What Killed the Bear Lady?
For 28 years, Kay Grayson lived side-by-side with wild black bears in North Carolina's swampy coastal forests, hand-feeding them, defending them against poachers, and letting them in her home. When she went missing last year, the only thing the investigators could find were her clean-picked bones. And that's just the start of the mystery.
When Kay Grayson called her bears, she liked to sing: “It’s OK, it’s OK.”
It was part of a show she put on for people. Six feet tall, with white hair and the lean body and graceful movement of a dancer, she would walk into a clearing near her trailer in the North Carolina woods, hold out her long arms, and turn her palms to the sky. Then, in a loving voice, she would sing.
Visitors would hear grunts and huffs and the rustle of big creatures moving through brush. And then, out from the forest, black bears would lumber toward her. She called them by name. Munchka. Susan. Highway 64. Betty Sue. David. “Stand up,” she would tell them, and they’d stand, and then she’d feed them peanuts out of her hand.
Kay and her bears lived in the middle of some 5,000 acres of swampy forest, thick with muck peat and goldenseal and pine trees, in Tyrrell County, in northeastern North Carolina. She called her land Bearsong, and locals called her the Bear Lady. It was a nickname of admiration or mockery or hatred, depending on who spoke it. No matter the tone, Kay embraced it. “I am woman,” she once wrote. “A seeker of truth, peace, and sense of fair play, a lover of all things beautiful, be they created by nature or mankind.”
For 28 years, she lived in trailers off a rutted dirt road near the Alligator River Marina in Columbia, a tiny town of around 900. She had no running water or electricity, and used a five-gallon bucket for a toilet, even in her sixties. The only signs of humanity for miles in any direction were power lines and the occasional small, rough path. “It’s a place for wild things,” county sheriff Darryl Liverman says.
In early January 2015, Kay’s friend Shiron Pledger dropped a meal at Kay’s gate. When it was still there several days later, Pledger reported her missing. On January 27, two Tyrrell County deputies walked into the Bearsong woods with the emergency management coordinator and a canine handler, who brought a dog to catch Kay’s scent.
They hiked a half-mile down the muddy, waterlogged road before they found a maroon coat, a black turtleneck, and, in the middle of the path, a plastic grocery bag containing unopened batteries, socks, cigarettes, and Tylenol. Farther back in the trees, across a ditch nearly overflowing from recent downpours, they saw more clothing. They made a bridge out of fallen trees, climbed across, and found a pair of black ski pants, a slipper, and a gray tank top. Over the next hour, they also found a small piece of flesh with some long, white hair attached and multiple bones, all of them picked clean.
Then, on a knoll formed by the roots of a fallen cypress tree, they found a human skull: skin gone, brain rotting. The smell made them gag.
Liverman told a news reporter that bears had eaten Kay, and the story went viral via Gawker, Fox News, People, the Daily Mail, and dozens of other outlets. Reactions ranged from sympathy to admiration to judgment toward yet another human who had tried and failed to become one with the wild. “She should have known better,” wrote one reader on People.com. “Bears are apex predators and even if they seem tame, AREN’T.” Still, Kay’s cause of death remains as much a mystery as her life. The official autopsy is filed as incomplete, the medical examiner refuses to comment, and local theories abound as to how she died and how she lived. Though the people of Tyrrell County are one of the state’s smallest, poorest populations, they have big, rich imaginations: She had been a high-end prostitute working for the Washington, D.C., elite. Or the queenpin of a Miami drug operation. Maybe someone wanted her dead. Or maybe she faked her death and fled.
Liverman thought he might find some answers when he tracked down Susan Clippinger—Kay’s niece—in Kissimmee, Florida. But when he did, Susan said that much of what he thought he knew about Kay was wrong. For example, she wasn’t 67, like the death certificate said. She was 73. Her real name wasn’t Kay Grayson, either. It was Karen Gray.
Home Videos from the Bear Lady
This short selection of scenes offers a glimpse into the lives of Kay and her bears.
She was beautiful when she was young. In pictures that Susan has of Karen Gray in her twenties and thirties, she’s glamorous and alluring, outfitted in expensive dresses, jewelry, and furs, hair always just right, even at the pool.
Her childhood is murky—her parents are dead, and her brother, Susan’s father, wouldn’t talk to me. (They didn’t get along.) Born into a middle-class family in Pittsburgh in 1941, she spent her teenage years in Florida, where she cut class and chased guys.
After high school, Karen lived an itinerant life, city to city, man to man. “I always left when the relationship ended. It seemed to heal the pain quicker in new surroundings,” she wrote in one of many letters she sent to Susan over the years. (She was a prolific letter writer and kept frenetic notes about her life on yellow legal pads.) “Just wish I could find a strong EQUAL in a man.”
She spent her twenties in Las Vegas, where she always said she was a showgirl. But many believe that’s not all she was—some friends think she was a high-end call girl. Whatever she did, she could afford a new Lincoln Continental, and pictures from her sixties Vegas days show her on the arms of much older, clearly wealthy men with whom she traveled—to Miami, Tijuana, Acapulco. “If you had money, she didn’t mind hanging around. It’s just the way she wanted to live,” says Susan. “She always said, ‘If you want to see the world, go get it.’ ”
In 1965, she married a businessman named Leo Busch in Nevada. But Susan says Karen hated marriage: “She woke up one day about six months in and said, ‘This is it?’ And then she was gone.”
In the seventies, she dated a man named Gordon Griffith and helped him run Horseman’s Park, a dude ranch near San Diego. At the end of the decade, she moved to Fairfax, Virginia, near Washington, and trained attack dogs. After that, during the first half of the eighties, she lived in South Florida, selling boats, organizing semiprofessional sailing races, and living on a boat with a yacht broker named Gary Causey. She even had a brief, illustrious sailing career: in 1985, she entered the now defunct TransAt, an 800-plus-mile yacht race from Daytona Beach to Bermuda, and won her class—the first female captain to do so.
That summer she got a call from Albert Brick, a seventy-something lawyer from D.C. Brick owned 1,400 acres of land in Tyrrell County, along a stretch of Highway 64 running in and out of Manteo, a cozy town on the Outer Banks, and he wanted Kay to help him sell or develop it. When Kay visited in February 1986, she found an enormous forest of pines and oaks, thick and raw, bordered by unpolluted canals that helped drain the area into the Alligator River. “I was greatly impressed by its natural beauty and serenity,” she wrote. “Immediately I foresaw a place to be explored.” Kay signed a contract agreeing to develop the land in exchange for a percentage of the profits.
Later that year, Kay left Causey and moved into a barge turned houseboat docked on the Little Alligator River, which ran along the northern edge of Brick’s land. Brick bought 800 more acres, including Old South Shore Road, a muddy former logging path traversable only by four-wheel drive until Kay had it rebuilt. They planned to make money from logging and by developing an eco-friendly marina resort along the river.
Kay met her first bear one night soon after she arrived. She came home and there he was, sitting on her mattress, eating a sweet roll. She shrieked and ran, and the bear did the same, limping as he went. When she went back inside, she found his muddy paw prints on her mirror.
The bear came back the next day, looking starved. In the daylight, Kay saw a wounded creature in need of help, skin stretched thin against his ribs, a bullet hole in his thigh, and a dislocated hip, like he had been hit by a car. “It’s OK,” she said. She fed him that first day, fed him again when he returned, and then kept feeding him every day after that.
Eventually, she named him: Highway 64. In time his wound healed, though his hip never quite did—the bear limped for the rest of his days. She never cleaned his paw prints off her mirror. “Get a bear, you’ll never want a dog again,” she told friends.
Soon that first bear became two, then four, then a half-dozen. Angel. Travis. Rusty. Judson.
That’s when Kay began to call the land Bearsong. She frequented the Dare County library in Manteo to learn how they lived and how to live with them. They were black bears, ranging from a couple hundred pounds to 500 or more. Though populations were perilously low in the mid-1900s, by the mid-nineties they had rebounded, in part due to successful management policies and habitat protection—approximately 10,000 bears roamed 20,000 square miles along North Carolina’s coast. Kay convinced local store owners to give her day-old goods (or retrieved them from dumpsters), filling her truck until she could carry no more, feeding the bears bread, pies, and rolls in addition to peanuts and dog food.
Everyone—friends, the sheriff, wildlife officers—told her to stop. Shiron Pledger, one of Kay’s closest friends, says, “I told her all the time, if something happened to her and they got hungry enough, they would eat her. She’d say, ‘Those bears aren’t gonna hurt me. They love me.’ ”
In Kay’s home videos from the time, the bears do seem to love her, interacting like 500-pound puppies. They try to climb into her trailer, until she reprimands them—“Back!”—and they duck their heads, tuck their ears, and slink away. In one scene, she calls Highway 64 over and holds up her hand, and he goes from all fours to his hind legs, towering over her in obedience. In another, she hands him an apple pie, which he sniffs and tosses aside, grunting for the pastry in her other hand. “Picky!” she says.
In a sweet voice, Kay details various bears’ lives and lineages. “This is Legs Two,” she says about a bear sniffing her camera, his big snout right on the lens. “Father of the cubs. He’s a generation behind Highway 64 and Munchka, taught by them. Let’s go see the cubs.” She shows a few cubs relaxing in the trees like monkeys. She cuts to the mother, who sits right beside her. “Raven,” Kay says. “Rayyy-ven.” Raven is calm as can be. “She would be a half-sister to Munchka. Same mother, different father.”
When guardrails went up on the highway, the bears struggled to get across, so Kay taught them to jump over. When the bears suffered wounds from wrestling or fighting—or from hunters’ bullets or arrows—Kay gave them penicillin that she got from a veterinarian in town. Some nights, Kay even let them sleep with her. The Bear Lady, Mother of Bears.
By the early nineties, Kay was caring for roughly 20 bears. In her presence they seemed happy. But danger was always present. One day, on a hike with a bear Kay called Mykee, she heard gunshots, as she often did. Mykee heard it, too. “The look in his eyes asked me if the guns we heard on the land and nearby were shooting at him or me,” she wrote. “I told him, ‘They are shooting at both of us, but we are going to change that.’ ”
Bears in Tyrrell County can be hunted for one week in mid-November and two weeks in mid-December. “It’s a big time of year. Bear hunters everywhere,” says sergeant Mark Cagle of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. “And it’s a big shot in the arm for the economy.” Hunters need a hunting license (residents pay $20, others $80), a big-game permit ( $13 or $80), and a bear permit ($225 for nonresidents). “All the restaurants and hotels are full,” Cagle says. “People with single-wide trailers rent them out to the bear hunters for a grand a week.”
In 2014, a total of 1,867 bears were killed in a 37-county area with a population of roughly 12,500. Each hunter is allowed a single bear per season. But one group of men, whom Kay called the Bear Killing Bunch, killed many more; some of them were later charged (though never convicted) for hunting out of season and in off-limits sanctuaries, following a 2007 investigation. The BKB was led by a man I’ll call Crockett, whose actions in this story were gleaned from publicly available records. He once spent 14 months in prison after shooting a man right in front of a deputy. Now in his fifties, he’s six-foot-one and 290 pounds, with thick shoulders, a scruffy face, and big paws for hands. Crockett is something of a bear-hunting legend in Tyrrell Country. “He was addicted to hunting bears,” says Cagle, who has a picture of Crockett poking a caged bear with a stick. Cagle said that Crockett loved every part of hunting: the camaraderie, the tracking, and the killing. He even figured out a way to make money on it, by selling bear-hunting dogs, which can go for several thousand dollars when fully trained.
Kay began to think that the bears came to her to get away from Crockett, which made him her natural enemy. The hunters ran their dogs almost constantly, disrupting the bears’ feeding and sleeping patterns. Kay discovered that the men were even using Old South Shore Road—Brick’s logging road—to get in and out of the thousands of acres of otherwise inaccessible forest surrounding her.
Though she posted NO HUNTING and PRIVATE PROPERTY signs all around her land, the BKB kept driving their trucks down the road, usually with dogs and often, according to investigators, with 55-gallon barrels of peanut butter, bubble gum, and crushed peppermint candy—illegal bear bait.
When she saw any of the poachers, she’d race to the Alligator River Marina and call the sheriff and wildlife officers. But by the time they arrived—and they often didn’t—the men would be long gone.
Wildlife officers wrote Crockett tickets, but many of his activities went unchecked. Kay consulted a local lawyer, but he did nothing except say that she should prepare to defend herself. “I noticed the fear in his voice and eyes and purchased a gun,” Kay later wrote. “Living alone on the land, I now realized my life could be in serious danger.”
Albert Brick dismissed her concerns about the BKB. “I suppose you will have to live with that,” he wrote to her. He said the same when a historic wet period from 1988 to 1989—which included Hurricane Hugo—left the land and road so badly mucked that Kay’s contractors refused to continue logging. That wasn’t all that stalled development plans, either. Brick constantly wavered between developing, logging, and selling the land, and he torpedoed investment deals by asking for outlandish sums of money, as much as $50,000 per acre. (One investor told Kay that the land was worth $300 per acre.) In April 1991, he terminated his contract with Kay, leaving her with next to nothing. She sued him for $2 million and 18 acres surrounding her home on Old South Shore Road. The lawsuit dragged on for more than two years. Even after Brick died, in June 1993, his estate battled on, until September 1994, when the court awarded Kay $20,000 and 937 acres, including Old South Shore Road. But the settlement did nothing to stop Crockett and the BKB.
With little help from law enforcement, Kay decided to get the public on her side. She produced a newsletter and sold home videos to fans. The films show bears rolling on the ground and wrestling with one another, cubs climbing skinny trees until they bend to the ground. “Out here, they’ve barely been making it to two or three years, it seems like,” she says. “Maybe it’s time we started killing the killers. I’m just kidding. Of course.”
Kay entertained print and television reporters, even though she hated being on camera. By the late nineties, she no longer had any teeth but refused to wear dentures, one friend told me, because she heard that bears interpret the display of teeth as a sign of aggression.
Fans sent piles of letters and donations—most of the money was used to buy food for the bears. Despite the outpouring of compassion, the hunters continued poaching in the area. Kay locked the Old South Shore Road gate; the BKB cut her locks and chains. She hauled felled trees into their path; they took her to court. In 2003, a local judge ruled that Kay and the hunters had to share Old South Shore Road, which had been purchased by two of Crockett’s friends—John Jackson and John Reeves—after Brick’s estate failed to transfer the title to that section of land to Kay. He also made the hunters give her a key to their gate lock. As soon as she got it, though, she replaced the lock with one of hers. The judge sentenced her to 30 days in jail for contempt of court.
“They think they got me,” Kay told Susan, “but I got three square meals a day for a month. That’s nothing.”
Once Kay had served her jail time, she went to the Alligator River Marina, where new pictures hung on the wall—pictures of smiling men and women posing with dead bears. Kay’s bears. Hunters knew that most mornings they came from the woods on one side of the highway to get to Kay’s land, and they’d lain in wait. Among the photos, she recognized a bear she hadn’t seen in a while: Highway 64. The hunter who pulled the trigger, a wildlife officer, had known him by his limp.
Kay screamed and raged until deputies came and carried her away.
After jail and the death of most of her bears, Kay’s hold on reality began to slip. She made daily trips to Manteo to get supplies at the Piggly Wiggly and chat with her friend Maureen Daigle, a cashier there. She did laundry at the neighboring Laundromat and ate Chinese food or Subway.
She still had a little gang of bears, but she became convinced of vast conspiracies among hunters and lawyers and law enforcement, all parties she believed were out to make money off the animals. Environmentalists’ helicopters were coming to harm them. Brief closures of the Alligator River bridge were part of an elaborate plot against her. Her living conditions deteriorated. Out in the woods, she accumulated four trailers, buying new ones when the old ones grew too decrepit or collapsed under a fallen tree. And she clipped articles about people doing terrible things to animals and nature, hoarding the horrors of the world in milk crates.
She began brandishing a machete, and anyone using the road without permission—even friends—faced her wrath. Deputies and wildlife officers had to escort the BKB into the woods, sometimes to hunt legally, sometimes to access the public land beyond Kay’s property. She took blurry pictures of them on disposable cameras and wrote down their interactions. In 2005, she sued Jackson and Reeves for $7 million, without a lawyer. “Pro Se Defendo,” she wrote in a letter. Defend yourself! The lawsuit went nowhere.
When she needed money, she sold pieces of her land—though she had strict requirements: eco-friendly homes only, no hunting, no dogs.
Kay constantly called wildlife officer Mark Cagle, who began overseeing several counties, including Tyrrell, after he was promoted to sergeant in 2006. Cagle was different from his predecessors. He sympathized with Kay. He, too, planned to take to the woods when he retired, albeit with his wife and indoor plumbing. Whenever he saw her name on the caller ID, he’d think, It’s Kay—better get on the road. Even if he expected to find nothing, Cagle went. “Just to make her feel good,” he says. “She could be a fanatic, and a little overprotective, and everybody thought she was crazy. But she was a person, just like me and you. To me she was always nice, friendly, easy to get along with.”
Cagle was also sick of the poaching. He’d heard about Crockett since the late nineties, when Cagle worked a few counties away. So, in the spring of 2007, Cagle assembled a team of local officers. As his investigation proceeded, he brought in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, since it was illegal for Crockett, a felon, to use guns at all. Cagle woke at 3 A.M. for a month to sneak in and out of the woods to do surveillance on Crockett’s bait sites. He found dozens of bear skeletons. According to Cagle, many of them were in the section of the county just north of Kay’s land.
Four hundred hours of overtime later, Cagle arrested Crockett and charged him with at least 50 hunting violations, including killing bears out of season, baiting bears, and killing bears over bait. Some of the BKB even gave evidence against him.
But those were misdemeanors, which rarely receive significant judgment, so prosecutors ignored the hunting charges and focused on the felony gun charges. Crockett was convicted in 2008. He spent six and a half years in federal prison. Jackson and Reeves sold their land to an environmental group (Kay “wasn’t worth the aggravation,” Jackson told me), and that was the last of Kay’s fight with hunters.
After decades of such battles, Kay struggled to accept the peace. She almost got arrested again after pulling a machete and a pistol on an environmentalist trying to scout woodpeckers. She grew ever more volatile with her friends, appearing uninvited in their living rooms on cold nights. She demanded money. Once, while sitting in her friend Tracy’s car at the Bearsong gate, Tracy’s dog wouldn’t stop barking, and Kay said, “Shut him up or I’ll slit his throat.”
Then there was Susan. For years she had sent Kay money, several thousand dollars in all. Kay paid some of it back but just as often asked for more. During the recession in 2009, Susan said no and Kay erupted. They barely spoke after that.
Kay’s final years were painful. She’d always been slender, but she became sickly and skinny. She burned her foot while boiling water and refused to see a doctor, resulting in a persistent limp, like Highway 64.
She would sit in a plastic chair beside her gate, watching traffic, making sure nobody so much as thought about using her road. Friends stopped to chat, and Kay’s bears lumbered out to say hello. “Get back in there!” she’d snap, sending the bears slinking back into the woods. With her pale skin and white hair, and often wearing a white nightgown, she started to look like a ghost.
Shiron Pledger urged Kay to apply for government assistance, saying she would qualify for food stamps and probably housing.
“You’re crazy to stay back there,” Pledger told her.
“I’ve been doing it all my life. I can keep on doing it,” she said.
Pledger told me, “She’d say God told her that was what she was supposed to do. After all the dancing, all the partying, all the—well, you know, that sort of lifestyle. She said that God wanted her to take care of the bears.”
Pledger invited Kay to her family’s house for Thanksgiving dinner every year, but Kay always said no, that she’d rather spend her holidays with the bears. Even so, Pledger occasionally cooked fresh meals and left them in plastic bags at the Old South Shore Road gate. “I felt like she needed a friend,” she says. “If I were in the same situation, I would want somebody to befriend me.” Pledger dropped the meals off on her way into town for work, and Kay would always pick them up by the time Pledger drove home. Until, in January 2015, she didn’t.
Investigators spent three days in the Bearsong woods, packing Kay’s bones and fragments into plastic bags. As they gathered her remains, they found bear scat containing fragments of human bone, along with enough of a skeleton for the medical examiner to piece together a six-foot-tall woman with no teeth.
They also examined Kay’s run-down mobile homes. Her primary trailer, located in a clearing off Old South Shore Road, was trashed. Bears had busted through the door and clawed at the cabinets and walls. Paw prints smeared the mirror and windows.
Some of the damage surely happened after her death, but investigators weren’t certain how much—the place seemed barely habitable. There were holes in the floors covered by loose boards. In one room, there were so many papers, photographs, and videotapes piled in milk crates and loose stacks that investigators couldn’t see the floor.
But how Kay died never became clear. Under cause of death, her death certificate simply says, “Cannot be identified.”
Despite theories to the contrary, investigators have ruled out the idea that Kay’s bears killed her. The medical examiner found no trauma to her bones indicating an attack. There were several bags of dog food in her trailers, suggesting that the bears were being fed at the time of Kay’s death. County emergency coordinator Wesley Hopkins told me that if hungry bears had attacked her, he would have found a big pool of blood.
Some of her friends think she could have been murdered, since police never found her cell phone, cash, or guns. Still, the sheriff said there were no signs of foul play.
Investigators’ prevailing theory is that Kay died from a medical condition. The winter was harsh. Kay had been spending days in her trailer hunkered down under piles of blankets—some even say with an older bear named Betty Sue. Her skin was turning gray, which could suggest emphysema, pneumonia, or a pending heart attack. The fact that her outerwear was found untorn could also suggest hypothermia, which sometimes makes victims feel like they’re burning up.
Hopkins told me that Kay probably collapsed while walking back to her home. He said it’s even possible that the bears carried her into the woods, thinking they were protecting her.
True or not, that’s a nice way to think of Kay’s end, her bears spiriting her body away into the wild. After half a lifetime of strife, she deserved some peace.
There is some evidence that she may have found it in her last days. Though she still hoarded copies of articles, they weren’t all about bears or people hurting the world anymore. Some were about people like Mark Cagle, people doing good.
That final year—to Pledger’s shock—Kay actually went to Thanksgiving. When Pledger last saw her in January, a few days before she went missing, Kay was still talking about it. “One of the best times I’ve had in my whole life,” she said.
Kay continued to make occasional calls to Cagle out of concern for her bears, but her last one was different. It came in late December, just after bear season, a couple of weeks before her death. As always, Cagle saw who was calling and readied himself for the road.
But no, this time Kay just wanted to say thank you. The wild things were having a restful winter.
“We’re OK,” she said. “We’re OK.”
Brandon Sneed (@brandonsneed) is the author of Head in the Game, to be published by Dey Street early next year. This is his first story for Outside.