The blonde, blue-eyed girl was 11 years old when she was abducted from outside her home near Lake Tahoe, California. After almost two decades, the only hope that her parents had left was that her body would one day be found.
Last night, that same girl, Jaycee Lee Dugard, was being reunited with her family as a 29-year-old woman after walking into a police station and revealing her identity.
After interviews and DNA tests it is thought that Ms Dugard's story has been confirmed, bringing an extraordinary end to a missing person case that in 1991 attracted the same kind of media frenzy that the disappearance of Madeleine McCann generated two years ago. Two suspects have been taken into custody.
"After 18 years, you do give up hope -- this is a miracle," Carl Probyn (60), the girl's stepfather, said. Police and the FBI were searching the neighbourhood of a 58-year-old convicted rapist and registered sex offender yesterday, apparently in connection with the abduction.
Mr Probyn was standing in his driveway on June 10, 1991, when he saw a grey car pull up beside the bus stop where his stepdaughter was waiting on her way to school.
Then someone reached out, grabbed her and sped off. On the FBI's "wanted" poster the suspects were described as a man and a woman.
There were several witness, but in spite of a large search operation Jaycee could not be found and no arrests were made. The police never gave up: as recently as 2002, a former priest's home was raided in connection with the crime. No evidence was found.
The Probyns' marriage suffered after Jaycee's abduction and they eventually separated. Mr Probyn now lives in Orange County while the girl's mother, Terry, lives in a Los Angeles suburb. The couple have another daughter, Shayna, who is 19.
Mr Probyn said he received a telephone call from his daughter at about 4pm on Wednesday.
"Mum has something to say to you," she said. "Are you sitting down?" Then his wife came on the line and said, through tears: "They found Jaycee. She's alive."
According to Mr Probyn, his wife was told the news by an FBI agent who called her at work. At first she thought that it was a prank call. Then the agent put Jaycee on the phone.
"My wife talked with her and is convinced she is Jaycee," Mr Probyn said.
Because Mr Probyn was the last person to see Jaycee before her disappearance, he immediately fell under police suspicion during the investigation.
He took four lie-detector tests and remained a suspect in the case for nearly two decades.
Although he has yet to speak to his stepdaughter, Mr Probyn said that from what his wife told him, "she is doing okay".
"I don't know if a cult took her, or if a couple who didn't have kids took her," he said. (© The Times, London)