This case bears some resemblance to Arthur Hutchens‘ 1928 impersonation of the missing Los Angeles boy Walter Collins, but there are darker twists to the tale.
A Changeling in Spain
13-year-old Nicholas Barclay went missing from San Antonio, Texas, in 1994. On June 10, he phoned home to ask for a ride after playing basketball with his friends. His 24-year-old half-brother, Jason, told him to walk home.
Their mother, Beverly Dollarhide, was a heroin addict who worked the graveyard shift at a doughnut shop. She was having a hard time managing Nicky. He had ADD and was developing criminal tendencies along with a larger-than-average dose of teen hostility. Earlier in the year he had been caught breaking into a convenience store, a crime for which he was to be sentenced on June 14, and Beverly was tempted to hand him over to foster care. His father had no involvement in his life. Jason was a coke addict.
It wouldn’t have surprised too many people if Nicholas ran away from home. Perhaps that’s why Beverly didn’t report him missing until June 13.
Nicholas was an unusual kid. He had letters home-tattooed on various parts of his body: A T near his left thumb, a J on one shoulder, an L and an N on his ankle. He carried a pink backpack to school, which couldn’t have done him any favours socially. And he looked much younger than his 13 years, weighing just 80 pounds. He could have been easily spotted and identified in a restaurant or gas station. But no one reported seeing him.
Beverly became a meth addict, and Jason’s coke addiction worsened. In the two months after Nicky’s disappearance, police were summoned twice to break up violent arguments between them.
On September 25, according to Jason, Nicholas crept up to the house and attempted to break into the garage. He ran off when Jason tried to confront him. This would remain the only sighting of Nicholas Barclay for three years.
In October 1997, Beverly received a call from the police. A boy staying at a youth home in Linares, Spain appeared to be her son. He said he had been abducted by members of an international pedophile ring, smuggled to Europe, and imprisoned in one room of a safehouse. His captors forced him to speak only their own language, French. He was subjected not only to sexual abuse, but to bizarre medical experiments. One day a guard left a door open, and he dashed to freedom.
Nicky’s 31-year-old half-sister, Carey Gibson, flew to Spain to pick him up.
Chameleon from Nantes
Carey’s arrival triggered a mixture of exultation and panic in the boy. Exultation, because he had gotten away with it again. Panic, because he didn’t know how long he could get away with it. After all, he didn’t look much like Nicholas Barclay. His hair was dark brown and thinning, not sandy and full like Nicky’s. His eyes were brown, not blue (this was the result of a chemical experiment conducted by his captors, he would explain). His English was good, but a trace of his French accent lingered. He would just have to say his Texas accent had faded after three years of speaking a foreign language, and hope these Americans believed him.
Frederic Bourdin was 23 years old. He was born outside Paris in 1974 to an 18-year-old factory worker, Ghislaine Bourdin, and reared near Nantes by Ghislaine’s parents until he was 12. By that time, his petty thefts and acting-out had landed him in a series of homes for troubled youth. At 16, Frederic ran away to Paris and attempted his first known impersonation, telling a police officer he was a missing English boy named Jimmy Sale (there doesn’t seem to be such a person). He was shipped back to the children’s home when authorities discovered he didn’t even speak English. It was an unimpressive start, but in time, Frederic would pull the abandoned-boy stunt in 5 languages and 15 countries.
He often pretended to be mute, or amnesiac, or abused – a runaway or the victim of a horrible accident. He was usually caught by doctors who examined him, but the authorities rarely pressed charges. By his eighteenth birthday he had posed as an abandoned child a dozen times. Once, he faked his death in Germany. By 1995, he was known throughout France as a chameleonic con man, and made the first of many appearances on French TV.
One of Bourdin’s French TV appearances
Proud of his notoriety, he got a tattoo on his arm: “Chameleon From Nantes“. This pride – and his growing audacity – belied his insistence that he just a lost, lonely soul looking for the love and acceptance he had never known as a child. It became increasingly clear over the years that Bourdin was not just a parasite – he was a predator, always on the hunt for soft-hearted people who would take him in, clothe him and feed him, take pity on him. When he was done with them, he moved on without a backward glance.
In Linares, a child-welfare judge insisted Frederic either produce evidence that he was a minor, or be fingerprinted. Usually, when backed into a corner like this, Frederic simply fled or confessed. This time, he decided to take a new risk: He would impersonate a real missing boy, one who lived very far away. He phoned the U.S.’s National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and posed as a staff member of the Linares shelter, trying to identify a young American boy. Did they have a short, brown-haired boy with a gap between his front teeth in their database?
This description roughly matched Nicholas Barclay. Bourdin requested a missing person flyer. He learned Nicholas was a blonde, with a cross (actually a letter T) tattooed on one hand, so he asked a friend to ink him and dyed his hair. He informed San Antonio police that the boy found in Spain was indeed Nicky Barclay, still carrying his pink backpack.
When Carey arrived at the U.S. embassy in Madrid, Frederic donned sunglasses and a ball cap and swaddled himself in a scarf, but the disguise turned out to be unnecessary; Carey instantly and unequivocally accepted him as Nicky, despite the difference in eye colour and the slight French accent. He seemed to recognize photos of family members, he had the tattoo on his hand, and he even had their Uncle Pat’s largish nose. The Spanish authorities remained skeptical until Carey swore under oath that this was her brother.
On October 18, everyone in Nicky’s family assembled at the San Antonio airport to greet him, with the notable exception of Jason. Jason had kicked his coke habit and was working as a peer counselor at a rehab centre. For some reason, he avoided Nicky for a month and a half.
Beverly said she didn’t want Nicky to be home alone while she worked nights, so it was arranged for Nicky to live with Carey, her husband Bryan, and their two kids (10-year-old Chantel and 14-year-old Codey, who was extremely excited to see his uncle again). The Gibsons lived in an isolated, wooded area north of the city, in a trailer home. Nicky shared a room with Codey.
For the first two months, Nicky adjusted remarkably well. He did his homework, played video games with the kids, and spent time with his mother at every opportunity.
Knowing he had been through a traumatic ordeal, everyone avoided discussing the previous three years of his life.
FBI Agent Nancy Fisher was assigned to investigate Nicholas’ case. After three years in close quarters with the pedophile gang, he would certainly be able to provide detailed descriptions of the men and some of the other children they had abducted.
Nicholas described his captivity and abuse in detail, but to Fisher’s bafflement and frustration, he flatly refused to tell her anything about the perpetrators. He was terrified they would return to Texas.
Fisher was unnerved by something else: Nicky’s voice. He just didn’t sound like a Texan, and it seemed unnatural to her that his childhood accent and diction hadn’t returned. Also, his blond hair was starting to grow darker at the roots.
San Antonio P.I. Charlie Parker was even more suspicious of Nicholas. He had been hired by producers of the tabloid TV show Hard Copy to investigate the boy’s amazing return, and it hadn’t taken him more than a few heartbeats to realize there was something seriously wrong with this kid. Why did he still sound so European? Could eye colour really be altered with chemicals?
The clincher, for Parker, was the ears. He knew that the shape and position of our ears remain the same throughout our lives, and Frederic’s ears looked nothing like Nicky’s.
Parker stockpiled evidence that “Nicholas” was an imposter. An opthamologist told him that no chemical could turn eyes from blue to brown, and a Trinity University dialect expert informed him that Nicky should have retained his native accent if he was abducted at 13.
The family refused to accept Parker’s findings, even though he expressed concern the guy could be dangerous, maybe even a terrorist.
In December, Nicky began acting out. He was suspended from school for cutting class. He fought with Codey. He stole Carey and Bryan’s car and drove it to Oklahoma before being apprehended.
Frederic had found American life to be far short of his expectations, and apparently couldn’t cope. He even called his real mom in France and told her what he was doing.
Around Christmastime, he slashed his face with a razor and was sent to a psych ward for observation.
By March 1998, Agent Fisher’s doubts had cemented into a certainty: The brown-eyed European kid with dark roots wasn’t Nicholas. A psychiatrist had rendered the opinion that his accent was Spanish or French. She obtained blood samples from an extremely reluctant Beverly and “son”.
Bourdin had begun to suspect that Jason knew what really happened to his brother. After finally visiting “Nicky” a month and a half after his return, he seemed wary and standoffish. He said nothing about the contradiction between his September ’94 sighting of Nicky and Frederic’s tale of being spirited away by pedophiles three months earlier. And he didn’t visit again.
Fisher began to wonder about Beverly, too. Surely, she must realize that this stranger wasn’t her child. Was she hiding something?
Beverly was given two polygraph exams. She failed the second, which indicated she was being untruthful when she stated she didn’t know what happened to Nicholas. Later, she told writer David Grann she had never fully accepted Jason’s story about glimpsing Nicky three months after his disappearance.
A polygraph administered to Frederic was, not surprisingly, inconclusive. He surrendered his fingerprints and a blood sample only under court order.
Jason spoke to Agent Fisher with great reluctance, muttering vague answers to questions about his brother. He died of a cocaine overdose a few weeks after being questioned.
Frederic continued to sow seeds of destruction in Texas, and soon his grasp extended to Germany. Desperate to keep the FBI off his back, he told Agent Fisher that one of the other children kidnapped by the pedophile ring in 1995 was named Till Kratzsch. This boy, 13, had gone missing from Berlin.
Till Kratzsch, 13. He disappeared from Berlin on June 14, 1995.
March 5 was the critical day. Beverly phoned Charlie Parker and admitted she no longer thought Frederic was her son. She and Carey so desperately wanted to believe he was Nicky that she ignored her initial reservations about him. When he moved in with her, however, she could no longer avoid the evidence that he wasn’t her child. A friend told her Nicky had shown no recognition when they drove through his old neighborhood.
Interpol received Frederic’s fingerprints from the U.S. State Department, and relayed his colourful background to the feds.
Meanwhile, Claudia Kratzsch, mother of Till Kratzsch, arrived in San Antonio to meet with Nicholas. In the presence of Charlie Parker, she asked Nicky to identify any scars he had noticed on Till’s body. Nicky obligingly drew a diagram showing marks on the boy’s knees and arms. What he failed to draw was a highly visible scar on Till’s forehead.
Bourdin was backed into a tighter corner than usual. Stuck in the boonies on foreign soil, he had little choice but to confess everything to P.I. Parker.
He told the authorities that Beverly and Jason knew he was an imposter from the beginning, but played along with him because they knew what happened to the real Nicholas. Federal prosecutor Jack Stick and Agent Fisher didn’t take his word for it, but they did find Beverly’s uncooperative attitude perplexing. She seemed completely uninterested in finding out who had taken her son, and wasn’t eager to have him live in her home. During questioning, she had rushed from the room and shouted at Fisher, “This is so typical of Nicholas. Look at the hell he’s putting me through.”
In jail, Bourdin reverted to his fondest habit: Lying through his teeth. He claimed he really had been abducted by a pedophile ring, in Madrid, and Nicholas was one of the kids he encountered in captivity. They grew very close, like brothers, and Nicholas asked him to take his place in Texas so that his family could heal. Frederic was then rescued by a “very famous American” who wished to remain anonymous.
Needless to say, no one bought it. Reporters pointed out that Nicholas would have given Bourdin contact information for his mother, while in reality Bourdin had phoned the Center for Missing and Exploited Children and San Antonio police.
Finally, he broke down and told the true story of how he had scammed his way to America. He also revealed that he visited a center for missing children in San Antonio to gather details about Till Kratzsch.
Carey suffered a nervous breakdown after Frederic’s arrest, and denounced him as a liar in court. He was convicted of perjury and obtaining and possessing false documents. After sentencing him to six years in prison, the judge likened him to a killer.
At the time, it was believed Bourdin was the first person to successfully impersonate a missing child in the United States. We’ve since learned about the Arthur Hutchens case, but there’s no doubt that Bourdin’s ruse lasted much longer; while Hutchens was outed within a fortnight by a disbelieving mother, Frederic Bourdin fooled Nicholas’ entire family for over five months.
The Chameleon’s Return
Upon his release in 2003, Bourdin returned to Europe and continued his way of life. In Grenoble he stole the identity of Leo Balley, a 14-year-old who vanished on a camping trip in Isere eight years earlier. He was busted by a DNA test. In May 2005 he appeared at a child welfare office in Orthez, swaddled in a scarf with a ball cap pulled low over his face. He said he was Francisco Fernandez, a 15-year-old from Spain. His mom and younger brother had died in a car crash, leaving him in the care of an abusive uncle, so he ran away to France. He insisted on wearing his hat at all times, supposedly to hide burn scars from the crash. In reality, his hairline was receding.
Childhood picture of Leo Balley. He disappeared from Isere, in the Taillefer Mountains, on July 19, 1996.
Francisco was placed in the St. Vincent de Paul youth shelter in Pau, and enrolled at College Jean Monnet, a small local high school. He became very popular among the students, and delivered a dead-on Michael Jackson impression at the school talent show.
On June 8, a distressed school administrator informed the principal that she had seen the notorious impersonator Frederic Bourdin discussed on a TV show, and he looked just like Francisco. They phoned the police.
Once again, Bourdin confessed. He was sentenced to a six-month suspended sentence for obtaining and using fake ID in the Balley case.
In 2007, Bourdin announced he was going straight. He had recently wed a law student named Isabelle, who contacted him after seeing him on TV. They were expecting a child when David Grann interviewed them for his New Yorker story, and had a girl named Athena one month later.
Earlier this year, Gaumant released Jean-Paul Salome’s thinly fictionalized movie The Chameleon.
Perhaps capitalizing on the movie’s release, Bourdin recently posted a few videos on his YouTube channel, “Francameleon“.