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A middle-aged woman with Alzheimer's, no money and no transportation vanished in Los Angeles. Now the search is on

Friends, relatives and even strangers have joined the search party.

Police in Los Angeles and Manhattan Beach have distributed bulletins and been on the lookout.

Tip-trackers are chasing leads, hospitals have been put on notice and ads have been run in The Times and elsewhere.

But as of Tuesday, there was still no sign of a Manhattan Beach woman who disappeared six and a half weeks ago.

Nancy Paulikas had gone with family to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Oct. 15, went to the bathroom, and vanished. Surveillance video from nearby businesses shows her walking southwest toward Carthay Circle a few moments later, but that was the last sighting of the UCLA engineering alum known for her once-brilliant mind and love of the outdoors.

With each passing week, the disappearance seems more baffling, and all the more frustrating for those who care about Paulikas.

Kirk Moody, Paulikas’ husband, emailed me about his wife after reading my recent column on my mother’s dementia. My mother tried to escape the hospital she was admitted to, which isn’t uncommon. According to the Alzheimer’s Assn., 6 in 10 people with dementia are prone to wandering.

But Moody doubts this was a case of his wife simply going for a walk.

“People ask me how I did not go to the bathroom with her or send somebody with her,” said Moody, who used the men’s restroom while his wife was in the women’s.

His answer is that “it never entered my mind that she would roam.” She feared being separated from groups, and particularly from him. She must have come out of the bathroom and when she didn’t immediately see him, she went looking.

“I’m convinced she went right out of that museum looking for me,” Moody said.

Ever since, he’s been looking for her.

He took me into the kitchen of his Manhattan Beach home, the home where his wife’s condition rapidly deteriorated in the year before her disappearance. The kitchen is set up like a command center, with maps splayed against walls next to lists of contact information for the army of volunteers, some of whom worked in the aerospace industry alongside Paulikas and Moody.

“The first night, we drove back up there at 4 in the morning,” Moody says of the neighborhood around LACMA. “It’s soul-sucking because it’s so huge. You drive down two streets and think, ‘My God, I could be doing this for four hours and not cover two miles.’”

That’s part of the challenge. It’s not as if Paulikas lost her way in a small village. She’s been swallowed by the sprawl, lost in a teeming city where it’s possible to go unnoticed and unrecognized. A city in which, if you appear disoriented or homeless, you blend into a flock tens of thousands strong.

She had no money, so she couldn’t hail a cab, and might have been confused about how to use a bus or train. Her mother, Joan, who lives in the Palos Verdes Estates house where Nancy grew up, doubts that her daughter would know her own name if someone asked. She had an ID bracelet but didn’t like wearing it and may have tossed it.

Joan Paulikas regrets not being with her daughter on her 56th birthday, Nov. 11, or Thanksgiving. She said that for Christmas, she will make the usual — a traditional Lithuanian family meal, “and hope.”

In a way, it’s as if Paulikas has disappeared twice, first behind the disease and then into the city of a million hiding places.

Moody has considered the worst-case scenario.

“I’ve been contacting the L.A. County coroner’s office, and so far, they haven’t received any Jane Does since Oct. 15,” he said. “They’ve all been identified.”

It’s possible she’s living on the street somewhere, but Moody doubts that the woman he began dating in 1988 would have survived. She couldn’t tend to basic needs, and he prepared all her meals.

It’s possible, if not likely, that someone kindhearted, or lonely, has taken her in and doesn’t know who she is or what to do with her.

Police haven’t ruled out anything, but they have their doubts about one possibility.

“We didn’t get any information that led us to believe there was foul play,” said Det. Samuel Soto of LAPD’s Adult Missing Persons Unit.

Soto said his six-person team fields 300 to 350 reports each month that someone is missing, but roughly 85% of those turn out to be what the department calls the “voluntary missing.” They tend to turn up quickly.

Paulikas, he said, isn’t the first person with severe dementia who’s gone missing.

“We have others who, for unknown reasons, will be admitted to hospitals under John or Jane Doe, and it does take some time to match them” to people in state and national missing persons databases.

Of all the possibilities, that’s the one Moody is pulling for. You can get insurance coverage as a Jane Doe if someone enrolls you in Medical, Moody said, so he’s asking social workers at hospitals and residential care facilities to be on the lookout for recent admissions that match such a profile.

Moody tears up when he talks about his wife being lost to everyone, including herself. He sheds a tear, as well, when talking about the community of friends her disappearance has spawned. A core group of a few dozen has been joined by strangers who heard about Paulikas and wanted to help in some way.

“It’s remarkable,” Moody said.

Nancy Ward, a close friend of Moody and Paulikas, has canvassed the LACMA neighborhood, posted fliers and manned the phones.

“Nancy just sparkled because of her intelligence,” Ward said. “They were always a very popular couple, and their home was open to everyone…. I think the horror of this is so staggering, we’re all drawn in because we can’t believe it’s happening.”

Moody told me he and his wife retired early so they’d have plenty of time for the things they loved, like long backpacking trips. Her decline took that from them, and even if she is found, there can be no happy ending.

But he wants her to be safe, and to be home.

Paulikas is 5 foot 7 and about 140 pounds, with glasses, brown-gray hair and blue eyes. The Manhattan Beach Police Department has taken the lead on the case, and Sgt. Paul Ford asks that anyone who spots Paulikas take a photograph of her and immediately dial 911.

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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