By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Earlier that morning, a truck driver found Bear, 36, hanging from a tree off of Highway 80, his rented Jeep pulled over to the side of the road near a rest stop. It was an abrupt end to a week that had been filled with emotional upheaval for Carmichael.
He recalls that day in May when Bear drove by. "I was in shock," says the 49-year-old former engineer, a beer that used to be cold sweating in front of him on the picnic table behind the Hubbell House. Tears are forming, and Carmichael, big and thick and tough-looking, struggles to hold them back. "It was almost like, is this really happening? Is this really him?"
But his daughter, Rebekah, confirmed the sighting. She'd been living at the Hubbell House off and on with her father, leaving briefly after the newspaper editorial caused her to be fearful about her toddler's well-being. Carmichael's daughter was one of the connections to his old life, complete with a wife and two kids. Married straight out of high school in West Virginia, Carmichael was a Pentecostal preacher for 20 years, keeping his sexuality a painful secret. Finally, with his son and daughter grown, he came out of the closet. Both kids were supportive, he says, but the rest of his family was an entirely different story. No one else recognized his relationship with Bear, even after the suicide.
Stranded in Winnsboro with more than $60,000 in debt to his name, Carmichael is anxious to leave yet another life behind. "I need to get away from here," he says. "The memories are overwhelming."
Carmichael first came to the Hubbell House from Ohio in 2001 with another man, but their eight-year relationship ended when drug addiction took over his partner's life. Then, from an Internet personal ad, came Bear, the well-spoken, enthusiastic man who, with Carmichael, would work tirelessly to improve the small town. Winnsboro's Main Street is dotted with curio stores, old-fashioned soda shops and a bakery known for its sour cream pound cake. But other streets feature empty storefronts, struggling auto repair shops and chain restaurants. It was this darker, sadder side of Winnsboro that would eventually cause so much pain for Carmichael and his partner.
Many people in Winnsboro admired Bear for his perpetual enthusiasm and dedication to drumming up more business for the town, and they were shocked by what to them was an unexpected death. To others who knew Bear, however, his suicide merely seemed inevitable.
It had been a long, complicated road for Bear, one that stretched all the way from his home in Australia to Seattle to Greece and then back to the United States. Passionate, charismatic and tragically flawed, Bear was plagued by the mental illness he refused to treat. Bear would latch on to lovers wherever he could find them, frequently seeking them through Internet ads. Then, he would leave them--usually in financial ruin, and usually with threats of suicide.
"Every time he made a life for himself, he'd set off," said Steve Cross, Bear's former partner in Australia, in a phone interview. Cross said the first time Bear disappeared, he was barely a teenager, living in Sydney with his family. His parents, Greek immigrants, spoke almost no English. They'd given him a heavy, hard-to-pronounce name: Thrassivoulos Paulos Koutsourais. Though an excellent student, Bear dropped out of school in Sydney. At 14, he left his mother, father and older brother for Melbourne and a life pouring drinks in a gay bar, taking advantage of the fact that he looked much older than his actual age. Later on, he'd tell many people, including Carmichael, that his family members were dead, even describing their funerals. Cross believes the family had no reason to quarrel with Bear. The disappearance, he says, was merely the first incident in a pattern that would repeat until his death.
"His parents are wonderful people," Cross said. "His brother is a model citizen. Paul just eventually got on bad terms and fought with everyone in his life."
Even the name change, which he made legal in his early twenties, had nothing to do with any real family resentment, Cross said.
"He couldn't go around the gay scene calling himself Thrassivoulos Koutsourais," said Cross, who met Bear when he was just 18 and already calling himself by the more accessible name. It also reflected his personal preference for "bears," a slang term for gay men with body hair and round or "cuddly" figures. Masculine guys, who preferred leather and rejected the stereotype of gay men as effeminate.
The reason for his disappearance, then, remained a mystery, though it would later be linked to his bipolar disorder. Those who knew him would attribute his behavior to drug abuse or just a tendency toward the dramatic. After all, when Bear was in one of his "high" stages, Cross said, he seemed able to conquer the world. "When he had the manic episodes, he did unbelievable things." The two met at one of the many massive parties the Sydney gay scene throws every year. Bear was just 18, and Cross initially rejected his advances because of their extreme age difference.