He Chased Mysteries, Became One

Double life discovered after Denverite vanishes

PALEOCHORA, Greece – He led a double life – as a library
telephone operator residing in Denver with his mother, and as a
well-to-do, globe-trotting archaeologist.

Then Paul Michals, 48, disappeared.

He was last seen a year ago on the rocky south coast of Crete,
the Mediterranean island where he explored ruins of early western

Greek police found his passport and $114 in his room at the
modest seaside Hotel On the Rocks. A ground and air search failed
to find him. Today, authorities on two continents are stumped.

Perhaps Michals perished on the bone-dry trail that traverses
cliffs and cuts into gorges laden with unexcavated tombs and
temples. It’s “quite possible” that a person could fall here and
never be found, U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns told Denver Mayor
Wellington Webb in a letter from Athens.

Perhaps he was kidnapped or murdered. A Denver Police
Department report reads: “may be victim of foul play.” Greek
police don’t rule that out.

Perhaps he deliberately disappeared to remake his life – or
to end it.

You could find other equally vexing missing-person cases.
U.S. police agencies reported 876,213 people missing last year. A
near-record 98,431 cases, like this one, are unsolved.

The Paul Michals mystery illustrates how – at a time when
digital communications, global-positioning satellites and
electronic records seemingly make anyone easy to find – someone
still can vanish.

Michals e-mailed friends almost daily. From those messages,
from interviews with police and friends, and from receipts he
mailed to his mother in Denver, pieces of a puzzle emerge.

The value of his brokerage account dropped from nearly
$600,000 in 1998 to about $80,000 in November 1999.

A passport that Michals reported stolen two months before he
disappeared never was recovered.

In 1998, he opened a bank account in Sydney, Australia, and
spoke with a friend about buying property in Australia.

Archaeology companions said Michals was deeply discouraged
after a failed romance.

Only now are acquaintances unraveling his double life.

Those who knew Michals the archaeologist had no idea he grew
up in Denver housing projects, lived with his mother and worked
part-time as the late-shift switchboard operator at the Denver
Public Library’s central branch. “He told us he was an independent
computer programmer,” said Steve Arbury, a college professor and
archaeology volunteer who worked with Michals on Crete.

Those who knew Michals the switchboard operator had no idea
he had earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in the stock
market, and that as a self-made archaeologist he was among fewer
than 100 scholars to crack an ancient Mycenean language that
enabled him to decipher inscriptions on ruins excavated around the
Mediterranean Sea.

“DO YOU THINK HE’S OUT there somewhere?” asks Michals’ mother,
Constance Rolon, 78, a retired city government secretary. She
keeps a candle burning next to the Bible in their tiny north
Denver home, still listening for the 10 p.m. clink of the
chain-link back gate that signaled her son’s return.

Rolon moved from New York to Denver with an infant daughter
after her husband was killed in World War II. Paul was born Feb.
6, 1953. He never knew his father, George Michals, a Greek
immigrant who abandoned the family.

He graduated from West High School, then the University of
Northern Colorado on a scholarship. He couldn’t afford to pursue
graduate studies in physics as he wanted. He returned to live with
his mother. He took a job in 1976 shelving books at the library.

“Very intelligent, he had high moral standards, was honest,
worked hard,” said Marilyn Chang, who interviewed him then and
kept in touch. Michals worked at the library for nearly 25 years –
mostly handling telephone calls patiently, usually alone in a
switchboard room.

He worked 25 hours a week from midafternoon to 9 p.m., never
taking dinner breaks. He rode the bus home, first to the public
housing where he and his mother lived for years, then to the
bungalow he bought for $73,946 in 1995.

Once, co-worker Jim Martin talked him into accepting a ride.
Michals insisted on being dropped off a few blocks from his house,
and pointedly declined future rides. He told Martin “he preferred
to take the bus because the bus driver always counted on him being
on the bus. It’s like he didn’t want us to know where he lived.”

Michals loved movies, especially the Jimmy Stewart classic
“It’s a Wonderful Life,” and ran a popular Jimmy Stewart Web site.