Missing girl could have been found in 2006

As Phillip Garrido appears in court over Jaycee Lee Dugard's abduction, police admit they did not properly follow up a 911 call three years ago at his property. Guy Adams reports

He snatched the little girl at random, bundling her into a car as he cruised for victims around the holiday resorts of California's Sierra Nevada. Then he drove more than 200 miles to his rambling home on the outskirts of a blue-collar city called Antioch.

For the next 18 years, Phillip Craig Garrido kept his victim hidden from the world, in a squalid collection of tents, shacks and lean-tos at the bottom of his back garden. She suffered unthinkable abuse, was raped countless times, and forced to give birth to two children, one when she was only 14.

Despite several close calls, police and parole officers who visited the home of the convicted sex offender and his wife, Nancy, remained oblivious to the fact that 1554 Walnut Street contained a secret compound, where the teenage girl and her daughters were being forced to grow up in secret.

"None of the children have ever been to school, and they've never been to a doctor," El Dorado county undersheriff Fred Kollar told a herd of reporters who had descended on Antioch, an hour's drive north-east of San Francisco. "They were kept in complete isolation in this compound."

Neighbours, who sometimes heard the sound of children playing from behind the high fences and dense trees, never thought in their wildest dreams that a young family was growing up there, in what police described as a "series of sheds" with a "rudimentary" toilet and shower, and no proper running water.

Yesterday, Mr Garrido, 58, and his wife Nancy, 54, appeared in court near San Francisco accused of the kidnapping, rape and appalling abuse of Jaycee Lee Dugard, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed schoolgirl of 11 who was abducted at a bus stop on her way to school one morning in June 1991. They pleaded not guilty to 28 felony counts.

The kidnapping, in broad daylight just half a mile from Ms Dugard's front door, shocked America, prompting a nationwide manhunt and sparking frenzied media attention similar to that surrounding the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

News that America's most famous missing-children cases had been solved, after almost two decades, sparked widespread relief. Ms Dugard was last night said to be "overjoyed" at being reunited with her mother, Terry, at a secret location in northern California. But there was also anger that the case had not been solved sooner. Local police issued an apology after it emerged that they had received a 911 call in 2006, alleging that there were tents in the yard behind the bungalow, that children were living there, and that Mr Garrido as a "psychotic" with sexual addictions.

Although an officer talked to Mr Garrido in his front yard, he did not try to enter the home. "We missed an opportunity," said Sherrif Warren Rupf. "This was not acceptable. We are beating up ourselves over this."

Parole officers also searched the property last July, as part of a sex offender "compliance check", but they neglected to look properly at the outdoor area, with its bizarre assortment of tarpaulins, trampolines and camping paraphernalia.

It also emerged last night that police were searching his property for evidence in the murders of several prostitutes.Several of the murdered women's bodies were dumped near an industrial park where Mr Garrido, a sex offender, worked during the 1990s.

Details of how the ordeal has affected Ms Dugard also emerged. Her stepfather, Carl Probyn, gave a TV interview saying the now 29-year-old woman still "looks almost like when she was kidnapped", but "is feeling really guilty at having bonded with the guy" who abducted her.

In this and several other unpleasant respects, the case echoes that of both Josef Fritzl, the Austrian electrician who kept his daughter in a cellar, and Wolfgang Priklopil, who held a teenage Natascha Kampusch hostage at his home in Vienna for eight years.

Mr Garrido was simultaneously a lifelong sex offender, with a string of appalling convictions, and a religious fanatic who believed he could speak directly to God. He recently founded a church at his home, and was publishing a blog detailing his apocalyptic beliefs. In a bizarre interview with a local television station following his arrest, he attempted to portray himself as a reformed man, admitting having done "a disgusting thing" to Ms Dugard, but promising that the world would be surprised by details of his "heart-warming" personal story.

"What's kept me busy, the last several years, is that I've completely turned my life around," he told KRA-TV from his cell at El Dorado county jail. "You're going to hear the most powerful story. You're going to fall over backwards... You'll be hearing something that needs to be understood."

The rambling chat, apparently recorded during the one telephone call he was allowed after being taken into custody, saw Mr Garrido refuse to discuss details of how he kidnapped his victim, or explain why he'd forced her to spend adolescence in isolation.

Instead, he made a pitch for forgiveness. "My life has been straightened out," he claimed. "Wait till you hear the story of what took place at this house. It's a disgusting thing that took place in the beginning. But I turned my life completely around."

According to Mr Garrido, he stopped abusing children after Ms Dugard's second daughter was born 11 years ago. "Mine's a constructive story about having those two girls in my arms every single night from birth," he said. "I never touched them. The youngest one was born, and from that moment on everything turned around." That claim yesterday seemed at odds with the facts surrounding his past, though. He has a string of previous convictions dating back to 1971, when he was sent to prison for 10 years for kidnapping a woman and raping her in a pornography-filled warehouse in Reno.

Mr Garrido had most recently served time in Nevada, after being found guilty of another sexual offence in 1999. The existence of this custodial sentence suggests that Nancy Garrido was almost certainly heavily involved in holding the girls hostage.

Mrs Garrido, who reportedly met her husband when he was in prison during the 1970s, was described by her relatives as a "robot" who was under his emotional control.

"She would do anything he asked her to," recalled Ron Garrido, Phillip's estranged brother, who lives in Los Angeles. "I told my wife, 'It's no different from Manson and those girls'. She was under his control."

Neighbours on Walnut Street, part of a scruffy residential area on the outskirts of Antioch, say they knew of Mr Garrido's past, and often wondered about his domestic arrangements, but were prevented from seeing onto the property by tall fences, trees and walls.

Haydee Perry, 35, who lives next door, told reporters that that when Mr Garrido had helped her jump-start her car less than a month ago, she noticed a young girl clinging to him in a manner that struck her as strange. "She stayed close to him at all times," said Ms Perry. "She had a blank stare on her face. Now it seems like a cry out for help."

Others blamed themselves for failing to notice the "backyard within a backyard" that he was able to develop on the property after abducting Jaycee. "We told our kids to stay away from Garrido," said Brady Osment, another local resident. "But he rarely came out, and you just wouldn't notice what's going on back there. These houses are all old, so they were built on big plots. He put up big fences, planted trees and did what he had to do."

Lately, locals noticed small groups of up to six followers turning up at the house for church ceremonies, where they were greeted by Mrs Garrido. They apparently held "religious revivals" underneath a blue tarpaulin in the garden.

An indication of the tone of those events, not to mention its organiser's state of mind, can be gained from reading Mr Garrido's blog, Voices Revealed, which contains several endorsements from followers.

"The Creator has given me the ability to speak in the tongue of angels in order to provide a wake-up call that will in time include the salvation of the entire world," reads a recent entry.

Ironically, it was Mr Garrido's bizarre efforts to start a religion that eventually led to Ms Dugard's discovery. On Tuesday, he was detained by security guards at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was handing out leaflets. They were apparently concerned by his strange behaviour towards two girls who were with him.

The police were called, and learning of his previous convictions, visited his house to check on his domestic arrangements. The following day he walked into the local parole office with the two girls and a woman called Allissa. After what police called "diligent cross-examination", it emerged that "Allissa" was in fact the missing Ms Dugard. There is evidence that Mr Garrido may have been planning to give himself up. During his TV interview, he repeatedly claimed to have written a "dossier" about his crimes, which he had left at an FBI building in San Francisco.

Mr Garrido's brother Ron yesterday added that he was a "fruitcake" who had begun abusing women and children, after taking a large quantity of LSD during the 1960s, when he was working as a musician. "My thoughts are with the poor little girl," he said.

Failure of safeguards: Megan's Law

If neighbours were indeed "shocked" to discover the full extent of Phillip Garrido's grisly crimes, they can hardly claim not to have been warned.

The convicted rapist and child sex offender residing at 1554 Walnut Street had a string of convictions dating back to a 1971 kidnapping and rape incident in Reno, Nevada.

As a result, like all sex offenders in the US, he was required to register his whereabouts with the authorities, who then publish the name, address, and a list of previous convictions, and a photograph, on a public website.

The policy is known as Megan's Law, after a seven year-old girl whose murder, at the hands of a convicted paedophile in 1994, led to it being passed. It has been highly controversial, and some experts question its effectiveness. The fact that it failed to prevent this latest episode will add grist to their mill.

With politicians anxious to appear tough on crime, Megan's Law is unlikely to be rescinded, though. Across the US, concerned parents obsessively track local paedophiles. You can even buy an iPhone application, which beeps when you are within sight of a sex offender's home.

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