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Circus boy's mysterious hanging death stuns town

January 12, 2012 |  2:26 pm

Caleb Kors at stringband jamboree
For thousands of people who attended the weekly farmers market in Bellingham, Wash., he was the circus boy -- entertaining visitors with juggling, magic tricks and acrobatics delivered with unbelievable aplomb.

But 10-year-old Caleb Kors died suddenly this week while apparently rushing around the house to construct a new circus costume, leaving Bellingham residents grief-stricken over a boy they knew mainly for his four-club juggle toss -- performed with a wisecrack and a rakish smile -- and for his fearless compulsion to perform.

Whatcom County sheriff's officials said Caleb died in an accidental hanging -- though exactly what happened still is unclear. "As far as we know, the young man died in what appears to be an accidental hanging. How he got there, we're not actually sure. There did not appear to be anything suspicious or nefarious," Chief Criminal Deputy Doug Chadwick told the Los Angeles Times.

Initial reports suggested Caleb died while trying to perform a circus trick, but it later appeared more likely that he was climbing on something to collect material for a costume, with the truth perhaps remaining a sad and enduring mystery.

Medics rushed him to a Bellingham hospital Monday from his home in nearby Sudden Valley. He was subsequently airlifted to Seattle's main trauma center, where he died Tuesday -- leaving an entire  community stunned and in mourning.

"He was so charismatic, such a little entertainer," said Nikki Kilpatrick, a longtime friend of the family whose son was best friends with Caleb. Even as a baby, Kilpatrick said, Caleb walked early and had an appetite for performing -- possibly to keep up with his two energetic older brothers.

"Caleb was the youngest steam punk I ever met. He absolutely adored dressing up. That kid was wearing costumes from the time he could pull clothes on," Kilpatrick said. "You'd see him in the store, and he'd be wearing pajamas with a cape and flippers and goggles."

Friends said Caleb was at a concert in a local park about two years ago when he saw members of the Bellingham Circus Guild performing -- and was smitten. He signed up for guild member Strangely Timothy Doesburg's youth circus workshop, and was quickly a star.

"That kid was in the best shape of any 10-year-old kid I'd ever known. You don't meet many 10-year-olds with a six-pack. So many kids are playing video games and stuff, and this kid was outside climbing trees and jumping fences, all the time. He was a ball of energy," Doesburg said in an interview.

Caleb, he said, had an "innate" sense of his own body, could perform a perfect handstand before he even started training. More important, Doesburg said, Caleb had a drive to perform.

"He learned to juggle really fast. He could juggle four balls, which is a big deal for a kid of 10. Four is a whole different level of mental acuity and knowing what to do. And he could juggle clubs, which again, a lot of kids can't," Doesburg said. "He just kept continuing to progress. And it drove me in a way that no kid ever has. I all of a sudden had to be 10 times better, because this kid was just ravenous."

Caleb performed with the circus guild under the stage name "Flip."

He quickly figured out how to increase his draw. His mother, Melanie, has a weekly booth at the farmers market, where she sells hand-crafted journals and jewelry, and Caleb calculated that he could earn money if he put on magic shows and juggling acts next to a discreetly opened briefcase.

Much of the money, friends said, went to buying pizza for himself and other young buskers at the market after the show. But soon, Caleb was earning serious cash.

"He was making more money during those nine months when the market was open than I was," Doesburg said. "Part of that is because the show was always changing. He was always building the show, finding things that work and getting rid of things that didn’t. You'll see an adult performer do the same show for 30 years, because they're afraid if they try something new and totally fail, they'll be left with nothing.

"This kid was fearless in what he was willing to do in front of people. And that's something that is innate, being willing to share yourself fully with a group of strangers ... that openness and willingness to connect. This kid had that in spades."

On the rapidly growing Facebook page set up to share memories and condolences, Caleb's family said the outpouring of support from Bellingham -- sign-ups for meal preparations, a donation site to help pay the medical bills, a food donation station at the local food co-op, a bakery offering to help make school lunches for Caleb's brothers -- has been "unreal."

"I'm a firm believer that this is the work of Caleb," they said. "Even though he's not with us physically, he's still doing magic tricks."


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-- Kim Murphy in Seattle

Photo: Caleb Kors at the 2011 Stringband Jamboree. Credit: Erin Boyd (by permission). Video below: Caleb Kors performs with Strangely Timothy Doesburg at the Bellingham Circus Guild. Credit: Bellingham Circus Guild