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To Cindy Anthony, her 2-year-old granddaughter Caylee is a treasure, already brimming with personality well beyond her years. "She's very animated when she speaks," says Cindy, a registered nurse in Orlando. "Her eyes light up—her eyes, you get drawn into them." But in a July 15 call to police, it was Cindy who could barely contain herself. Her 22-year-old daughter Casey, Caylee's mother, had just returned home after being absent for 31 days—and she didn't have Caylee with her. "There's something wrong," Cindy frantically shouted to the police dispatcher. "I found my daughter's car today and it smells like there's been a dead body in the damn car."

With that chilling account, a bizarre mystery began to unfold. Authorities quickly arrested Casey Anthony on suspicion of child neglect, making false statements and obstruction of an investigation. Casey maintained that she left her daughter in the care of a sitter on June 9 and that the sitter abducted her. Her family, who initially seemed doubtful, now wholeheartedly support her, arguing that she is an excellent single mom with no history of abuse or neglect. "She is very nurturing and caring," says Cindy, 50. But authorities are taking a far more skeptical view, pointing out that Casey, who lived with her parents, went an unconscionably long time without reporting her daughter missing, and then allegedly told a breathtaking string of lies (see box). Ordering Casey held on $500,000 bail, Judge Stan Strickland called Casey's conduct "strange and difficult to describe," adding, "she hasn't been any help in this investigation."

Even that scalding review may be an understatement. According to investigators, Casey has made a cottage industry out of trying to deceive them. For instance, she maintained that she dropped Caylee off with her longtime babysitter, a woman she identified as Zenaida Fernandez-Gonzalez, at an apartment in Orlando. But that apartment has been vacant since February. While authorities did locate a Zenaida Gonzalez, she denied ever meeting Casey or Caylee. Casey identified two coworkers at Universal Studios Florida whom she claimed she told about Caylee's disappearance. The theme park said one of the people had not worked there for six years and there is no record that the other one had ever been an employee. Casey also insisted that she had been doing everything she could on her own to find Caylee. But when investigators checked with two of her male friends, they said she hadn't appeared troubled and mentioned that her daughter was off at the beach with the "nanny." Then there was her demeanor under questioning, including the fact she "laughed about the situation," during one session. At no time in the interviews, wrote one deputy, "did the defendant show any obvious emotion at the loss of her child." Says Carlos Padilla, a deputy with the Orange County Sheriff's Department: "If the grandmother hadn't called us, we still might not know that Caylee was missing."

In Casey's version of events, she left Caylee with the sitter on the morning of June 9—though her mother recalls seeing the youngster on June 15—before heading to her job as an event planner at Universal. (In fact, she was fired from Universal two years ago.) She said that when she returned to pick up her daughter later that day, both Caylee and the sitter were gone. She told authorities she didn't immediately report the child missing because she'd seen "movies and reports" about missing people who got hurt when the police got involved. Instead, she said, she had launched her own investigation, visiting clubs that she believed the sitter frequented, but had no luck finding her or Caylee. Her attorney, at least, was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. "This is a very complicated case," says lawyer Jose Baez, who acknowledges that under the stress of the moment his client may have contradicted herself or said things that perhaps "aren't true." "The police need to look at every aspect of it."

But Casey is the complicated one, according to some of her friends. Several friends, according to detectives, described Casey as a "habitual liar." One friend described to PEOPLE an incident when, as a teenager, Casey was walking her dog, which relieved itself on a neighbor's lawn. When the neighbor came out to scold her, Casey brazenly denied the dog was hers. "She was caught red-handed with the dog on a leash," marvels the friend, "and she was like, 'It's not mine.'" Another friend, who has known Casey since middle school, says that she seemed immature and could be "strange" at times. "She is always surrounded by drama," says the friend. "She can stub her toe and it becomes this big thing where she acts like her toe is broken and she's going to need surgery." All the same, the friend calls Casey "a really nice person, very kind." More important, he has trouble believing that she could do anything to harm her daughter. "I thought she was a pretty good mother," says the friend. "She didn't have it all together, but she loved Caylee and wanted what was best for her. That's why she was living at home. She wanted to take care of her daughter, but she couldn't really hold a job, so she wanted the stability of her parents in Caylee's life."

Casey's own upbringing appears to have been quite stable. She and her older brother Lee, 25, grew up in comfortable surroundings and had a close relationship with their mother and father, George, 56, a former police officer who now works in private security. Though bright, according to friends and family, Casey did not excel at school. The birth of Caylee brought new burdens, but with the help of her family she seemed to cope. "She would complain about Caylee sometimes," says the friend from middle school, "like that [Caylee] cried at night or whatever, but it was like any other mother complaining about their kids." (The identity of Caylee's father is unclear. Baez says it is his understanding that the father died in a car accident.)

It appears that Cindy played a major role in caregiving for Caylee. Casey and Caylee each had their own room in the Anthonys' four-bedroom home, which is plastered with Caylee's photos and drawings. According to the friend, Casey sometimes chafed at living at home. "She would bitch about her mother and how she was trying to run her life," he says. "But then a few days later she'd say how much she loved her mother and father." Casey's relationship with her parents soon emerged as one of the more curious elements of the case. During the initial investigation, according to a sheriff's affidavit, Casey's father approached one deputy and "stressed his concern that his daughter is holding back information." Meanwhile, in a jailhouse phone call after Casey's arrest, Cindy Anthony can be heard berating her daughter and imploring her to tell the truth about Caylee. "You're blaming me that you're sitting in the jail?" Cindy said. "Blame yourself for telling lies."

Very quickly, however, the Anthonys seemed to backtrack from their criticism. "I know in my heart that Casey is doing everything she possibly can to find Caylee," Cindy told PEOPLE in an interview. "I feel I know my daughter. I've known her a lot longer than the police." At a bond hearing, Cindy called out to her daughter, "Casey, we love you!" The Anthonys now insist that Casey's failure to report Caylee's disappearance immediately stemmed from a desire to protect her daughter. "She was afraid to tell me earlier because of her fear of whatever this person has over her," Cindy says. And what about that smell of decomposing flesh that she thought she detected in the car Casey had been driving? Cindy later told investigators it could have been a "pizza" that had been left in the vehicle.

Police seem inclined to believe that it was a body in the car. Two cadaver dogs that inspected the vehicle indicated that a corpse had been there. The cadaver dogs, separately, also identified a specific spot in the backyard of the Anthony home where a body may have been buried, though no remains were found. "[Authorities] have covered every inch of my backyard," argues Cindy. "They are completely satisfied with everything they have investigated." But officials dispute that assessment. "It's possible the body has been moved," says Padilla.

Authorities are checking on several reported sightings of Caylee, including one at a diner in Georgia, and everyone involved is operating on the hope that the sunny little girl who loves music and stories is still alive. Yet even Baez concedes that such optimism may not be warranted. "There is circumstantial evidence of a possible homicide," he said at one court hearing. Baez maintains that if Casey were to be released from jail she could assist in the search for Caylee. But authorities aren't buying that. "Everything she gave us turned out to be false," says Padilla. "It's been like trying to put a puzzle together." Meanwhile Casey sits in the county jail, insisting that she has already done everything possible. "Nobody's [expletive] listening to anything I'm saying," she complained in a jailhouse phone conversation. "I have no clue where Caylee is." True or not, that was surely the most disturbing comment of all.

  • Contributors:
  • Steve Helling/Orlando,
  • Amy Green/Orlando.