Manhattan Beach resident Nancy Paulikas has been missing since Oct. 15; her husband leads a team trying to track her down
by Ryan McDonald
The house sits on a quiet corner of the east side of Manhattan Beach, and the door is almost certainly open. The people inside are not related but, as with any home, they tend to gather in the kitchen. They draw dots and lines on Thomas Guide maps, they make charts and diagrams on poster board. And occasionally they retreat to the living room where they talk, excitedly but politely, about what they will do next.
And while the home of Kirk Moody has been exceptionally crowded for the past two weeks, there is a sad, conspicuous absence: Moody’s wife, Nancy Paulikas. Paulikas, 55, disappeared the afternoon of October 15 while visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, and wandered away from Moody after using the restroom.
After assisting with the initial search, police asked Moody to return home. He complied but, distraught, returned to the mid-Wilshire area of the museum at 4 a.m. and started driving around. Until that point, he had never really considered the vastness of the place he lived.
“As soon as you start driving around, the size of L.A., the number of people…it sucks all the hope out of you,” he said.
Moody’s spirits soon lifted. He sent out an email to friends early that Sunday morning telling them what had happened. And not much later, people started showing up.
A retired software engineer with TRW and Northrop Grumman, Moody has turned his home into a kind of command post in the search for his wife. The result is an ambitious search operation, applying a distinctly analytic mindset to a very human problem.
“In this room there are one, two, three, four PhDs and a bunch of master’s degrees,” said Matt Lewis, a senior research scientist at the RAND Corporation, counting off heads inside Moody’s kitchen last weekend. “It’s a well-educated group. What happens when a bunch of nerds lose their friend?”
Since Paulikas’ disappearance, some 80 people have stepped up to contribute. Many volunteer remotely from Northern California and Colorado, making calls to hospitals and shelters. Canvassers fan out across the region, looking for Paulikas and handing out flyers to anyone who will listen.
And a tight core remain in the home, manning phones, analyzing video, and plotting strategy. Although there have been few real leads, the mood is often upbeat and active, jokes and World Series talk mixed in with police reports and flyer printing.
The detritus of their efforts is a kind of engineer’s version of the garbage-stuffed cop car trope of the police stakeout. Scattered coffee mugs, empty soda cans and the occasional beer bottle dot the countertop. Cases of bottled water and Tree Top apple juice sit wrapped in plastic, awaiting space in a packed refrigerator. A diminished tray of cookies and a partially eaten Bundt cake add to the feeling of standing inside a sugar rush, a frenetic swirl propelled by something other than real sustenance.
And in a corner, beneath lists of strategies and updates, are three wastebaskets, each with its own hastily scrawled sign indicating “trash” or some variety of recyclable. In the face of great worry, the group has not failed to distinguish between things that may some day be of use, and things to be set aside.
‘She’s got to be right here’
Paulikas disappeared in the midst of some of the world’s most famous paintings. Moody last saw her in person on the second floor of the museum’s Ahmanson Building. Among other treasures, the floor contains “La trahison des images,” Rene Magritte’s classic painting of a pipe with the French words for “This is not a pipe,” written beneath.
They had ventured to LACMA that day to see the photography of Anita Bunn, a relative of Paulikas, some of whose works are part of the museum’s permanent collection. About 2:30 p.m., each had to use the bathroom. The second floor contained a woman’s room but no men’s room that Moody could find. So Moody led her into the woman’s room, then went a floor down. He couldn’t find her when he returned, but was not immediately worried.
“She’s never really roamed on me before, so I was not really concerned. I thought, she’s got to be right here,” Moody said.
Eventually a museum security guard noticed him looking for her, and helped him search the grounds, including the neighboring George C. Page Museum and the La Brea Tar Pits. After an hour or so of looking, they concluded that she was no longer at the museum, and contacted the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD conducted a sweep of two square miles surrounding the museum, using a helicopter to aid in the search, but did not find her.
By LAPD policy, missing persons cases are transferred to the department with jurisdiction over the missing person’s city of residence, usually within 24 hours of conducting a sweep, said Det. L. Saiza of the LAPD’s Missing Persons Unit.
Although the decision to quickly move the case surprised Moody and the team, Saiza noted that unit is already swamped with cases of its own: its four detectives each have between 85 and 100 cases at any given time. And Saiza, who said her mother suffers from dementia, argued that the policy best accommodates how people with Alzheimer’s typically behave. Although Paulikas had no money or wallet with her at the time of her disappearance, Saiza speculated that a Metro bus driver may have let her on free of charge.
“Ninety percent of the time, individuals will go back home, especially people with dementia,” she said. “They may not know the area, but they’ll think, ‘I live by the beach,’ or ‘I know this restaurant.’ And they go back home.”
The Metro theory has some backing in evidence. Moody and the team later discovered the last known images of Paulikas in the outdoor security camera footage of a nearby medical marijuana dispensary. About 3 p.m. that day, she can be seen heading west on the south side of Wilshire Boulevard. She reaches the southeast corner of Wilshire and McCarthy Vista, when she is obscured by a Metro bus. When the bus pulls away from the stop, she has vanished.
In a search effort with few real leads, the dispensary video is a piece of the Rosetta stone. Sheri Horiuchi, a former colleague of Moody’s at TRW and Northrop, downloaded the video to her phone, measured the amount of time that the bus was idling, and went out to the corner and mimicked Paulikas’ gait. She deemed the video ambiguous: based on the timing, Paulikas was just as likely to have boarded the bus as she was to turn left and head south on McCarthy.
MBPD Det. Mike Rosenberger, one of the officers assigned to the case, has requested the footage from Metro. Paul Gonzales, senior public communications officer with Metro, said Tuesday afternoon that the transit agency would get the footage to detectives shortly.
‘She’s a rule-follower’
Moody met Paulikas in 1981, on his first day of work at TRW. The two worked as software engineers, and even in that environment her intelligence was obvious. She spent 10 years at TRW before leaving to join ITG, a financial technology firm that she helped grow from 20 employees to 200. They built a life together, retiring early to enjoy time in local parks and backpacking in the Sierras.
Moody and Paulikas first sought treatment in February 2015. In retrospect, Moody said, the disease had likely set in even before then.
“The signs had been there. I guess I interpreted them as something else,” Moody said.
Doctors diagnosed her with early-onset Alzheimer’s in October 2015, and by the next month Paulikas was taking medication. The disease progressed despite the pharmaceuticals and, over the last two months, a steeper decline set in.
Moody described her recent behavior as “moments of lucidity” followed by long stretches of confusion. It’s not clear that she would be able to read one of the thousands of flyers the group has distributed, and she suffered from aphasia, an inability to comprehend and formulate language. She wears a MedicAlert bracelet, but has a habit of taking it off.
Nonetheless, wandering away was unexpected. On occasions when Moody took her to day programs for Alzheimer’s patients, she could grow anxious or agitated, but out of a desire to be with her husband. And Paulikas would regularly walk around Polliwog Park by herself while Moody played tennis, always returning to him.
The temptation, Moody said, is to use these and countless other memories from their decades of marriage to infer what Paulikas is doing now; indeed, a poster on the wall at his home lists out characteristics of her personality. But the issue of whether she would board the bus forces him to confront a hard question — the extent to which we can understand the behavior of a person, even a loved one, suffering from a degenerative brain disease.
“I’ve said she’s not going to jaywalk. Actually, I’m sticking to that,” Moody said. “She’s still capable of that kind of functionality. She’s a rule-follower. She’s not going to go over a fence. On the other hand, she’s got Alzheimer’s. You can’t try and get inside her head.”
Kimberly Kelly is a San Diego-based search and rescue expert who specializes in finding Alzheimer’s patients. She consulted with Moody on the case, and believes that Paulikas is likely to still be in the area surrounding the museum, saying that a majority of those suffering from the disease stay within four miles of where they wandered off.
Searching for missing people with Alzheimer’s presents unique challenges, Kelly said, and rescuers invariably have to rely on the background of the person they are seeking. (Kelly once advised local police in a case in Connecticut to not use barking search dogs or shout the person’s name; the missing man was a Holocaust survivor, and would likely have been frightened by the show of authority.) In Paulikas’ case, the search is complicated by her age and healthy appearance, Kelly said: At the time she wandered off, she did not look like a person in need of help.
“With experience, I can look at photos and tell when she started getting worse. But someone else may see a 55-year-old woman, clean and well-dressed, and not think a thing about it,” Kelly said.
The Ground Game
With each passing day, creative approaches to finding Paulikas become more and more important. Group strategy sessions inch closer toward the feel of a salon.
“When we get together and talk, people focus on what to do, not how to do it,” said Richard Barr, a martial arts instructor from Paso Robles and a childhood friend of Moody’s, who was staying at the house. “I don’t think anyone is afraid of throwing an idea out there. Disagreeing is not a bad thing.”
Over the past two weeks, a network of volunteers has distributed flyers throughout the Los Angeles. They translated the fliers into Spanish and Russian (the area around the museum has a significant Eastern European population), slid them under the doors of nearby apartments, and put them in the hands of Uber drivers.
The fliers list an email account created for the search, and four phone lines devoted to handling calls: Moody’s home, personal cell phone, and two pre-paid cell phones. Most of the tips come in by phone, and their quality varies considerably, said Dan Zamsky, who organizes the call logs and fields reports of sightings. Among the 45 calls to have come in are a few people who are certain they have seen Paulikas. Others are less serious.
“My favorite was the psychic. He hadn’t seen her, and we were trying to get rid of him. So he said, ‘I’ll call you when you need me,’” Zamsky said.
Still others call not to inform, but to commiserate.
“People will call and say up front that they haven’t seen her, but that their mother or father died of Alzheimer’s. You want to get them off the line, but you want to be sympathetic,” Zamsky said.
The group has also harvested an enormous amount of security camera footage. Starting with the sighting from the marijuana dispensary, the group began sending people into the area, looking for businesses with cameras and asking them to share footage, carrying thumb drives to download it.
Dave Capka, a semi-retired computer scientist who previously worked at Northrop and TRW, set up a private network to upload and disseminate the footage. He said that while some have been hesitant to turn over video, many have been eager to help. In one case, a store owner had no idea how his security system worked, so the team found the make and model, and a few volunteers downloaded and read the instruction manual while driving up to the store.
But much of the video is of low quality, and the availability of any footage declines steeply in the primarily residential neighborhoods to the south. So the group continues to rely on in-person canvassing.
Will Thomas, a Raytheon cybersecurity engineer and friend of Moody and Paulikas, coordinates the foot patrols by texting volunteers street quadrants they have been assigned. The canvassers look for Paulikas and ask those in the neighborhood if they have seen anything. Homeless people have been among the most helpful respondents, indicating that they would recognize Paulikas not to be among their community, and would respond in order to get in the good graces of police.
But the saturation of their efforts is starting to become evident. Thomas said canvassers will frequently approach a group of transients, only to be greeted with raised hands and a chorus of “Yeah, Nancy, we know.”
On the one hand, the frenzy of the search temporarily insulates some of those involved from tragic uncertainty — they become so involved in video time stamps and map grids that they seem to briefly forget that more than two weeks have passed since any of them have seen Paulikas. At the same time, the depth of the effort and the paucity of results is lost on no one. Some in the exhausted crew anticipate that participation will dwindle by the coming weekend.
The favored theory of the moment is that Paulikas has been scooped up by the system: that she is sitting in some hospital or shelter, free of her MedicAlert bracelet and hindered by aphasia from aiding in her own rescue. Police suggested this possibility, and it would explain why their “ground game” has not found her.
It also, of course, has the added benefit of leaving Paulikas safe and sound. And while the reserved, self-deprecating searchers are mostly steady-eyed empiricists, they have also earned a bit of optimism. They have canvassed more than 30 square miles, printed more than 16,000 fliers, and logged more than 350 hours of video footage. They even found another missing person, responding to a tip about Paulikas that led them to a different woman with a similar appearance.
“It’s been an amazing outpouring of compassion. People who don’t even know Kirk or Nancy are out there beating the pavement, sometimes in not such good areas,” Thomas said. “It’s the worst thing, and it’s also the best thing.”
The search team has set up a website, http://nancyismissing.blogspot.com/, that contains further information. To report a tip, call Kirk at (310) 650-7965, or Det. Rosenberger at (310) 802-5140.