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Missing US girl freed after 18 years

A woman kidnapped when she was only 11 is reunited with her family after an 18-year ordeal.

A woman, kidnapped when she was only 11, was reunited with her family yesterday after an 18-year ordeal during which she was kept in a hidden backyard and had two children with her abductor. Jaycee Lee Dugard, now 29, was found after she accompanied Phillip Garrido, a convicted sex offender and rapist, to a meeting with his parole officer. Mr Garrido, 58, is believed to have kidnapped Miss Dugard in 1991 and fathered her two girls, now aged 11 and 15. He and his 54-year-old wife, Nancy, were in police custody after being charged with kidnapping Miss Dugard to commit rape.

The pair were arrested on Wednesday by the FBI, Capt Daniel Terry of the Contra Costa County sheriff's office said. A search of their home in the town of Antioch in California close to San Francisco "revealed a hidden backyard within a backyard," the El Dorado County undersheriff Fred Kollar said. "The hidden backyard contained tents, sheds and outhouses, where Jaycee and the girls spent most of their lives."

Miss Dugard was kidnapped on June 10 1991 by two occupants in a car right before the eyes of her helpless stepfather Carl Probyn, who gave chase on a bicycle but failed to stop the abduction. "I had personally given up hope," Mr Probyn told ABC News. "I had just hoped for a recovery" and to find those responsible, he added. But early on Thursday, Mr Probyn, his wife Terry and another daughter flew from Riverside, California to San Francisco to finally be reunited with their long-lost relative.

Miss Dugard , the undersheriff said, "is in good health, but living in a backyard for 18 years does take its toll". She and her two children, who have not been named, reportedly lived in a series of sheds - including a soundproofed one that could only be opened from the outside - and tents in the yard belonging to Mr Garrido, who was on a federal parole for a 1971 rape and kidnapping. "None of the children have ever been to school, they have never been to a doctor," Mr Kollar said. "They were kept in complete isolation in this compound."

The tents and sheds, he explained "were placed in a strategic arrangement to inhibit outside viewing and to isolate the victims from outside contact". Police found a car hidden in the yard that matched the description originally given of the vehicle driven by Miss Dugard's kidnappers. The long-dormant kidnap case began to unravel this week, when police at the University of California, Berkeley spotted Mr Garrido acting suspiciously on campus as he tried to hand out religious literature, Mr Kollar said.

Mr Garrido was then called in by his California parole officer for a follow-up visit on Wednesday. He showed up for the grilling with the two children, his wife and Miss Dugard, whom he had renamed Allissa. The parole officer, who had previously visited Mr Garrido's home, had never seen "Allissa" and the two girls, "and thought that the individuals were suspicious," Mr Kollar said. The parole agent contacted the Concord, California police department, which conducted interviews with the woman identified as Allissa and discovered that she was in fact Miss Dugard.

Miss Dugard's rescue had parallels with two other recent cases, both in Austria. In 2006, Austrian teenager Natascha Kampusch escaped her captor, mentally disturbed Wolfgang Priklopil, who snatched her in March 1998 when she was only 10 years old. Mr Priklopil subsequently killed himself. And Josef Fritzl was sentenced to life in prison in March for having imprisoned his daughter in a windowless dungeon for 24 years, raping her repeatedly and fathering seven children by her, one of whom he allowed to die.

* AFP

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