LOS ANGELES — In October 2016, a 55-year-old retired software engineer with early-onset Alzheimer’s wandered out of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as her husband used the restroom. Nancy Paulikas hasn’t been seen since.
Kirk Moody still spends time nearly every day looking for her. “There hasn’t been a single trace,” he says.
Her disappearance and his anguish have prompted what may be the nation’s most ambitious system for tracking down people with cognitive conditions that make them prone to roaming — and getting lost.
L.A. Found, which launched in this sprawling county in September, equips potential wanderers with trackable bracelets that, when activated by search crews, transmit a radio signal to handheld receivers placed in several Sheriff’s Department cruisers and helicopters. The battery-operated bracelets are available to anyone with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or autism.
The bracelets are nothing new. They are distributed by Project Lifesaver, a nearly 20-year-old nonprofit group based in Florida that has issued the white, watch-sized wristbands — each equipped with a radio transmitter — to hundreds of municipal public-safety agencies around the country.
What makes Los Angeles County’s effort unique is the scale of the $765,000 initiative. While most programs tend to cluster in suburban communities, L.A. Found covers an area roughly the size of Connecticut that includes 88 cities and 10 million people.
“This was the largest kickoff we have ever had, and given the size of the county, it is definitely expected to continue growing,” Project Lifesaver spokeswoman Kyrianna Hoffses said recently.
Central to L.A. Found is an unusual partnership between law enforcement and the county’s agency for seniors. Four full-time agency employees were hired to train families on how to use the bracelets, find funding to buy more bracelets and establish a protocol to leverage Los Angeles County’s 100,000-person workforce when a person is reported missing. Searches will be activated regardless of whether wanderers are wearing one of those wristbands.
“Now, when you call us and say your loved one has gone missing — we’re going to start the searches,” said County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who sponsored the initiative after learning about Paulikas’ story. “We’ll alert the coroner’s office. We’ll alert hospitals within L.A. County. We’ll look at the morgues. We’ll connect to Metro — the trains and the buses. . . . It’s sort of like we’re saying, ‘We got your back.’ ”
More than 166,000 residents of Los Angeles County suffer from Alzheimer’s. That number is expected to surpass 215,000 by 2030. Nationally, the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s is set to skyrocket, from 5.7 million now to 14 million by 2050.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, about 60 percent of individuals with the disease or other dementias wander, often with little ability to say who they are or where they live. Up to half of those who go missing will suffer serious injury or death if not found within 24 hours.
Los Angeles County officials herald their program as a model and have fielded inquiries from Alameda County in the San Francisco Bay area and the Arizona governor’s office.
Yet its scale leaves a lot of room for error. While officials have touted two saves, neither case demonstrated the potential of the technology, and both exposed the logistical difficulties of getting agencies to cooperate and caretakers and families to follow instructions.
On Sept. 13, a 65-year-old man with no ability to communicate managed to travel by bus from the densely populated MacArthur Park area to the remote foothills near the suburb of Altadena some 20 miles away. His family called 911 and told responding police officers about the newly issued bracelet. The officers should have notified the Sheriff’s Department to trigger a coordinated search, but they didn’t realize L.A. Found was already in effect. So they looked on their own, not knowing the man was already out of their jurisdiction.
The case only ended happily because a ranch owner near Altadena spotted someone deep in the hills and contacted authorities. A deputy hiked into the rugged terrain, found the man, noticed his bracelet and used the radio-frequency number stamped on it to locate his contact information in a Project Lifesaver database.
The following day, a 76-year-old woman from Huntington Park wandered out of her home. Inexplicably, the woman’s caretakers waited six hours before calling 911. A widespread search began.
But once again, technology didn’t lead to her discovery. Instead, a concerned citizen spotted her at a convenience store about seven miles away and, thinking something was amiss, alerted the Los Angeles Police Department. Officers noticed the bracelet and reached Project Lifesaver, which in turn called the Sheriff’s Department.
“New-program growing pains,” Sheriff’s Lt. John Gannon said of the disconnect between agencies. “We are all on the same page now.”
Sgt. Traci Fox, a police officer in Glendale, said hiccups are to be expected early on. The city began using Project Lifesaver in 2015 despite some officers’ skepticism. Then, one chilly morning in early 2017, a 20-year-old man with autism bolted out of his home.
Using the radio-technology trackers, officers found him five miles away, calf-deep in the cold water of a concrete drainage wash in Burbank. “We probably never would have found this kid had he not had this wristband,” Fox said. “From there, the buy-in was there.”
Glendale has since logged at least eight saves, most of them in under 30 minutes, she said.
The county already has given out the 130 bracelets set aside for families unable to afford the $325 cost. Organizers hope to have at least 1,000 people enrolled within a year.
Moody wishes his wife had worn one, believing “they would have found her immediately.”
He and Paulikas’s parents think she is lost in the local nursing home system and fear an unscrupulous care facility may have taken custody of her as a Jane Doe so it can pocket Medi-Cal insurance reimbursements from the state.
Law enforcement agencies view that scenario as more plausible than her death. “I believe that by now they would have made a match if she was a Jane Doe via the coroner,” Gannon said.
Since her disappearance, Moody, his in-laws and volunteers have driven to at least 1,000 nursing facilities across Southern California to post fliers with her photo.
“Her most distinctive feature is her ice blue eyes,” Moody said, recounting how quickly Alzheimer’s diminished a woman who had ascended to vice president at the financial services firm ITG. By summer 2016, he was caring for her 24/7.
Last month, the retired aerospace software engineer raised the reward for information leading to her discovery — alive or otherwise — from $30,000 to $100,000. No credible leads have yet emerged.
Hahn remembers visiting with the family shortly after Paulikas vanished.
“I was so moved by this little threesome,” she said. “The thought that her elderly parents were going out there every day and driving lots of miles to just walk into nursing homes and hospitals. . . . I realized they were not sleeping one night in peace knowing Nancy was somewhere out there.”
Kuznia is a freelance reporter based in Los Angeles and is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post. He was part of a small team at the Daily Breeze in Southern California that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting.