She Left to Use the Restroom at LACMA and Never Returned. What Happened to Nancy Paulikas?

The retired software engineer’s disappearance reveals troubling inadequacies in the search for missing persons with Alzheimer’s

In the early hours of October 16, 2016, Kirk Moody sat in a chair in the living room of his Manhattan Beach home, alone, waiting for a call from the Los Angeles Police Department about the whereabouts of his wife. At about 4 a.m., the phone had yet to ring, so he got up, climbed into his green Audi station wagon, and drove toward the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to take matters into his own hands.

Moody’s wife, Nancy Paulikas, had disappeared the previous afternoon during their visit to LACMA. Nancy, then 55, who had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in October 2015, had wandered off after entering a bathroom on the second floor of the Ahmanson Building. Moody had walked his wife to the entrance of the restroom, then used the men’s restroom on the floor below. He did not see her when he got back upstairs, so he looked around the galleries, first by himself and then with a security guard. Unable to find her, they searched the museum grounds and the nearby La Brea Tar Pits. Then they notified the police.

Moody, who like his wife was a retired software engineer, hung around for another couple of hours, then drove some of the family members he had arrived with back to their hotel in Manhattan Beach. During the drive it struck him that he should create a flyer with Nancy’s picture. He and his sister, Allison, put one together with a photo taken earlier that day at lunch. Moody drove back to Mid-Wilshire and distributed a stack of copies in the area around the Farmers Market, a few blocks north of the museum, but no one had seen his wife.

Police had told him that the most likely scenario was that Nancy would try to get home, so he drove back to Manhattan Beach and found himself sitting in a chair, waiting for a call or a knock at the door. As would later become plain, waiting around was not in Moody’s character.

His third trip to LACMA in less than 24 hours took place in the light traffic of a predawn Sunday. Alone and with his senses heightened by the trauma of the day, Moody drove through Los Angeles as if for the first time. Boulevards stretched on forever, he recalled; streets seemed both fuller and lonelier than they ever had. He was, he realized, one person, looking for one other, amid millions.

“That was truly the soul-crushing experience, driving five miles per hour down these residential streets. She could have been behind a bush, and I wouldn’t have seen her,” Moody said. “It was not quite light out yet. I remember I was stopping newspaper delivery people, asking them to look for her. That’s when it hit me: The city is just so stinkin’ big. I started to think, ‘Oh, my God, this is impossible.’ That’s when I got back here and sent that email out.”

Moody returned to his tidy, single-story house in a quiet neighborhood on Manhattan Beach’s eastern edge. The email—subject line: “Nancy is missing”—went out at about 7:30 a.m. to a small group of friends. Within hours, people began arriving at his home.

Over the next two years, more than 80 friends and family members would join Moody to help. Like Nancy and himself, many were scientists and engineers, and the mind-set of their careers informed their volunteerism. They plastered the walls of Moody’s home with topographic maps and marked-up Thomas Guide quadrants. They organized computer networks to harvest gigabyte after gigabyte of security camera footage. Moody himself visited more than 1,000 medical facilities between Kern County and the Mexican border.

The search continued until December 26, 2018, when a call finally came. State forensic scientists had confirmed through DNA testing that bones found in a Sherman Oaks park belonged to Nancy. The condition of the remains—a skull fragment and another set of bones, which were found about 500 feet from one another and on two different occasions separated by more than 18 months—means that, as far as the Los Angeles County coroner is concerned, the cause of her death is “undetermined.” There were no bullet holes or marks in the bones suggesting a stabbing that were found. Police still do not know how Nancy ended up some 10 miles from the museum.

The skull, found first, was discovered in March 2017. Though the coroner is unable to fix the date of her demise, this means that at a minimum the search for Nancy carried on for more than 21 months after she had died. This is understandably a source of anger for those who did the looking. But Nancy’s disappearance exposed troubling inadequacies in the search for and identification of missing persons, and these obscure procedural corners would have gone undisturbed if the search had not persisted as long as it did.

“I’d ask my friends, ‘Am I insane that I’m still looking for her?’” Moody said. “And they’d say, ‘You haven’t found her. Why would that be insane to keep looking?’”

Nancy Paulikas’s husband, Kirk Moody, spent two years searching for her

Christopher Fowler

If someone goes missing, whom do you call?

The obvious answer is the police. In 2018, 43,121 adults went missing in California. More than 37,000 of them were considered “voluntary missing,” and there were 2,001 missing dependent adults, a category that includes people with Alzheimer’s. There is a “common myth that 24 hours must pass before law enforcement will accept a missing persons report,” according to the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training; in fact, California wants people to contact authorities when loved ones go missing, and state law requires any agency, “regardless of jurisdiction,” to accept a missing persons report.

Then things start to get complicated. The POST guidelines recommend “the initial investigation should be handled by the agency of jurisdiction where the missing person was last seen,” but that once this agency has “exhausted all investigative leads,” the case should be transferred “to the agency that has jurisdiction over the missing person’s residence.”

In the days after Nancy’s disappearance, police disagreed about whose case it was. On the evening of October 17, a lieutenant from the Manhattan Beach Police Department came by Moody’s home to assure him that the LAPD would continue handling the case. By the next morning, “everybody agreed it’s Manhattan Beach’s case now,” Moody said. “And it was like, ‘Oh, great, nobody wants this case.’”

According to the state Department of Justice, the rationale for jurisdiction switching is that missing persons most frequently return home on their own. “Ninety percent of the time, individuals will go back home, especially people with dementia,” an LAPD missing persons detective told me two weeks after Nancy disappeared.

An analysis of DOJ figures reveals this to be a considerable overstatement. Among resolved cases of missing adults in the last five years in Los Angeles County, 39.3 percent returned on their own, while 34.5 percent were located elsewhere by law enforcement. The DOJ figures do not break down how different types of missing persons cases get resolved, and it is not clear that even this modest statistical trend holds true for cases involving wandering Alzheimer patients. Moody told officers that his wife could barely speak and that he doubted she could find her way home.

Moody as well as Nancy’s parents praise the efforts of MBPD Sgt. Mike Rosenberger, who took over until Nancy’s remains were identified. And various LAPD officers continued to offer help throughout the search, some on their own time. But the early jurisdictional dispute helped shape the searchers’ conception of themselves as less constrained and more nimble than law enforcement. At one point an exasperated Moody found himself telling police, “We’re not trying to convict her of a crime. We’re trying to find her.” The search effort would be working with government but clearly outside of it, a cross between a posse and a think tank.

An outdoor camera from a medical marijuana dispensary captured Nancy heading west down the south side of Wilshire Boulevard for a few moments before she is obscured by a Metro bus.

Matt Lewis was the first one at the house that Sunday morning. Lewis, a longtime friend of Moody and a senior research scientist at the RAND Corporation, spread the word on social media. People started showing up, and by the following weekend, more than 40 people were passing through Moody’s home. Lewis, whom a friend described as “pathologically organized,” tried to impose the division of labor traditionally employed in disasters by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He did not entirely succeed, although the group rarely ran out of granola bars and bottled water.

“We were looking for models. We weren’t the first people to have someone go missing,” Lewis said.

One of the first tasks was improving on the crude flyer that Moody and his sister assembled the day Nancy went missing. Starting with the area around LACMA, then spreading in all directions, in the first two weeks the group distributed 15,000 flyers. Tips and photos poured in through a dedicated phone line and email account. People reported seeing Nancy all over Southern California; each purported sighting was logged into a spreadsheet, and volunteers often drove to check it out. Some tips were clear attempts to game the reward that had been offered; one message, later found to have come from Liberia, claimed to be holding Nancy hostage. Others treated the tip takers like agony columnists and shared tragic stories about their own loved ones with Alzheimer’s.

Finding that business owners near the museum were hesitant to share security camera footage, someone developed a script; it was eventually determined that well-dressed couples were more likely to gain access than scruffy singles. They learned to bring thumb drives to download the video so it could be reviewed by the entire team on a computer network back at Moody’s house.

The footage produced some of the search’s few breakthroughs. An outdoor camera from a medical marijuana dispensary captured Nancy heading west down the south side of Wilshire Boulevard for a few moments before she is obscured by a Metro bus. Later the group found footage revealing that she had turned south from Wilshire onto McCarthy Vista. The camera’s field of view was blocked by a building, and the crew was only able to see Nancy’s reflection on a glass door. It is the last confirmed image of her, captured about 15 minutes after she left LACMA.

Nancy Paulikas captured by a security camera minutes after wandering away from LACMA.

The engineer, Malcolm Gladwell once wrote, “doesn’t understand why the rest of us can’t make sense of the world the way he does.” In this formulation the engineer is defined by contrast, relying on rules and data instead of emotions and intuition. But what happens when everyone is an engineer?

The world may never get a better model of this hypothetical than Southern California during the Cold War. The search for Nancy Paulikas is inseparable from the region’s history at the center of aerospace. When she went missing a network of literal rocket scientists stood ready to apply their particular way of looking at the world to a problem. Richard Barr, a martial arts instructor and longtime friend of Moody, recalled attending the first of many evening strategy sessions at Moody’s house: “The meeting is being conducted as though it’s a Pentagon briefing because that’s exactly who these guys are used to briefing.”

Los Angeles County became the nexus of airplane manufacturing during World War II and turned that head start into an insurmountable lead in the production of satellites, rockets, and missiles. Under an uptick in post-Vietnam military spending, California aerospace peaked in the late 1980s, employing more than 360,000 people. Many of these positions were well-paying blue-collar jobs. But the companies also supported huge numbers of scientists and engineers, a brigade of horn-rimmed glasses and pocket protectors, and nowhere was this more true than in L.A.’s South Bay, which became, as journalist Rachel Reeves put it, “the epicenter of aerospace R&D.”

When Nancy Paulikas went missing a network of literal rocket scientists stood ready to apply their particular way of looking at the world to a problem.

Nancy grew up in Palos Verdes, where her parents settled not long after her father, George, finished his Ph.D. in physics and took a job at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo; like her mother, Joan, Nancy would eventually become a licensed airplane pilot. As a child, she triumphed in math contests to the astonishment of her mostly male competitors. She loved animals and studied veterinary medicine at UC Davis, but the sensitive spirit that drove her to keep birds, cats, mice, and rabbits while growing up was not suited to what she found working at a veterinary clinic.

“I think she was disappointed in how other people cared for their pets,” George said. “A lot of people would leave their animal rather than come back to pay and pick it up,” Joan added.

Nancy changed her major to electrical engineering and earned the University Medal, given to UC Davis’s top graduating senior. A grant from the National Science Foundation funded her master’s degree in computer science at UCLA. She began working summers at TRW Incorporated, where she met Moody, on his first day of work, in 1981.

Aerospace’s predominance in Southern California created built-in networks of like-minded people. Will Thomas was working at Hughes Aircraft, now Raytheon, when he met Moody in the late ’80s through a friend who was working at TRW. This was around the time that the Thursday Night Boy’s Club sprang up. The casual gathering for a few beers has held up remarkably well.

“Out of 52 Thursdays in a year, there’s some years we probably get 50. We’ve even done it on Thanksgiving,” Thomas said.

Moody’s sister, Allison, who had to return to Colorado two days after Nancy disappeared, initially worried about her brother’s well-being. But she soon came to see that he had a deeply committed group of friends—both to search for his wife and to offer support.

“I thought, ‘My gosh, what do people do who haven’t got this resource?’ ” she said. “You couldn’t pay people to do this.”

The character of the search effort owed as much to this interdependence as it did to the number of Ph.D.s it contained. In “The Crash of Blue Sky California,” a 1993 Harper’s magazine essay, David Beers wrote that aerospace fundamentally transformed the nation’s ideas about innovation. While progress in the past had come from “a lonely visionary tinkering against a mass of naysayers,” the stakes of global annihilation made this impractical. Unity, direction, breaking down lofty ideas into discrete assignments—this was how problems would now be solved. “How, for example, to order tasks so that when someone changed the shape of a nose cone in Anaheim, all other contractors and subcontractors all over the country, changed their design accordingly?” Beers wrote.

If you thought this way, you might also be inclined to wonder how to make sure that when police in Manhattan Beach have an open case about a woman who went missing in Los Angeles that an emergency medical technician working for a private ambulance company knows about it, and when the EMT finds a woman on the street in an area served by the Los Angeles County Fire Department and takes her to a hospital (with intake procedures set by its corporate owner) and the woman has no identification and can’t talk, that the police in Manhattan Beach would hear about it.

There’s no evidence any of this happened with Nancy. But the team got to wondering. Moody recalled a talk he had with some firefighters. “Some guy had been beat to crap with a baseball bat. He doesn’t have any ID. So the paramedics tag him as ‘Louis Ville,’” after the Louisville Slugger bat. “The hospital doesn’t know any better, puts him in the system that way. This guy goes into a coma, and he comes out and doesn’t know who he is. And his family has no way of finding him.”

Kirk Moody and a team of more than 80 volunteers, many with engineering backgrounds, used scientific methodology to refine the search with almost no leads

Brad Jacobson

In the week after Nancy Paulikas disappeared, volunteers, most of them out of state, cobbled together a list of hospitals in the region and began calling. Peg Griffith, who lives in Colorado and whose husband, Bill Struzeski, grew up with Moody, worked with another friend to assign hospitals for California-based volunteers to check. The number of people involved and the amount of time devoted created a data management problem, Griffith said. Eventually someone at “headquarters”—the remote volunteers’ name for Moody’s house—figured out how to automate the entry of a caller’s information onto a spreadsheet. The team kept calling hospitals until the week Nancy’s remains were identified.

But organization could take the search only so far. The group’s dive into the state’s health care system brought them up against a heavily regulated bureaucracy not necessarily incentivized to help. “Breaking through,” as the team called it, required patience and personal connection, not always easy for a bunch of people Moody described as “somewhere to the right on the autism spectrum.”

Barr, the martial arts instructor, recalled showing up at a hospital where volunteers had received a tip about a Jane Doe. He had a picture of Nancy with him and showed it to a receptionist.

“You have to get the person to want to help you,” Barr said. “And if you get through the first protective layer of someone’s job, the thing they put up to keep doing their job every day, and you say the right thing, almost everybody I met really did want to help. But they felt constrained by the rules or thought there was nothing they could do.”

Barr waited in the lobby for hours until a sympathetic nurse signaled for him to follow her. The nurse, possibly risking her job, opened a door and let him peer in. The woman in the bed, a Jane Doe who could say only a few words, was clearly not Nancy. Barr thanked the nurse and walked out of the building. As he left, he thought, “God, how is her family going to find her? They’re going to have to do the same thing.”

In late April 2017, Moody was contacted by LAPD Sgt. Mike Goldberg, who had seen one of the group’s flyers at a movie theater. A past supervisor with the department’s Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement Team, Goldberg considered but eventually dismissed the possibility that Nancy was among the region’s homeless population; Nancy, as a new arrival with a debilitating medical condition, would have stood out, he said.

He also thought it was unlikely that she was dead. (Goldberg interviewed Moody before he began helping, in part to assure himself that Moody had not killed his wife; he described Moody’s reaction to this suggestion as “businesslike.”) She was not appearing in the records of any coroner’s office in the state, and unidentified bodies are surprisingly rare. Out of the roughly 10,000 death certificates that the L.A. County coroner issues each year, on average fewer than 15 will be for unidentified people.

“She fell through a crack somewhere,” Goldberg said. “What crack could she have fallen through was the question.”

Before becoming a police officer, Goldberg had worked in medical billing. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in gerontology. In his 16 years on the force, some of it spent patrolling Skid Row, Goldberg had seen patient dumping and other questionable behavior by medical institutions. He was an ideal partner for the avenue of the search that consumed more time than any other: the possibility that Nancy was in a residential medical care facility under an incorrect name and that because of her limited verbal abilities she was unable to do anything about it.

If that were true, Goldberg said the facility likely would have enrolled her in Medi-Cal, which would create a record, albeit one with limited information. Medi-Cal became the search team’s way in. After protracted battles with the state Department of Health Care Services, the team obtained lists of new female Medi-Cal enrollees.

This new data pool, though, soon created the same problems that emerged with hospitals: Remote contact was not enough. At one point Moody created a letter that the MBPD put on its letterhead and sent to 800 care facilities. But the message seemed to get lost amid rapid staff turnover.

And so Moody along with Nancy’s parents began a grueling routine of visiting hundreds of residential care facilities. The experience exposed them to a side of the California health care system that consumes billions in public funds and, according to a 2018 report from the state auditor, is subject to gaps in regulatory oversight that can endanger patients. Many of the facilities they visited, known as “six-packs,” housed three or four people and were run out of someone’s home. When Moody and his in-laws were allowed to look inside, they were often shocked at the conditions they found. George and Joan, both healthy into their 80s, said the experience convinced them to pursue in-home care when the time came.

After months of searching, headquarters became less crowded. Moody’s insistence that there were always “new ways to attack the database” of Medi-Cal enrollees began to worry some of his closest friends. “I would tell him, ‘You don’t have to end it. You don’t have to make any announcement. Tap the brakes a little bit. Stop for two weeks, then go back,’ ” said Thomas. Like several others in the group, Thomas often uses “n” as a placeholder in conversation, a vestige of a time in higher math that drains some of the blood from the most incarnadine recollections. “He was torturing himself. He thought, ‘If I go to n-minus-one six-packs, and she’s in the last one, how will I live with myself?’”

Brad Jacobson

Fossil Ridge Park, where Nancy’s remains were discovered, sits amid the winding streets surrounding the intersection of Mulholland Drive and Beverly Glen Boulevard. Barr, Lewis, Thomas, and Ian Scheibel, a film prop designer who was also part of the search, visited a few days after Moody learned of his wife’s fate.

At first some in the group seemed ready to apply the same methods they had used in searching for her to the question of how she died. They mapped possible routes and the rise in elevation, and determined that Nancy could have been at the park before sundown on the day she went missing. (An avid backpacker who had hiked the John Muir Trail, Nancy remained almost unchanged physically as her mental abilities deteriorated.)

Although LACMA is 10 miles from the park, “she could have been at the head of that canyon about sunset,” Lewis said as he pointed at a map of the park on his phone. “She would be really tired, dehydrated, scared when she got there, and she goes to ground and hides somewhere. It’s cold, it’s scary; she’s probably suffering from exposure. Then it rained the next night, and she died from exposure.”

Goldberg, who spent years patrolling the area for the LAPD, disagrees, saying, “Given the location, she probably was driven. “Somebody definitely led her there. This is an area frequented by locals. You so much as look out of place, we get called,” Goldberg said. “She would be seen by multiple dog walkers. For her not to be noticed, the chances are rare to none. At the same park we got a call from somebody about some homeless guy trying to camp there the same day that her remains were identified.”

But at the time Nancy disappeared, according to those who knew her, her condition had deteriorated to the point that she was cantankerous around strangers, and Moody was frequently the only one who could calm her down. They think it is unlikely that she would have willingly gotten into a car with someone and that even forcing her into a vehicle would have been difficult. Her parents recalled an incident when, while returning from a therapy session, she attempted to grab the steering wheel out of her father’s hands.

For all of his boundless energy in trying to find his wife, Moody seems almost uninterested in how she actually died. He has paid close attention, however, to how her remains were identified.

The DOJ replied that, 17 months later, it had yet to begin DNA analysis of the skull.

On March 11, 2017, L.A. city firefighters found a portion of a skull—the top half, above the eye socket and with no jaw or teeth that could be used to compare with dental records—while fighting a small brush fire at the park. The next month the Coroner’s Office submitted a sample of the skull to the Bureau of Forensic Services, a state Department of Justice crime lab in Richmond that handles DNA identifications. Then on September 12 of last year, L.A. city maintenance workers came across what they believed to be bones in Fossil Ridge. Coroner staff searched the area and found several vertebrae, four ribs, and a portion of a human pelvis. The additional bones lay on the other side of a ravine from where the skull had been found. On September 14, Betsy Magdaleno, an investigator with the county Coroner’s Office, emailed the Bureau of Forensic Services, asking for an update. The DOJ replied that, 17 months later, it had yet to begin DNA analysis of the skull.

The lag between a coroner’s office sending out remains to the Richmond lab and receiving an identification from the DOJ can vary considerably, and delays like the one in Nancy’s case are not unheard of. According to Sarah Ardalani, the coroner’s public information officer, it typically takes six to 18 months for the bureau to respond to a county identification request. According to the DOJ, the processing time for a sample once it has been assigned is between three weeks and three months.

Hundreds of miles from the Richmond lab, Moody and Nancy’s family have been pushing for change closer to home. In early 2017 they met with L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn, whose Fourth District includes Manhattan Beach. Hahn had never dealt with the issue of missing persons suffering from Alzheimer’s.

“I’d always heard of law enforcement being notified when someone went missing,” Hahn said in an interview, “but I didn’t know anything about what a family went through after that initial call.”

Inspired by Nancy’s case and led by Hahn and fellow Supervisor Kathryn Barger, the Board of Supervisors created the Bringing Our Loved Ones Home task force. The initiative brought together staff from agencies throughout the county and, in its report, described “a problem that is largely hidden: the growing number of vulnerable missing persons.” The report notes that 60 percent of people with Alzheimer’s will wander at some point and predicts there will be more than 275,000 county residents diagnosed with the disease by 2030.

In February 2018 the board approved recommendations from the task force, many of which, such as the need for improved coordination among emergency responders and the standardization of hospital intake procedures for unidentified patients, were suggested by Nancy’s search team. The board also created L.A. Found, a system of trackable bracelets for those at risk of wandering.

Eight days after learning of his wife’s death, Moody received a letter from a man whose wife, an Alzheimer sufferer, had gone missing just a couple miles east of LACMA. That woman wore an L.A. Found tracking bracelet and was located a little more than 24 hours after disappearing. The letter was a humble, earnest attempt to console Moody for his loss—and to thank him.

“She is our Guardian Angel,” the man wrote. “May her light keep shining over all of us.”

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.