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She calls it her “altar of hope.”
Every night, Nancy Fleming Bird, joined by her two teenage children, lights a candle on a table in front of a bay window that is filled with photos and mementos of her life with a man who went for an afternoon walk a year ago and vanished.
They sit at the dinner table next to an empty chair that is a constant reminder of the void in their lives and the unanswered questions about David Bird, the Wall Street Journal reporter who simply disappeared in a quiet New Jersey neighborhood an hour's drive from Manhattan.
“They miss their dad very much,” Nancy said of her kids, ages 13 and 16. “We love him very much.”
At the Long Hill Police Department headquarters, Chief Michael Mazzeo also has a reminder: a binder of paperwork that has grown to seven inches thick in the 12 bewildering months since the missing-person’s investigation began.
In that time, hundreds of officers and volunteers using dogs and high-tech equipment have searched thousands of acres of woods and 80 miles of river with no trace of the 56-year-old energy journalist. Every lead has turned into a dead end; there are no clues to bolster a particular theory.
"That’s what the most frustrating thing is: there is nothing definitively leading us to believe what happened," Mazzeo said.
"You try to use logic and the facts and come up with some sort of conclusion. That’s the bizarre part of it. There’s nothing to say he didn’t walk away from his home, nothing to say someone didn’t do something to him, nothing to say there was not an accident. Nothing to say any of those things did happen.”
On the day he vanished, David Bird was a Boy Scout coordinator, a newly minted marathoner and — most crucially for the case — a transplant survivor.
In 2004, he contracted a rare and aggressive strain of hepatitis, possibly while on a business trip overseas, and his liver swiftly deteriorated until he was so sick that he was at the top of the waiting list for a donor organ.
He got one just in time that December, and the transplant meant that 10 years later, he still had to take anti-rejection drugs twice a day. On the day he disappeared, he was recovering from a stomach flu but was otherwise healthy, his family said.
When he left the house to get some fresh air — promising to return to finish putting away Christmas decorations — he did not take his pills, his cellphone or passport, though it's believed he did have his wallet.
Hicks Tract Park is about a tenth of a mile away and his wife assumed he went there for a ramble. She took a nap and when she awoke, it was dark and rainy and David wasn't home yet.
“I thought he got hurt in the woods or had some medical issue,” she said.
She dialed 911 and police responded to the house within minutes. Sniffer dogs were dispatched immediately, and a state police helicopter with infrared equipment was in the sky within hours.
"We looked at every possible option and came up with nothing telling."
Teams looked at parts of the Passaic River, less than a half-mile from the house, early on. When the weather warmed up, they took canoes along the entire length and even used sonar to get a better look underwater.
They surveyed swaths of the Great Swamp, a 7,800-acre wildlife refuge to the north, by plane and all-terrain vehicle and on foot and horseback, Mazzeo said.
Officers collected security camera footage from every gas station and business within walking distance and the NJ Transit train stations in Summit and Newark. "We had officers watch every single frame," Mazzeo said.
They checked airport passenger logs and called every auto shop in a 20-minute radius to ask if anyone had come in with damage from hitting a deer, speculating they might have struck Bird instead. "We had people walking side roads for miles, looking for any indication of a crash," Mazzeo said.
The chief has run the various scenarios through his head with no clarity. If Bird had an accident or fell ill or even took his own life, why have they not found his body? If he planned to disappear, why didn't he take his medication with him? If he was abducted, what would be the motive?
Bird covered energy markets for the Journal, but police don't believe his work is a likely explanation. "The information he had was not something someone would have taken him for," Mazzeo said.
Investigators dug into his background and found no indiscretions. "We looked at every possible option and came up with nothing telling," Mazzeo said.
In the first few days, the family believed they had found a red flag: a credit card charge from Mexico. But it turned out to be Nancy's card that was used in a simple case of hacking fraud, she said.
"It's been an emotional roller-coaster that doesn't stop," she said of the false leads and sightings.
"The number one thing that keeps me going is my children," she said, her voice breaking. “They are the reason I get up every day and function.
"I’m also surrounded by an amazing community. They have been carrying me for this year. And just my faith in God that somehow we’re going to be OK and we are protected and somehow David is OK."
"It's been an emotional roller-coaster that doesn't stop."
On Sunday, Nancy Bird will mark the anniversary with two events, a candlelight walk culminating in a bonfire by the Boy Scouts that she says her husband "would love" and a breakfast fundraiser sponsored by the local police union to help alleviate financial stress now that the family relies on one part-time income and donations.
Publicity about the anniversary may bring fresh leads, and Mazzeo said his detectives are poised to check out any new information.
Asked whether Bird could still be alive, the chief said, "Absolutely."
Does he think they will ever solve the case? "I couldn't even guess," he said.
Anyone with information about Bird is asked to call the Long Hill Police Department at 908-647-1800.