesday, revealing in shocking detail the woman's 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 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 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 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.
"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 the search.
"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.