Lost but not forgotten: Search for missing Manhattan Beach woman ends in tragedy, hope for the future
by Ryan McDonald
Kirk Moody’s 26-month search for his missing wife ended as he had feared it might: with a phone call.
The Manhattan Beach resident received the call the day after Christmas from Detective Mike Rosenberger of the Manhattan Beach Police Department. Officials from the California Department of Justice had confirmed through DNA testing that a skull and rib bones found in Fossil Ridge Park, in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of Los Angeles, were the remains of his wife, Nancy Paulikas.
Paulikas, who suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, had been missing since she wandered away from Moody at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in October 2016. In the ensuing months, Moody, friends and family built a professional and tireless search operation. He and his wife had both worked in the aerospace industry, and the many people who loved Paulikas brought an engineer’s disciplined, analytical approach to the search.
Moody, who was in Colorado for the holiday when the call came in, said he was wary at first. The past two years of searching had turned up so many rumored sightings and false leads that his first instinct was to ask Rosenberger whether authorities were certain the remains belonged to Paulikas. Told that they were, Moody described it as “a shock to the system, but not a surprise.”
“I guess it wasn’t unexpected,” Moody said. The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office had called him several times over the past two years. When an unidentified body that loosely matched Paulikas’ description turned up, the office would call Moody, asking questions, such as whether Paulikas had any tattoos, that could identify the body as hers. Each was a false start. But the result of each call, that his wife had not been confirmed dead, failed to comfort.
“It occurs to you after that phone call, ‘Oh this is how it’s going to happen: This is how I’m going to find out,’” Moody said.
During an interview at Moody’s home last week, the wall maps and forest floor of laptop cables, which in the months following his wife’s disappearance gave his house the feel of a command center, were gone. But the effort Paulikas’ disappearance inspired cannot be so easily unplugged. Moody wore a black T-shirt with the insignia of an organization that helps people with family members suffering from Alzheimer’s. A close friend was on his way out the door to meet with others to examine the remote hillside where Paulikas’ body was found.
The identification of Paulikas’ remains remains raises almost as many questions as it answers. For one thing, it is unclear why the DNA match took as long as it did. The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office lists Paulikas’ date of death as March 11, 2017 — the day Los Angeles city firefighters, battling a brush fire at Fossil Ridge Park, discovered a human skull. (The rib bones were found separately, in September of this year; officials from the California Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.) A statement from the coroner, however, also indicates that the “cause and manner” of Paulikas’ death are as yet undetermined. Moody said that, based on his conversations with an official from the coroner’s office, she almost certainly died before the fire.
But just how far before then, and under what circumstances, is unclear. The remains that were discovered were damaged by the fire, Moody said, making it uncertain whether a more precise determination is even possible. Reached by email, a spokesperson with the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office said she was unable to provide answers to questions by press time, citing the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
Moody struggles to explain how it felt, day in and day out. The search kept the uncertainty of his wife’s fate in front of him almost every hour of every day. But it also kept him surrounded by friends and so busy that there was scant time to grieve or ponder life without her. He turned to a joke from comedian Steven Wright, about the feeling that comes from tilting back in a chair and nearly falling, only to catch oneself at the last minute. That moment of weightless panic, Wright joked, is how he felt all the time, and Moody could relate.
“You know that feeling where you have something to do and you can’t quite …,” Moody said, trailing off. “There’s like something missing on something you did do … or it’s like … there’s just that anxious feeling … It’s like there’s something missing, and you can’t actually remember what it is to get that thing done. I have felt like that for two years: something not done, and I can’t quite figure out what to do.”
Moody and Paulikas visited LACMA on the afternoon of Oct. 15, 2016. They were there to see photographs by Anita Bunn, a relative of Paulikas, and then checked out the museum’s permanent collection. Tthere, on the second floor of the Ahmanson Building, his wife got away from him.
Paulikas, who was a little shy of her 56th birthday on the day she disappeared, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s one year prior. Within a month she was taking medication, but her condition continued to worsen, with a noticeable decline in the two months leading up to her disappearance. She suffered from aphasia, a side effect of Alzheimer’s in which people lose the ability to verbally communicate. Nonetheless, the day at LACMA marked the first time that she had ever wandered away. She would walk around Polliwog Park while he played tennis, and had always returned back to him without incident.
Moody and museum security guards searched the museum and surrounding facilities, including the La Brea Tar Pits, for about an hour before notifying the police. The Los Angeles Police Department did a sweep of the surrounding blocks, but did not find her. Disappearance cases are transferred to the city of origin of the missing person within 24 hours, and by day two, the investigation belonged to MBPD’s Det. Rosenberger.
About the time Rosenberger was assigned the case, Moody sent out an email to friends and family letting them know what had happened to his wife. Not much later, people began showing up at his east Manhattan home. More than 80 people would eventually help, doing everything from canvassing homeless populations to collecting security camera footage from shops along Wilshire Boulevard.
The team brought innovation and resources to the search for Paulikas that exceed what a police department can typically devote to a single missing persons case. Such searches are rare to begin with for the MBPD. Rosenberger said that, with the identification of Paulikas’ remains, there are only two other active MBPD cases of missing people, at least one of whom is presumed to be safe and out of the country. The Los Angeles Police Department, meanwhile, has the opposite problem. At the time Paulikas went missing, an LAPD lieutenant said that the department had four officers devoted to missing persons, each of whom has between 85 and 100 cases.
From the beginning, though, it was a collaborative effort, and Moody complimented Rosenberger on his commitment to the case. One of the most valuable things Rosenberger did was lend official authority to the search. Not long after Paulikas disappeared, he helped the group obtain security camera footage from buses run by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. This pattern continued throughout the case: The day her remains were identified, Rosenberger had received a stack of LAPD call logs that could have included sightings of Paulikas.
“Anywhere that they got into a roadblock that could be lifted with a badge, I’d call or write a letter: Yes, I’m really the police, and yes, we are really looking,” he said.
The skepticism with which Moody and Rosenberger’s inquiries were met is a sign of just how rare their devotion was. Moody said he reached out to other families who were searching for loved ones, and found that they lacked a similar interest in sharing strategy, and the communication quickly died off.
Wandering may be a common side-effect — the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America estimates that as many as 6 in 10 of those who suffer from the disease will wander off some day — but Moody and his friends were entering into a neglected subfield. The majority of the resources for finding missing persons that Moody encountered were devoted to finding teenagers, not those who suffer from Alzheimer’s. And although billions of dollars are spent every year on research and clinical trials for drugs to treat Alzheimer’s, he encountered no national organization devoted to finding those who have wandered.
It was a problem seemingly tailor-made for engineers.
“You get a bunch of overeducated nerds from the aerospace and research industries: we structure solutions to problems,” said Matt Lewis, a longtime friend of Moody and Paulikas, and a senior researcher with the RAND Corporation. Lewis was there from the beginning of the search effort. “You give those folks this extremely important task — this is way more important than making sure the ground station is talking to the satellite — and when you have a lot of folks that share this common problem, it becomes, ‘We’re going to figure this out.’”
The team eventually settled on a theory that Paulikas had gotten lost in a byzantine corner of America’s healthcare system. They thought she might have been picked up on the street somewhere, and deposited, under an incorrect name, into a residential care or skilled nursing facility. These facilities have proliferated as the nation’s population grays and the financial pressures on the healthcare system build. Many of these facilities rely on reimbursement from MediCal, the state’s free healthcare program for the impoverished.
There are thousands of these homes throughout California, and Moody and his team visited many of them. They eventually got the California Department of Health Care Services to provide a list of people fitting Nancy’s description who had applied for MediCal, or more likely, on whose behalf an application had been submitted. (This information is typically protected by federal law restricting the release of medical information, but they were able to obtain it with Rosenberger’s help.) They would inquire about Paulikas, and stick up the flyers they had made, with a large picture of her, on the wall. In the past two years, Moody estimates he has visited more than 1,000 such facilities between Kern and San Diego counties.
One of the people Moody reached out to for help was Molly Davies, a vice president at WISE and Healthy Aging, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit that contracts with the city and county of Los Angeles to curtail elder abuse. She frequently monitors the kind of residential care facilities that Moody was looking at.
“I always thought she was probably not in an assisted living community: she had no way to pay to live there. But there are quite a few Jane and John Does in skilled nursing facilities, because MediCal will will pay for them,” Davies said.
Although some of these skilled nursing facilities in California are notorious for predatory practices, scooping up the homeless and disabled then billing the state while providing substandard care, Davies did not think this was the case with Paulikas. It was more likely that she was “hiding in plain sight,” living under an incorrect name.
How could this happen? Davies speculated that a nickname one employee gave to an unidentified person might eventually get entered into the facilities records, and stick. In the course of his visits, Moody observed that these facilities experience frequent turnover. This heightened the likelihood of Davies’ theory, and also made it harder to get their message to stick.
“We talked to these nursing homes multiple times. It had been less than a year since the last call, and 50 percent of them had never heard of her or had never seen the flyer,” posted on the wall, Moody said.
Though this approach proved unsuccessful, Moody said he has few regrets about pursuing it. It did lead to the discovery of at least one missing person, who had a similar appearance to Paulikas, and had been placed in a nursing facility. And, short of combing every square inch of Southern California, it seemed the most likely way to find her.
Other options were rejected through a process of elimination. Although they canvassed homeless encampments, they concluded that Paulikas, new to being on the street and barely verbal, was likely not living among them. “She wouldn’t have survived,” Moody said. And it was unlikely that she had ventured out of state. Although local buses will often let passengers board without the fare, at some point she would have had to provide money.
That they did not assume she was dead has more to do with statistics than with optimism. Given its size, unidentified bodies are surprisingly rare in Los Angeles County. They make up just over one-tenth of a percent of all recorded deaths: In each of the past five years, in which the county coroner has annually processed about 10,000 death certificates, the office has recorded between 12 and 16 unidentified bodies.
Moody said he has no idea yet as to how his wife traveled from LACMA to the park. It’s about a 12-mile walk, much of it along winding, iconic roads, including Mulholland Drive. According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, Fossil Ridge Park opened in 1998. It’s named for the abundance of prehistoric fish fossils found there, which are protected and cannot be removed. The land is owned by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and is bordered by Mulholland Estates, a pricy gated community, and the Buckley School, a private K-12 academy whose alumni include Bret Easton Ellis and Kim Kardashian.
Discovering how she got there is one of the ongoing missions of the team that had been focused on finding her. Just before being interviewed Saturday morning, Lewis was putting the finishing touches on a PowerPoint of slides examining possible routes from LACMA to the park. Other members of the team had gone out to Fossil Ridge Park to map the terrain and elevation. The team is “constantly learning something new,” Lewis said. Their model-building and data-logging is forcing them to confront unpleasant possibilities, he added.
“Did she get there under own power or not? How possible is that? How probable is it that she got herself there, versus some evildoer?” he said.
The analytic dispositions of Moody, Paulikas and their circle of friends may explain why the search operation was more Walter Benjamin than Wild Bunch. But they do not explain why it endured as long as it did.
Asked for a reason, Moody was at a loss.
“I don’t know. The simple explanation is, Everybody really loved Nancy a lot,” he said.
Without discounting the affection that the scores of people who contributed to the search felt for Nancy, others see a different explanation.
“There is only one thing that kept this going. His name is Kirk Moody,” Lewis said. “I got the phone call at 7 a.m. the next day, and from that moment, he did not let it die.”
Two weeks into the search, some in the group were worried about fading interest or discouragement. The group recognized the way each passing day made their mission harder. Not only did it represent another day in which Paulikas was potentially exposed to the elements but, because of the degenerative nature of Alzheimer’s, it meant that she would gradually become less and less able to fend for herself — and, cruelly, retain fewer and fewer contours of the personality that Moody fell in love with.
But one would be hard-pressed to describe the arc of the search as a decline. Moody diligently updated a blog that served both as a kind of diary of the search efforts and a tool to get more people involved, including a post just eight days before he received word that her remains had been identified. He held a press conference in October on the second anniversary of her disappearance, and increased the reward money to $100,000.
Although the outcome was not what he sought, Moody and the team have done undeniable good for a cause that is unpleasant to think about and likely to grow in importance. In February of this year, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the Bringing Our Loved Ones Home Initiative, which aims to help find and reunite those with Alzheimer’s, dementia or autism who wander. It introduced Project Lifesaver, a system of voluntary bracelets that can be worn by those at risk. If a person goes missing, the bracelet emits a radio signal that can be tracked by the Sheriff’s Department.
Pushed forward by Supervisor Janice Hahn, who Moody said helped throughout his search, the board cited the search for Paulikas as the inspiration for the program. Responding to the news that Paulikas’ body had been identified, Hahn said she was devastated, and praised Moody for his advocacy.
“He has not only been unyielding in his search for his wife, but wanted to make sure no one else would have to go through what he did,” Hahn said in a statement.
The program, which later became known as LA Found, also included a set of recommendations to alter how the county responds to missing persons cases. And, just as the team continues to probe questions about Paulikas’ death, Moody continues to meet with LA Found officials, and has discussed improved communication among public safety and public health agencies, as well as a new protocol on when to deploy search dogs.
“They have been really staunch advocates, but also very graceful. I don’t know that I would be quite as courteous as they have been if I was in their position. But part of why they’ve been successful is a certain diplomacy that they’ve really brought. It’s given me an appreciation for what people have tried to do within this broken system,” Davies said.