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Disappearance of Preschool Director Baffles Bay Area Town

Nancy MacDuckston, 52, has been missing for more than a month. Parents struggle to explain it to their children.

September 16, 2003|Karen Alexander | Special to The Times

BELMONT, Calif. — The toy shelves were orderly and the costumes hung neatly on hooks at Carlmont Parents' Nursery School last week. But when the students arrived for their first day of school, something was horribly out of place.

Nancy MacDuckston, the 52-year-old director of this cheery Bay Area nursery school, has been missing since Aug. 11. She left a note that she was taking a day trip to Davenport, a favorite seaside spot of hers north of Santa Cruz. MacDuckston was seen early that evening in Davenport, dining with an Asian or Polynesian man no one has been able to identify. She has not been seen since.

Investigators in Belmont -- a town of 25,000 about halfway between Palo Alto and San Francisco -- say they haven't ruled out any possibilities about what may have happened to MacDuckston. Did she fall or jump or get pushed from the cliffs into the water? Was she abducted? Or is she with the mystery man -- voluntarily or against her will?

Some puzzling notes she sent to friends and colleagues around the time she went missing suggest that her disappearance may have been intentional.

"We believe that the facts as we know them today don't point toward foul play," Belmont Police Sgt. Dan DeSmidt said.

MacDuckston sent at least four postcards from Davenport that day to various colleagues and friends at the preschool. DeSmidt characterized them as the kind of bland, friendly notes a person might send from vacation: went hiking today, having a nice time. But the instructions she left at the preschool -- detailed notes on how to care for the school's many pets -- suggest to some that she planned to be away for longer than the one-day trip she described.

As days stretched into weeks, preschool parents made every effort to conceal their agonizing uncertainty from their children. But with the start of school drawing near, and fliers of the smiling blue-eyed grandmother the students call "Teacher Nancy" posted all over town, parents came to school one night for a grim lesson of their own: how to talk to their children about something no one understands.

"Tell them the truth" is what marriage and family therapist Deborah Lupton told them. "Be very simple about it. Don't give a lot of details. And reassure them that as soon as you have more information you'll give it to them."

Lupton's own children, now teenagers, were MacDuckston's students years ago. Now Lupton was back at the school, helping parents deal with this mystery.

"There's a blessing in terms of the age of these preschoolers," Lupton said. "Developmentally, they aren't as likely to be as concerned or as curious or interested as older children."

Preschool president Janet Hart told her 6-year-old simply: Teacher Nancy is missing. "She went for a walk on the beach and she didn't come home, and we're hoping that she comes home soon."

"Are people looking for her?" the child asked. "How long has she been missing?"

It had been eleven days.

After reporting MacDuckston missing on Aug. 12, her husband Bruce drove to Davenport and found his wife's minivan parked on California 1 just north of town. Her beach chair, book, sunglasses and a pink hat were laid out on some nearby cliffs.

A waitress at the New Davenport Cash Store told police she saw MacDuckston dining with the unknown man investigators are seeking. He is described as an Asian or Polynesian man, 5 feet 6, 160 pounds and in his early 50s.

MacDuckston is 5 feet 6 and 125 pounds. Her dark blond hair is chin-length. Friends say she is deeply committed to the preschool and its students. The MacDuckstons live with their two grown children and 1-year-old granddaughter.

Volunteers have blanketed the surrounding coastal towns with fliers in several languages.

So far, about 50 people have contacted investigators to offer possible identifications for the man, DeSmidt said. Police emphasize that the man is not considered a suspect.

FBI behavioral scientists are attempting to determine MacDuckston's frame of mind. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have studied the tides at the time of her disappearance. Coast Guard boats have patrolled the area. But no clues have surfaced.

Volunteers are trying to gather new information. On Friday night, her photo and a sketch of her unidentified dining companion were displayed on the huge video screen at the San Francisco Giants baseball game.

"We've tried to get people not to spend their time hypothesizing on what happened," said Mike Aydelott, a friend of the MacDuckston family who has coordinated search efforts by more than 150 volunteers.

Instead, they continue to brainstorm new ways to get the word out about a woman whose disappearance has left behind as many worried admirers as unanswered questions.


The Belmont Police Department asks anyone with information about Nancy MacDuckston or her unidentified dining partner to call (650) 598-3000.

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