BELFAST, Maine — Family members of the missing woman who was last seen in Belfast nearly six weeks ago are asking for the help of fishermen, dog walkers, potato processing plant workers and more in hopes that someone can shed light on her movements before she vanished.
After all, any clue, no matter how seemingly insignificant, just might help them find Joy MacDonald.
“Where did she go? Somebody had to see something,” Jenny Presley, MacDonald’s older sister, said Wednesday. “We just want her home. We just want her to be safe.”
Presley and other family members described MacDonald, 40, as a sweet, smart, spiritual, quiet, funny and very private person who lives alone in an apartment on Cedar Street. A few years ago, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that can be debilitating.
MacDonald, who grew up in Belfast and spent about 15 years in the Boston area before moving home five years ago, would often spend time by herself “trying to heal from the inside out,” Presley said.
That means it isn’t unusual for her to go for three or four weeks without being in touch with her family and friends.
But at the end of September, Presley began feeling that too much time had elapsed. She texted her sister, telling her she missed her, but MacDonald did not respond.
“Then my messages turned more to ‘Hey, I’m worried. Tell me you’re OK,” Presley said.
The texts continued to be met with radio silence, which was not like her sister. Presley then realized that the last time her sister had posted in a family chat was on Sept. 2, and the last time anyone in the family had talked to her was on Sept. 7.
She went to MacDonald’s apartment to check on her, and what she found there troubled her. The lights were on, the fans and air conditioner were running, and packages and mail were stacked up waist-high in the entryway. The refrigerator was full of milk and other groceries that had gone bad. A page-a-day desk calendar that she religiously kept up-to-date had not been torn off in weeks.
“It was surreal. It was like time stopped on the 9th of September,” Presley said. “It looks like she left to go run an errand and never came back … The only thing missing from her apartment was her and her bags.”
Those bags are a black messenger bag she always wore and a small, blue Hannaford tote in which she kept her water, her Tarot cards and her crystals.
After that, Presley learned from Belfast police officers that they had been called after an incident that happened on the morning of September 9. That day, MacDonald seemed to be confused and had driven to a house near the police station. She stood on the porch of that house for about half an hour and then tried to get in the house, but couldn’t. She didn’t try to break in, Presley said. Then MacDonald turned around and got back in her car and drove away.
“The woman who lives there took down Joy’s license plate number and went to the police, mostly out of concern,” Presley said.
An officer who went to MacDonald’s home that morning said she was articulate and not under the influence of anything, but a bit standoffish, Presley said.
“Like she thought she was going to be in trouble,” she said. “Which leads me to believe that she likely was confused. And she said she didn’t want to talk to him. She wanted to talk to a lawyer.”
Her family wonders if the confusion was a result of MacDonald’s multiple sclerosis.
The officer left and came back later that same day. MacDonald wasn’t there and her car wasn’t there. He tried again on Sept. 10, but she still wasn’t there.
“That’s about all the police know around the time she disappeared,” Presley said.
The last time her cell phone pinged a tower was in downtown Belfast on Sept. 10. After that, the trail seems cold, Presley said.
At some point, MacDonald’s white Nissan Rogue was discovered on Pierce Street, near the Armistice Footbridge, a place where she often liked to go to meditate. In her car, there was very little — a phone charger, her sunglasses, a meditation blanket and some protein bars.
Thanks to surveillance cameras from Penobscot McCrum, the potato processing plant located close to where the car was parked, police learned that it had been there since at least Sept. 28. It might have been there longer, but the tapes don’t go back any farther.
Because of the location of the car, and the fact that MacDonald liked to go to the bridge and the waterfront, search crews this week focused their efforts looking in the woods near the Belfast Rail Trail and the river. But despite the use of dogs in the woods and planes, boats and side-scan sonar to look in the water in the river and beyond, crews found no signs of MacDonald.
“We found zero evidence anywhere,” Yvette Presley, Jenny Presley’s wife, said.
Police also have checked hospitals and jails around the state to see if MacDonald might be there, but she is not.
So her family is casting a wider net, asking those in the community to think back to Sept. 9 and 10 and see if they can remember seeing MacDonald or anything unusual that might ultimately help them find her.
They believe MacDonald likely was wearing a black Adidas zip-up hoodie with white bands on the sleeves, jeans and black sneakers. She also always wore several inches of beaded bracelets on one arm. Although her photos show her with her dark hair down around her shoulders, she was more likely to wear it up in a ponytail.
“At this point, any information is welcome,” Jenny Presley said.
“Was she talking to anybody? Was anybody talking to her?” Yvette Presley added. “We need the breadcrumbs. We will follow them.”
The multiple sclerosis did affect MacDonald’s brain somewhat, they said. She has a tremor in her hands, and the way she speaks can sound as if she had suffered a stroke.
Right now, it just seems as if she has vanished, they said. MacDonald, who worked at Athenahealth years ago, lives on Social Security Disability because of her illness. She’s not adventurous, they said, and not a hiker. She’s not a person to go on a weekend trip without letting family know, and also doesn’t have the means to go very far, especially without her car.
“Her house did not look like she was going on a trip,” Yvette Presley said. “She’s a responsible person. The farthest she goes is to Hannaford, Walgreens and Belfast Variety.”
They do not believe that MacDonald, who is single, would have intentionally done herself any harm. She had been making plans with another sibling for the winter.
“For goodness sake, for the last five years she’s been really focused on healing herself,” Jenny Presley said.
More than anything, they just want to find her and bring her home. They have started putting up flyers around the community and are working to get the word out about her disappearance. Police are working to get bank, phone and credit card statements, Jenny Presley said, but that can take time.
And they don’t know how much of that they have.
“We just need to find her,” Jenny Presley said. “We’re praying for a miracle. We want her home.”
If anyone has information about Joy MacDonald, they are asked to contact Detective Sgt. Matt Cook of the Belfast Police Department at 207-338-2040 or the Maine State Police at 1-800-452-4664.