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For husband of missing woman, waiting is the worst part

Along the distant southern reaches of Las Vegas Boulevard, away from the city lights, you get the feeling you’ve reached the end of the map.

This is the jagged edge of the great Las Vegas boomtown. It’s out here, not far from the M Resort, that Billie Jean James has lived with her husband, Bill James, for nearly 40 years in a house he built.

Back in the early 1970s, you could still see Las Vegas at a distance from their desert oasis. Now it’s near their front door.

It was here sometime early Thursday afternoon that 67-year-old Billie Jean vanished from their home — with Bill, as he emotionally recalls, less than 30 feet away.

She went out the door, and off the map.

Metro’s Missing Persons unit was called. A police helicopter scanned the area for parts of two days. Metro officers, some using dirt bikes and trained dogs, were joined by about 50 family friends in the search of the desert area near the home.

“I think Metro is very professional,” Bill James says. “What they’ve done so far, I think they’ve done what they can.”

None of it makes sense, he says. One didn’t go to the grocery story without telling the other, much less walk away without a trace.

Billie Jean left her purse, identification, cash, credit cards and truck keys behind. Clearly, her departure wasn’t planned.

On the contrary, her husband says, they were packing that day to leave Friday morning to spend a week in Hawaii as National Park Service volunteers at the leper colony on Molokai.

Avid hikers, Billie Jean and Bill often volunteered for environmental causes. Bill even traveled to New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as a volunteer for the American Red Cross. They were dedicated to making the world a better place.

“We love hiking,” the husband says. “That’s the main thing we did together, the outdoors, hiking and backpacking.”

Bill says Metro investigators believe Billie Jean might have become disoriented — she suffered a mild stroke several months ago — and is probably in a local hospital or care center as a Jane Doe.

But there are only so many hospitals in the valley, and only so many patients. You would think at some point hospital officials would check.

“It seems inconceivable to me, but I guess it’s tied up with privacy rules,” Bill says, the emotion rising in his voice. “I really don’t know. I don’t get it.”

While he waits for word from the authorities, Bill sometimes walks around the yard where Billie Jean has spent so much of her time over the years.

The yard “shows 40 years of commitment to restore the desert,” he says, explaining their dedication to nurturing native plants and mesquite trees that are now large and greening.

Billie Jean, he tells me proudly, has planted hundreds of thousands of wildflower seeds in an effort to keep their small patch of the desert vibrant with color in the spring.

She’s always been very sociable, he says. She’s always been comfortable approaching strangers and striking up a conversation.

Could she have suffered another stroke and become confused?

Surely someone must have seen her. Surely someone will call the number on one of the fliers he’s been posting.

At 7 p.m. Thursday at Silverado Ranch Park, at 9855 Gilespie St., Billie Jean’s friends will hold a vigil and think about her.

Perhaps by then there will be some good news to share. Yes, perhaps then.

Bill James pauses, struggles to check his emotions.

“The worst part of it is just sitting around waiting,” he says.

Nobody just walks off the map.

Do they?

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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