Tons of clutter hid remains

Bill James removed at least 5 tons of clutter from the tiny room before he discovered his wife's body Wednesday.

Dogs searched the home of Billie Jean James at least three times but never picked up the body's scent, according to the Las Vegas police department.

The 67-year-old woman has been missing since April 22.

"Dogs did search the entire house," officer Bill Cassell, a department spokesman and a former K-9 officer said. "This house was so full of possessions that movement inside of the house was restricted and in some cases very difficult. Visual searching was impossible."

Bill James said he was sure it was his wife when he spotted her shoes sticking out from the clutter. Official identification is pending from the Clark County coroner's office, and a police investigation is ongoing.

Patrol canine units sniffed through home, but it is unclear whether a cadaver dog was used.

Police never moved anything out of the couple's two houses, Cassell added.

"There was never an indication that was needed," he said. "We're not going to start tearing somebody's house apart unless we believe there's a need for that to happen."

Police paid more attention to the surrounding desert area based on the circumstances, he said.

When her husband first reported Billie Jean James was missing, he suggested she might have wandered away from home after suffering a repeat of a mini-stroke that temporarily disoriented her five months earlier.

At least one witness reported seeing a woman who looked like Billie Jean James sitting beside St. Rose Parkway near M Resort, about 2 miles south of the couple's home. Volunteers and police searched the desert in that area several times looking for the missing woman, who was an avid hiker.

"That was one of the areas where we concentrated the resources, but there were definitely multiple searches within the residence," Cassell said.

Family friends have characterized Billie Jean as a compulsive hoarder who fancied thrift stores for clothing and trinkets. One called the back room where she was found "her rabbit hole."

Cassell said there were "a lot of ambient odors in the house," including garbage bags full of rotting food, stacks and piles of clothing as well as animal odors that restricted airflow to the dogs' noses.

The couple had built a second home on their property to hold all of her belongings. Bill James, her husband of 40 years, said he found the body while cleaning out a back room in one of the homes.

Cassell described the room where the remains were found as tiny but said he didn't know its exact measurements.

James had twice filled a 40-cubic-yard industrial trash container with newspapers, boxes and other material, police said.

Bob Coyle, vice president of Republic Services of Southern Nevada, said his company deals with hoarders throughout the valley one to three times a year.

He said it takes 2½ to 5 tons of trash -- more if it is full of carpet, less if it's bed frames and bulky furniture -- to fill an industrial-size container such as the one Bill James was using to clean out his homes. James has filled the container twice and was starting to fill it a third time. Using Coyle's estimate, James have disposed of at least 5 tons of trash -- the weight of an average African elephant or five old Volkswagen beetles.

It's the first time police and psychology experts say they've heard about a death in the valley possibly caused by compulsive hoarding. Las Vegas police have never investigated a case like this before, Cassell said.

Despite the recent popularity of the television shows "Hoarders" and "Hoarding: Buried Alive," there have been few reported cases of hoarding fatalities.

In May, an elderly Chicago couple was trapped for two weeks after being buried alive in their belongings and were rescued with rat bites on their bodies, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune. Six weeks later, the husband died of cancer.

Perhaps the most well-known case of compulsive hoarding came to light in March 1947 when police found a body inside of a Manhattan row house. Two reclusive brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer, kept 14 pianos, a Model T chassis, hundreds of yards of fabric, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage and more than 25,000 books, among other items.

An anonymous person called police to tell them a body was inside the home.

Upon their investigation, authorities found Homer's body, and three weeks later discovered Langley's body, crushed by their possessions.

Michelle Carro, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the James' home is "an example of what can happen when your hoarding behavior is out of control."

"Human behavior is adaptive, and we gather things to ensure our survival so we have resources," she said. Hoarding "is when it becomes so excessive (beyond) any useful purpose, causing distress in persons or unsafe living conditions because the belongings are so cluttered. If you're collecting food, there are sanitation issues, too."

Carro added that the psychology behind hoarding often involves some impaired cognitive functioning, which could include trouble with decision making, difficulty with organizational skills and a lesser capacity of focus of a task at hand.

Carro said the case is so unique that she is not aware of a study done to assess when hoarding becomes fatal.

"This is a really unusual case," she said. "It's more complicated than most people realize."

Contact Kristi Jourdan at kjourdan@review or 702-383-0279.