The house was on Blanco Street, in the heart of Old West Austin, less than a mile southwest of the state capitol. The front porch was rotted and sagging. Instead of curtains, a tattered blanket had been placed across the front window. When the wind was right, the smell of urine and feces seeped past the wildly overgrown hedges in the front yard and drifted toward the street.
It was the autumn of 1997, and Old West Austin was becoming one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods for urban baby boomers. Less than two blocks away from the house on Blanco Street, venture capitalists and high-tech entrepreneurs were meticulously restoring grand two-story homes worth as much as $1 million. A developer was building luxury condos. Even the smallest tear-downs on 50- by 120-foot lots were selling for more than $100,000. Real estate agents were canvasing the neighborhood, looking for older residents who would be interested in selling.
But few people dared to approach the dilapidated frame house. Sometimes a mysterious high-pitched squeal could be heard coming from inside the home—a sound that a small wild animal might make. “It was like a haunted house in a fairy tale,” said one area resident. “You’d walk past and ask yourself, ‘What could possibly be going on in there?’”
It was assumed by the residents of the neighborhood that two women lived there—an elderly lady who rarely brushed her hair and a pale, tiny, birdlike woman, probably in her mid-forties, who wore faded, flowery dresses. The younger woman was seen more often around the neighborhood. A few days a week she walked to the bus stop to catch a bus to a Furr’s cafeteria, where she worked for minimum wage on the serving line. But, like the older lady, she didn’t speak to others. Some people thought she was mentally handicapped. She timidly averted her head when anyone said hello to her.
It wasn’t those two women, however, who stirred the neighborhood’s greatest curiosity. Every now and then, a child’s face peered briefly through one of the dirty windows of the house on Blanco Street. At least that’s what a few of the neighbors thought they saw: the face of a little girl, her palms against the glass, regarding whatever she was looking at with a solemn, almost sorrowful expression. Then, ghostlike, her face would disappear.
That was what prompted the first anonymous call, in December 1994, to the state’s Child Protective Services hotline, asking about the people inside the house. But the CPS never followed up, citing insufficient information. Another call about the girl came in about a month later. After a third call in late 1995, a young, inexperienced CPS investigator did drop by and talk to one of the women, but if he saw any problems with the girl, he didn’t report it to anyone.
It wasn’t until October 14, 1997, after a fourth call was made about the girl, that a caseworker named Kathryn Allen went to the house and told the old woman that she needed to step inside. What she saw nearly made her knees give way. The older lady, Edna Barr, and the woman in the faded, flowery dress, her 49-year-old daughter, Diana, had abandoned the house except for the dining room, the living room, and a small bathroom that was full of dirt, with dried feces smeared on the walls. A refrigerator, a microwave, and several decaying couches were crammed in the living room. In the dining room were a small cot and couches covered with tattered quilts. Trying to hold back the feeling of nausea rising in her throat,