Just like clockwork, Patricia Macdonald and her longtime neighbor spoke by telephone the morning of Nov. 2, part of a long-standing ritual for the two women, just to make sure they were both all right.
A short time later, the 87-year-old Macdonald, a fixture in local political circles for decades, drove away from her Curtis Park home for what her family thinks was a simple errand.
Then, nothing until Wednesday afternoon, when a passerby spotted a car off an embankment in a remote area of Placer County more than 80 miles from her home.
The car, which apparently veered off the 150-foot embankment near Foresthill Road and Robinson Flat Road in the Tahoe National Forest, belonged to Macdonald and was found with the body of an elderly woman inside. Authorities suspect it is the missing woman, although an official identification was not completed late Wednesday.
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“The vehicle appears to have left the roadway and traveled down a steep embankment,” Sacramento police said in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon.
The two-lane road is in a rural area of Placer County near Gold Run, and the vehicle was spotted by a passerby shortly before noon, California Highway Patrol Officer Chris Nave said.
Nave said it appeared to be a single-car accident on a mountain road.
The cause is still under investigation, and Macdonald’s daughter said she was mystified about what her mother might have been doing in the area.
“How the car got there is still up in the air,” Scottie Setzer, 60, of San Diego, said. “There’s no reason for her to have driven that way; she doesn’t even know where that it is. She hasn’t been to Lake Tahoe since I was 7. I’m putting my faith in the PD now to figure out how it got there and why it got there.”
Setzer, who spent several days after her mother’s disappearance searching for her with help from friends, added that if the body is identified as that of her mother, she at least will have the satisfaction of knowing that she was found.
“There is a relief in knowing, I have to be honest,” she said.
Macdonald’s disappearance sparked widespread concern among family members and people who have worked with her in Sacramento’s political world.
She had been active in years past fighting to shut down the Rancho Seco nuclear plant, volunteering with WEAVE (Women Escaping a Violent Environment) and working as district director for former Assemblyman Lloyd Connelly for a decade.
“In that time, she served literally thousands and thousands of people, providing all kinds of services, finding jobs, getting employment benefits, finding medical care,” Connelly said Wednesday. “She was just super and well-respected and loved in the community.
“Of the people I’ve met – and I have met a lot of folks ranging from some real scoundrels to Mother Teresa – this lady was just a wonderfully good and decent person.”
Before Wednesday’s discovery, Sacramento police said they had nothing to go on to solve the mystery.
“We have no leads whatsoever,” police spokeswoman Michele Gigante said Wednesday morning. “She doesn’t have a cellphone, apparently, she doesn’t have an ATM or credit cards, so there’s really no footprint of where she could have gone.”
Macdonald had heart problems and some issues with memory, but nothing that would explain her failure to return home that morning, according to Setzer, who returned to Sacramento from her San Diego home to help search for her mother along with many friends she had not seen in a long time.
“I’ve never really appreciated social media, but I get it. I get it now,” Setzer said. “Everybody drove all the areas, people I haven’t heard from for years.”
People who know Macdonald well say there were no signs of problems at her home the day after her disappearance.
Her neighbor, Billie Minasian, said she spoke to her about 8:30 that morning and chatted briefly about having to set their clocks back an hour.
“We talked about the time change,” Minasian said. “Everything was fine, and the next morning she didn’t call me.
“I usually would wait a little while in case she was busy. I’d wait about 15 minutes. And at a quarter to nine, I called and there was no answer. And I hung up and I called again and there was no answer.”
At that point, Minasian got her key to Macdonald’s house and contacted a neighbor; when they went in, they found her car gone and the television on.
Setzer, Macdonald’s daughter, said the newspaper had been brought inside and opened to the crossword puzzle, and that a canister of coffee was out but no coffee had been made.
Setzer thinks her mother probably headed out to the Raley’s on Freeport Boulevard to get milk for her coffee, but has no idea what could have happened.
Macdonald was a creature of habit who stayed close to home except for visits to Jimboy’s Tacos and afternoon trips to Raley’s, a store she visited regularly for 60 years.
“She’s just a private person,” Setzer said, adding that she does not believe there is any way her mother would have left intentionally without telling her or Setzer’s daughter, Mallory.
“She wouldn’t leave me and her granddaughter in this position,” Setzer said. “She would never do that.”
Setzer added that she found a note from her mother when she went to the house, but that it was simply a reminder, the sort of thing many people in Sacramento might have written to themselves that weekend.
“She wrote a note to set back her clock,” Setzer said.