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Home Alone

Mother's daze: Constance Rolon with pictures of her only child, Paul Michals.
John Johnston

For most of their lives, they had only each other.

Constance Rolon was orphaned at age fifteen. She married, then lost her husband in World War II. Another man abandoned her while she was carrying his child. After Paul was born, Constance raised him on her own, working as a clerk and living in affordable housing.

When Paul came of age, he watched over her. He handled the bills, lugged home the groceries, took out the trash. At age 47, with no wife and no children of his own, Paul still lived with his mother.

"He was a good son," Constance says. "Very considerate. He always remembered me on my birthday and on the holidays. He was never in any trouble and he never caused me any trouble. A mother likes to feel that she's taking care of her son, no matter how old he is, but he helped me with everything."

Now he is gone.

Last July, while vacationing in Crete, Paul vanished in the sweltering Mediterranean heat. Constance still does not know what happened to her son.

She sits in her living room, sorting though stacks of Paul's personal papers. She's not sure what lies before her, can't decide where to begin. But she knows this: Somewhere in the jumble of letters, receipts, postcards and printouts lies the answer.

"I never worried about him," she says. "He was a good and sensible man. But now I tell young people to have more than one child, because you never know what can happen. He was my world."

Paul was born on February 6, 1953. His father was long gone, but Constance still thought it was proper for the boy to retain the man's surname, which was Michals. Young Paul was bright and inquisitive, with mousy brown hair, hazel eyes and a shy smile. He did well in school, made friends easily and wanted to excel at everything he did. In grade school, when he received a C in math, Paul studied and studied until he earned an A. He collected Superman comics, ran track and won academic scholarships from the Elks and the Masons.

After graduating from West High School, Paul attended the University of Northern Colorado, where he earned a bachelor's degree in physics. He studied for his master's degree but never completed it. Instead, in 1979 he took a job as a researcher and switchboard operator at the Denver Public Library, where one colleague described him as "someone with a great sense of humor who could talk about anything." Paul liked to jog, read history and science fiction, and settle back on the couch with old movies. He considered himself "a consummate Jimmy Stewart fan" and designed what he thought was the "definitive" Web site on It's a Wonderful Life.

Paul would spend hours at his computer terminal, surfing the Net and becoming such an accomplished computer programmer that he formed his own online consulting and development company, Distant Star Inc. The business was successful, Constance says -- so successful that in 1995 Paul bought them a three-bedroom home in a modest northwest Denver neighborhood.

The business allowed Paul to indulge another passion: archaeology. He was fascinated by ancient cultures, particularly those of Greece, since he was half Greek on his father's side. Paul attended seminars, conducted research and even completed a course in Linear B, the archaic Greek language. In 1990 he joined an excavation in Ithaca, where a team from Washington University in St. Louis was trying to link the historic Greek city to Homer's Odyssey. Paul volunteered in Ithaca again in 1992, 1995 and 1998. He signed up in 2000, but canceled at the last minute.

On vacations, Paul crisscrossed the globe, visiting places as remote as Antarctica and as bustling as China. He snapped hundreds of photos, dispatched dozens of postcards, and then returned home to mark each excursion with a red pin on a large map in the living room. He also made close friendships overseas that he maintained through vigorous e-mail and correspondence.

"He had a lot of girlfriends over there," Constance recalls. "Well, I call them girlfriends. Maybe they were just female friends, but he had lots of them. Not many here, though. In fact, I don't think he had any girlfriends here."

Paul had his quirks. He could be secretive, aloof, moody. He collected Olympic pins, seldom threw anything away, and walked or took the bus wherever he went. A car, he told his mother, was simply an "added expense." Even after being struck while crossing Federal Boulevard in 1997 -- which left him with six steel pins in his left leg and steel supports in his left shoulder -- Paul insisted on walking.

"And he was a fast walker," Constance says. "Though not as fast after the accident. He had a slight limp."

Paul also grew depressed after the accident, recalls Richard O'Connor of Sausalito, California, who traveled with Paul frequently and worked with him on the dig in Ithaca.

"He was distant," O'Connor says. "He would not answer his e-mail. We were very worried about him. I'm just theorizing here, but he might have thought that his crippling accident ended his chances of finding romance, or of finding the right woman. The accident definitely pushed him into a depression."

Last spring, Paul planned what might have been his biggest trip yet: a six-month trek through France, Greece, Sweden, Yugoslavia, Spain, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Australia, where he hoped to attend the 2000 Summer Olympics. Before he left, Paul spent Mother's Day with Constance. He gave her an Oil of Olay gift pack, then settled down to snacks and chitchat before she left for the annual Volunteers of America dinner at Strings.

"It was nice and quiet," Constance says. "We always enjoyed Mother's Day together."

The airport shuttle came the next morning. Paul hauled out his carefully arranged backpack, suitcase and briefcase. His mother gave him a hug, a kiss and some advice: "Be careful who you talk with. Be careful of the friends you meet. Just be careful."

"Okay," Paul grinned. "I will."

Constance never asked Paul for a travel itinerary and he never volunteered one. There was no need, she says. Paul sent her postcards from almost every city he visited and called her every few days; he carried magazine articles on travel safety in his briefcase and a satellite-based navigation device in his pocket.

"Everything was planned just right," Constance says. "He was very organized. Very thorough. With this trip, nothing was different."

But then, a few weeks after he'd left Denver, Paul telephoned Constance from Crete, in a panic.

"He was very upset," she recalls. "Someone broke into his hotel room and took everything. His passport. His credit cards. His wallet. Paul was usually a very calm person, but he wasn't like that when he called."

Using tickets the thieves had not stolen, Paul went to France, where he stayed several days with a friend, Irene Higgins, while his mother ordered new credit cards, a driver's license and a passport. Less than a week later, police arrested someone trying to use the stolen credit cards in Florida.

With the burglary behind him, Paul bounced around Europe, visiting tourist attractions and attending seminars. In mid-July, he joined Higgins and four other friends for a weeklong conference in Athens and Crete sponsored by the American School of Classical Studies. Paul paid for everything, including their rooms at a four-star hotel. When others offered to help with the tab, he became annoyed. He could be like that, his friends say, generous to a fault. He gave sizable donations to the American School of Classical Studies and once bought O'Connor a computer.

"No one I know has money like that," says Higgins, who'd planned to write a book on nineteenth-century sculpture with Paul.

After the conference, Paul's friends headed off. He stayed in Crete, where he wanted to explore a series of inlets along the southern coast believed to have been Minoan harbors. He planned to examine the inlets one by one, working west to east in the stifling heat.

"You couldn't touch metal that had been sitting in the shade," recalls Higgins, who left the island on July 19 to visit family in Ireland. "People were getting dehydrated when we were there. You had to pour water all over yourself. It was very, very bad."

Around this time, Paul phoned Constance, mentioning something vague about his stay in Crete. She asked how long he planned to be there and Paul said he didn't know.

"Well, be careful," she told him.

"I will," he replied.

They never spoke again.

On July 25, Paul e-mailed Higgins: He was having trouble reaching one of the inlets through the treacherous Sougia Gorge, located some ten kilometers from the city of Paleohora, where he was staying. Paul planned another attempt the next day, but if he couldn't make it, he'd cut across the crest of a hill and explore the nearby Samarian Gorge, a popular tourist attraction that's more accessible and well traveled than Sougia.

A day passed with no word from Paul. That was odd, Higgins thought; when he went exploring, he usually sent daily e-mail to friends. She tried reaching him via the Internet but received no reply. She rang his room several times over the next few days but couldn't get through. She finally contacted the U.S. Embassy in Athens, which told her a full-scale search was under way.

It turned out that the hotel owner in Paleohora had notified Greek police on August 1 after Paul failed to return. His clothes, luggage, computer, glasses, cash and passport remained untouched in his room.

In Denver, Constance got a call from the U.S. Embassy. "Paul was missing," she recalls. "Paul was missing, and there was a search. That's all they said."

Constance was frantic. She contacted the attorney who'd handled Paul's 1997 accident. She contacted reporters. She contacted every official she could think of, including Denver City Councilman Dennis Gallagher, Mayor Wellington Webb, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Senator Wayne Allard, even President Bill Clinton.

With prodding from Webb's and Allard's offices, information began trickling in.

On August 2, Greek authorities had launched a three-day search of the coastline, nearby islands and archaeological sites that Paul might have visited, dispatching twenty police officers, six mountaineers, a canine unit and a helicopter. U.S. and Greek authorities posted all-points bulletins, solicited help from news agencies and examined the laptop computer Paul called his "memory." The U.S. Navy base in Souda Bay, Crete, even offered help.

Nothing.

"The area where he was believed to have been hiking had difficult and dangerous terrain," wrote Consul General Betsy Anderson in an August 30 letter to Allard. "The paths are narrow and not well marked. There are high cliffs and deep gorges, and goats contribute to the fallen rocks. It is quite possible that a person could fall and not be found in these conditions. Further, the weather during the week of Mr. Michals' disappearance was extremely hot, with temperatures reaching 115 Fahrenheit. It is hard to imagine how anyone could survive long without a water source under such conditions."

Foul play seemed unlikely.

"Considering every angle is a wise course," Anderson continued. "However, at no time has there been any indication that Mr. Michals has been kidnapped. There have been no reported kidnappings in Greece in many years, and there is no indication from Mr. Michals' background that he would be a likely candidate for a politically, personally or financially motivated kidnapping."

Then, on September 5, acting on a tip from another one of Paul's friends, authorities launched another search. This time they canvassed the Samaria Gorge, ten kilometers northeast of the Sougia. Authorities checked travel agencies to see if Paul had booked a tour, but since tourists can also visit by public transportation, they dispatched more police and mountaineers to the eighteen-kilometer-long Samarian ravine.

Still nothing.

"The police are continuing to follow every possible lead," Anderson wrote Allard on September 13. "However, in the absence of specific information about where Paul disappeared, and in view of the extreme difficulty of the terrain, it is not possible for police officers to actively search indefinitely."

Constance was livid: "One woman in Washington told me, 'Well, this has happened before. We assume he's dead.' I told her, 'Don't assume anything.' To me, that's an easy way of saying they're not doing anything else. This is my son. I want answers."

Nearly a year has passed since Constance last saw her son, and she's still waiting for those answers. She hasn't heard from the embassy or the State Department in the past nine months. She's requested Paul's file numerous times but has been denied.

Webb's office helped Constance retrieve Paul's belongings, introduced her to an estate attorney and sent over a police detective who reviewed her son's papers. Bob Kessler, an attorney, engineer and travel consultant who'd read that Paul was missing in a newspaper story, poked around on his own while visiting Crete last fall. Paul's friends continued to make inquiries.

Nothing.

With no new information, speculation has been rampant. Perhaps Paul fell to his death while hiking the treacherous terrain, hampered by his leg and shoulder injuries. Perhaps he was abducted by the criminals who'd burglarized his room. Perhaps he became distraught over his injuries and his lack of a love life and committed suicide. Perhaps he orchestrated his disappearance in order to start a new life. Perhaps he's alive and well somewhere, but suffering from amnesia.

"That's the thing," Constance says. "You just don't know."

Federal officials have assured Constance that Paul's case remains open. But she's skeptical.

"The Greek people did what they could, but the American Embassy did absolutely nothing," Constance says. "They have all these officials and all these secretaries, and what do they do with your letters? Throw them out? Like they have no meaning? Like a human being has no meaning? Why don't they answer? They don't care. I'm not proud to be an American citizen anymore."

Constance has always considered herself to be an independent and resourceful woman. After retiring, she earned a bachelor's degree in political science and studied for a master's degree in communications. Then, in her mid-sixties, she spent four years with the Peace Corps in Africa and the Caribbean. At age 78, she even mows her own lawn. But Paul's disappearance has shattered her. She lights votive candles on her coffee table. She plops an overstuffed white monkey on the couch where he used to sit. She sleeps with T-shirts that hold his smell. She shuffles through his papers again and again.

"We were very close, my son and I," she says. "I never did anything without telling him, and he never did anything without telling me. Now I get angry at people. Little things make me mad. I haven't given up hope, but the hardest thing is not knowing what happened. Not having closure. It took eight days before they searched for him. And they didn't find a thing. Not his binoculars. Not his camera. Nothing. But a person just doesn't leave the planet. Somebody has to know something. There has to be someone out there who can help me. There just has to be."