For 18 years, Carl Probyn has been haunted by the memory of watching his 11-year-old stepdaughter trot down the hill to the school bus wearing a pink top and pink trousers, only to be stopped by two people in a passing car, pulled kicking and screaming into the back seat and swept right out of his life. The girl was Jaycee Dugard, the quintessential blonde blue-eyed California child, living what seemed to be an idyllic existence on the shores of Lake Tahoe, deep in the Sierra Nevada mountains. What followed, though, turned into a living hell for everyone.
Jaycee's abductor, according to the police, was a man haunted by crazy religious visions called Phillip Garrido, who spirited her away to a squalid back garden shed in a distant suburb of San Francisco, kept her prisoner, raped her repeatedly and fathered two children with her. For 18 years she had no schooling, no visits to doctors and almost no contact with the outside world. Mr Probyn, for his part, agonised over his failure to catch up with the car - he gave chase on a bicycle, but could not keep up. The loss of Jaycee broke up his marriage with her mother.
More than once, he had to answer questions from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who suspected he might himself have been responsible for her abduction. And then, on Thursday, the whole story unravelled. A campus policeman at the University of California in Berkeley became suspicious when he saw Mr Garrido handing out religious leaflets in the company of three much younger people - Ms Dugard, who is now 29, and her two daughters, aged 15 and 11. It turned out, after the policeman carried out a background check, that Mr Garrido was both a convicted rapist and kidnapper, and also a registered sex offender who was not supposed to be in the company of minors.
The policeman arranged for Mr Garrido to talk to his parole officer. And that conversation, in turn, led to the truth spilling out. Ms Dugard was rapidly reunited with her mother, at an undisclosed motel on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay, and Mr Garrido and his wife Nancy were arrested. They now face charges of kidnapping, rape by force, lewd and lascivious acts with a minor, sexual penetration and conspiracy.
"Those people," Mr Probyn told the Los Angeles Times after hearing the news. "I'll never forgive them. It's already devastated our lives." Various reports suggested Ms Dugard was in fundamentally good health, and that her daughters were happily running around with their grandmother. But the damage wrought by her years of captivity, and the weird attachment she was forced to develop with her captors, was nearly incalculable.
"It's way too early to conjecture," Fred Kollar, a sheriff's deputy from the Lake Tahoe area said following the arrests. "She was in good health, but living in a backyard for 18 years takes its toll." According to the police, Mr Garrido and his wife gave Ms Dugard a name of their own - Allissa - and kept her in strict isolation. One neighbour, Erika Pratt, told reporters she was repeatedly "freaked out" when she popped her head over the fence and saw a sprawling mess of sheds, tents and water hoses. She saw pitbulls and also a family of blonde girls who, she said, never talked. When she called the local police and urged them to investigate, they told her they could do nothing without a warrant.
The isolation was effective in concealing Ms Dugard from her family and the authorities, who never gave up the search for her. She was featured in an episode of the reality crime show America's Most Wanted, but the publicity was not enough to unearth her. Mr Garrido was a highly secretive man and nobody other than his wife knew what he had done. He was a drifter and a minister in his own private church who claimed he could channel voices and talk to God through a box. On his website, he claimed: "I Phillip Garrido have clearly demonstrated the ability to control sound with my mind and have developed a device for others to witness this phenomena.
"I have produced a set of voices by effectively controlling the sound to pronounce words through my own mental powers." In a rambling telephone interview he gave to a Californian television station from jail after his arrest, he admitted what he did was a "disgusting thing" but said what followed after was a "heartwarming story". He did not elaborate in a way that made any sense. Rob Garrido, his elder brother, described him to reporters as a "fruitcake" and his wife as a "robot" who was completely "under his control".
* The National