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In his last phone calls and text messages, slain bus passenger Tim McLean was eagerly looking forward to seeing his friends and family, talked about how much he was enjoying himself, and made no mention of the peculiar passenger now charged with his murder.

Alexandra Storey, Mr. McLean's ex-girlfriend, said he sent her dozens of texts as the Greyhound he was riding made its way east to Winnipeg from Edmonton Wednesday night. The 22-year-old Winnipegger was coming home after seven weeks working on a carnival tour of Western Canada.

He told her some of the other passengers were taking ecstasy, a party drug with stimulant properties, and that he was counting down the hours by sending a new text at every town he passed.

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It was from Brandon, Man., some time before 8 p.m. that he sent the longest flurry of texts, she said. He planned to go see his father, collect his pet iguana from a friend and wanted to visit Ms. Storey later that night. After their relationship ended, he became like a brother to her, she said, and he was particularly devoted to her daughter, April. In his last message, Mr. McLean said his phone was dying and he was going to charge it when he got to Portage la Prairie.

Ten minutes later, his accused killer, 40-year-old Vincent Li, changed seats, making his way to the last row of the bus and sitting next to Mr. McLean. Witnesses said the younger man, barely 5 foot 5 and 125 pounds, had fallen asleep with his headphones on, his cheek resting against the window, while Zorro played on the bus's television screen.

Without warning, witnesses said, a man stood up and stabbed Mr. McLean several times in the throat and torso, sending passengers scrambling off the bus. Afterward, the killer severed his victim's head, hacked at his body with a large knife and a pair of scissors, and, according to reports from the scene, ate some of the body parts.

Derek Caron, Mr. McLean's closest friend, was waiting at the Winnipeg bus station that night, anticipating a 9:45 p.m. arrival. He hung around patiently as Greyhound officials told him the bus was delayed, but as the hours passed they never explained what had happened. He left only when they closed the terminal after 1 a.m.

Although police didn't release his name, the description of the victim passed on by witnesses - a small, aboriginal man of 18-20 years - seemed to fit Mr. McLean, who wasn't aboriginal but looked it, Mr. McLean's friends said. As the day wore on, and they received no word from him, a small group gathered outside the home of his father, also named Tim McLean. When the older man arrived home from work, he greeted them cheerfully, asking if they were waiting for his son.

They sat down with him at his computer as he watched the news for the first time. He put his hands over his mouth and said, "No, no, no. My God, no," according to a woman who was there. He tried to contact the RCMP to confirm his worst fear. His son's friends said an uncle had spoken to the RCMP already, and was told his nephew wasn't a passenger on the bus. But later that night, Mr. McLean had to identify his son's body.

As they struggled with their grief Friday, friends described the young man as a warm, fun-loving free spirit who attracted people to him with his energy and joie de vivre. He had never been in a fight in his life, said his friend Will Caron, who had known him for 10 years.

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"There is no way he could have provoked that guy. No way. He's just not like that," said Colleen Yestrau, who had allowed Mr. McLean to stay with her for three months before he left on the carnival circuit. They also said Mr. McLean had asked his father, in a text message sent Wednesday evening, if it would be all right if a girl named Stacey stayed with them once he arrived in Winnipeg.

Mr. McLean dropped out of Oak Park High School before completing Grade 11 because he had other priorities, his friends said. He would spend the summer months touring Western Canada, starting with the Red River Exhibition in Winnipeg, and travelling to the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver. He ran booths and games at the fairs, which he referenced in his latest tattoo, a cursive script across his stomach saying "Wanna Play." He sent a photo of it to Ms. Storey, which, in a ghostly twist, she received several hours after he was killed.

He was also proud of his other tattoos, including cartoon character Marvin the Martian, a spider and skull, and one that said "Joker Wild."

He hadn't had a fixed address for several years, his friends said, but would often stay with one of them for three months at a stretch, and then move on. In the winters he worked at various jobs, cleaning and repairing street lights, manufacturing brake shoes, pumping gas and managing a fast-food restaurant.

Will Caron said he last saw his friend in mid-June, when a group gathered for a massive weekend-long board game of Risk. As his wife Jodi broke down in tears over the loss of their friend, and his three-year-old daughter talked about how her father had been crying too, Mr. Caron just shook his head in disbelief. Why didn't anyone fight back? he asked. Surely the three dozen passengers could have overpowered a lone man with a knife.

"Only in movies would you think something like this would happen. Not in real life. Not on a bus," he said.

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Derek Caron said he and Mr. McLean were planning to move to B.C. together in the fall. Mr. McLean loved the outdoors, he said, and they were going to set out with a tent and find whatever work they could.

The gruesome details of their friend's killing, the beheading and dismemberment, are rarely mentioned, referred to only in whispers, but their presence lingers in every conversation.

"I'm hoping it was quick," Ms. Storey said. "I hope he didn't suffer through it."

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