To his wife and college sweetheart, Nicholas Francisco seemed to be a perfect prince.
Francisco and Christine Carter met, fell in love, married and settled into a suburban life outside Seattle. Daughter Zea came along, followed by a son, Noah. The family became regulars at a conservative church. And Francisco got a job as art director for a top ad agency.
With a third child on the way, their budget was stretched some. But to Carter, life with Francisco was all right.
"He was everything that I had dreamed of,'' she said. "I felt like Cinderella."
But on a winter morning in 2008, Francisco, 28, leaned in to kiss his pregnant wife goodbye. "Oh, my poor, sweet Bella, I love you," he said. Carter would not know until several weeks later that her prince was saying goodbye forever.
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That night, Francisco vanished on his way home from work. What followed was a mystery that began with nightmarish worries of foul play and ended in a different kind of nightmare.
Francisco was very much alive. And he had been leading a troubling double life.
The couple had met nine years before at art school. Carter was interested even before "hello." He was so good-looking that her jaw dropped when she first set eyes on him, she said. Soon the two would discover that they both had troubled childhoods.
Francisco's father had walked out on his family when he was 16. Carter said she had been abused as a child. But in him, she found someone she could trust. And with her, he was not too afraid to tie the knot.
"When you're a little girl, and you're thinking about your knight in shining armor, he was it," said Carter.
His friends and co-workers say he was likeable, fun and sometimes a little nutty.
"He was kind of a little bit crazy, the guy sticking his head out the window yelling and screaming as we're driving," said Matt Donovan, his best friend.
But he was also mysterious, said Kristina Muller-Eberhard, his supervisor at Publicis, the multinational advertising and communications firm. "There's a bit of a dark side to him, troubled, I should say. He kept a lot to himself."
Just after 6:00 p.m. on February 13, Francisco called his wife and promised to be home soon to bake Valentine's Day cookies with the kids. It had been a fairly ordinary work day, said Muller-Eberhard. Francisco seemed happy that day. He had been making jokes.
At home, the children were excited to begin baking with their father.
When Daddy Disappears: Family Fears Foul PlayAs time ticked by, Zea asked, "Mommy, why didn't Daddy come home and make cookies?" At first, Carter was irritated. He had promised to be home. But by 9 o'clock, her aggravation was giving way to worry.
"That wasn't like him. He always called me," she said. When Francisco was stuck in traffic and just 15 minutes late, he would routinely call.
Finally, after he did not call and she could not reach him on his cell, Carter put the kids to bed.
At 10 p.m., she called 911. She was told to wait three more hours and call back if she still had not heard from him.
She paced for a while. And then she started calling hospitals, friends, and family. But no one had any information.
At 1 a.m. she called 911 again. "I said, 'You don't understand. He's not the same as every other man. This man wouldn't leave me. He wouldn't just walk out.'"
Police responded quickly, assigning a detective to the case in the morning.
"We had no known motive,'' said Detective John Holland.
Francisco seemed to be clear of any connections to the drug world, or anyone on the outskirts of society. And he seemed to be an ordinary homebody, Holland said.
An army of friends, family, church members and co-workers organized a massive search for Francisco, scouring the streets for hours along his route home, hanging "Missing" posters everywhere. The ad agency where he had worked hired a private investigator, and, for a time, shut down his department so employees could hit the streets and hand out flyers.
"We were really worried,'' said Muller-Eberhard. "One of your co-workers go missing, you know, you want to do something about it."
Carter gave interviews to reporters, hoping to unearth some leads for authorities.
"If you can't find him, these kids don't have a daddy,'' she said in one television interview.
The national media picked up the story and Francisco's disappearance was featured on the "America's Most Wanted" website.
The attention brought more volunteers and other community support. "The donations kept flooding in. I was overwhelmed."
People gave money, and brought clothes and food.
Amateur sleuths from around the country offered clues and proffered plots. Some wondered if Francisco's wife had killed him. At least two psychics told police he was dead.
Police also wondered if Carter was responsible and brought her in for interrogation. "I was accused of things that never even crossed my mind,'' she said. "Murdering him. Cheating on him. Scamming the public for donation money."
Authorities asked about life insurance and the donations she'd received. "All I wanted was my husband to be found,'' she said.
The Search ContinuesSix days after Francisco went missing, his red Toyota was found. But the car yielded no evidence of foul play, or much of anything else, said Holland. Search dogs could not find a scent to follow.
Still, buoyed by the finding, volunteers rallied. "It gave us some more hope,'' said Lee Brown, a family friend. "So we actually got another search party together, right there in the middle of the condo complex at night. It was pretty heartwarming to see this many people want to get involved."
"I just remember screaming,'' said Carter, after hearing his car was found. "But I knew it was the beginning of the end."
Police were checking every dead body that turned up in the area. They also tried, without success, to obtain Francisco's cellphone records. Since it was not yet clear that any crime had been committed, the court would not grant police access."
But police had more luck at Francisco's job site. When they searched his office, they made a stunning discovery on his desk: a receipt for condoms.
When police told Carter, she said, "There's no way."
"I'm pregnant. We've been trying for a year to have a baby. And I finally got pregnant. We have not used condoms."
Carter grasped at explanations and suggested to police that a clerk must have made a mistake.
But then she found evidence on her husband's computer that he was hiding money in a secret bank account and using it to pay for things he did not want her to know about.
While she was home struggling to feed the kids, he was eating out. And when police finally got hold of Francisco's cell phone records, they discovered that the supposedly devoted husband and father had been leading a double life.
He was seeing other women. And not only had he been cheating, but he was a player and a swinger, authorities said. He had Internet names like "Fun Time Steve" and "Horny Steven." His MySpace page listed his interests as "women," "couples," "sex" and "nudity." He listed his sexual orientation as "bi."
They also found that some of the money in the secret bank account had been used to pay for adult websites specializing in hooking up.
"He was soliciting sex," Carter said. "I felt so sick."
Clues led police and Carter to an anything-goes sex club in Seattle, the "Wet Spot," and a local bar where he met swingers at their weekly parties.
By now, Carter was re-evaluating her feelings about the life they had led. She was realizing that she had missed many clues.
Hope Turns into Heartache: Missing Man Left for New Life
"I feel like an idiot,'' she said. "How did I not see this stuff?"
She was forced to choose between two horrible versions of reality: a dead husband or one who would leave her and her children. It was easier to think of him as dead.
"That means that he didn't actually choose to leave me and my children, that he didn't actually choose to walk away," she said.
Carter filed for divorce. She later gave birth to their third child, a boy.
Police could not find Francisco. They made him "King of Spades" on a missing persons card deck.
Eventually the case lost momentum.
But then Carter received a call from a state employee telling her that a child support check was waiting for her. When she had filed for divorce, the absent Nicholas Francisco was classified as a deadbeat dad.
He then made the mistake of opening a bank account in Los Angeles and it was flagged by Washington State, which confiscated his money.
Francisco, who was living under an assumed name, tried to get his money back before closing the account and disappearing again.
ABC News tracked Francisco down outside his new home in Los Angeles. He did not want to see photos of his children and he had little to say.
He told one Seattle reporter he felt guilty about wasting everyone's time, energy and sympathy. Then he said no, they did it for selfish reasons.
"It doesn't surprise me,'' he said. "It's what people do. They want to feel good about themselves, that they're doing something."
His old friend, Donovan, said he feels betrayed. "You just feel like, like you've been like you've been…played for a fool. And now he's gonna get away with it."
Now divorced, Carter lost their house to foreclosure. She has remarried and lives with her new husband and her three children, squeezed into a basement apartment. She is forced to pay off Francisco's student loans, since she signed on as a co-borrower.
After those initial garnished wages, he hasn't given her another cent. So far the state of California has yet to go after Francisco for more. As Detective Holland told ABC News: so far, Francisco appears to be getting away with it.
Today, as she tries to get by, she has to explain it all to her children. Zea, now seven, still remembers her father.
"We remember the good memories. And we cry together about the good memories. I mean, she always asks at the very end, 'Why did Daddy leave?'
"My answer is the same. 'Because he decided he didn't want to be a daddy or a husband anymore because he was being selfish.'"