Wednesday Weirdness Roundup

Do you know this suburban twentysomething wild teenager?
  • For the past nine months, a young Kaspar Hauser clone in Germany has been insisting he was raised in the woods for the past 5 years, knows only his first name (“Ray”), and that he buried his father (his only known relative) in an unmarked forest grave last August. Intriguing as the Forest Boy of Berlin mystery is, I suspect we’re seeing another Bush Boys of British Columbia or Piano Man story in the making. Update (June 15, 2012): Forest Boy has been identified as Robin van Helsum, a 20-year-old from the Netherlands. He disappeared from Hengelo just three days before he turned up in Berlin last September.
  • Hey, did you know that Vice magazine and Beavis and Butthead predicted 9/11? Yeah, neither did they. Conspiranoids are pointing out that an illustration in a 1994 issue of Vice, featuring Beavis and Butthead as Al Qaeda terrorists circling the Twin Towers in little airplanes (tasteful as hell, right?), is a classic example of “predictive programming”. That’s when bad guys tell you exactly what they’re going to do to you before they do it because their ancient, heathen religion demands a willing victim (you know, like Cabin in the Woods). The problem with this brilliant theory is, the issue was actually a mock-up of a 1994 magazine to commemorate Vice‘s 15th anniversary – written, illustrated, and printed in 2009.
  • If you’ve read part VI of the Fake Teens series , or followed the incredibly bizarre story of the teen boy who manipulated an online buddy into trying to kill him, or even just watched Dateline, then you know that online romances with teenagers can end messily. A young woman in Novia Scotia is now facing up to the consequences of her fake online identity after her pseudocide possibly contributed to a real suicide.
  • Last month, the Skeptoid podcast did a nice piece on the Rothschild banking dynasty, pointing out that the Rothschilds are still all that, but do not currently include a bag of chips.
  • That Cabin in the Woods reference wasn’t really a spoiler. If you like horror movies, see it.

In the next few days, we’ll be wrapping up the Prodigal Witch series and moving on up to Chemtrail Week.

Wednesday Weirdness Roundup

Extra, extra! Left-handedness no longer freakish; Citizen no longer Vigilant!

  • Meanest Girls: A 15-year-old girl in Blackburn, England, was devastated when her online boyfriend, Jaydon Rothwell, committed suicide. On his Facebook status, Jaydon had written that he was going to kill himself with a fatal pill/alcohol overdose because she had accused him – falsely – of cheating on her. This led to a spate of hatemail and nasty phone calls from Jaydon’s Facebook “fans”, accusing her of causing his death. The girl was even more devastated when Lancashire police informed her that Jaydon hadn’t really killed himself. In fact, he never existed. He was a character created by two other girls, both 16, who were reportedly peeved with her for dating a guy one of them had also dated. They kept up the ruse for three months, even using a teen boy to impersonate “Jaydon” at a dimly lit party. The girls apologized as part of a restorative justice session, but I have a feeling these three girls won’t be hanging out together anytime soon.
  • Vigilant Citizen appears to be out of commission. Now where will we get all our vital information about Illuminati symbolism in Russian pop music videos?!
  • Not quite as scary as the Doomsday Clock. But almost.
  • Dr. Carole Lieberman, infamous for claiming that the videogame Bulletstorm caused an increase in sexual assaults (and now suggesting Fox News was part of a conspiracy to promote the game), has one of the strangest websites I’ve ever seen. It looks like a collaborative effort between Barbie and Gloria Allred.
  • Cold fusion! This time it’s totally happening! For reals! Srsly, you guys!
  • According to TIME, left-handedness is no longer “socially weird”. Thank you, Ned Flanders.
  • Least convincing slideshow presentation of the week: One creative YouTuber has decided the Bible contains references to quantum mechanics. Especially Hebrews 11: 1, 3: “The things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” C for effort, D- for presentation. I’ve seen YTPs that make more sense.
  • If you can’t attend the Dolphins & Teleportation Symposium in June, maybe you can catch the Secret Space Program Conference. After all, there are aquatic animals on Mars, and the Rockefeller set seems intent on relocating there.

Fake Teens

Perpetual adolescence may sound like hell, but these folks went to astounding lengths to make it happen…

Part I: James Hogue, self-educated cowboy and Ivy League track star
Part II: Brian McKinnon and other fake students
Part III: Predatory Fake Teens
Part IV: Serial Teen Treva Throneberry, the female Peter Pan
Part V: Frederic Bourdin, the bizarre case of a real-life changeling
Part VI: Online Teens
1. Jailbait
2. Caught (spoiler alert: contains spoilers for the movie Catfish)
Part VI: The Messiah, cult victim or cult leader?

Fake Teens Part VII: The Messiah

Before moving on to 2011, I have one last fake teen tale for you. I’ve saved the most unsettling one for last, probably because I don’t even like thinking about it. Please proceed with caution.

Place: Kurim, Czech Republic
Time: May 10, 2007

In some ways, Moravia is the perfect setting for a tale of Gothic horror. The ancient cities of the South Moravian Region are still dominated by the dark architecture of the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries. In Brno, not far from Kurim, the Gothic Revival spires of the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul pierce the sky like black daggers, and icons representing the legendary beast that once terrorized the city loom everywhere.

But the South Moravian Region is also modern and ambitious, with glassy business districts and stunning functionalist architecture like Brno’s Exhibition Centre. City-dwellers are predominantly middle-class, and the crime rates are respectably low. All in all, today’s Moravia is not a place you would expect to find the macabre.

In a quiet, middle-class neighborhood in Kurim, a man installed a CCTV baby monitor to keep an eye on his sleeping newborn son. These devices sometimes snag signals from other monitors nearby, but the new father was certainly not prepared for what he saw. Instead of his child’s crib, another image appeared on the screen: A small boy, perhaps 7 or 8 years old, huddled on a cement floor in a confined space. He was nude, dirty, and bound.

Police conducted a door-to-door search to find this little boy. Most neighborhood residents were cooperative, even helpful. Then officers reached a cheerful yellow house with a red roof, occupied by two attractive sisters. Klara Mauerova, a 31-year-old blonde somewhat resembling Renee Zellweger, was a single mother of three children. Her dark-haired sister, 33-year-old Katerina Mauerova, lived with her.

The Mauerova sisters allowed police, led by officer Miroslav Gregor, to search their home, but vehemently balked at opening a locked closet door. The investigators summoned firemen to bust the lock. In a cramped space, they found the boy: Klara’s younger son, 8-year-old Ondrej. Trapped in the windowless space in his own excrement and vomit, the boy was suffering dehydration.

Needless to say, Klara was arrested and all three of her children were immediately taken into custody.
was two years older than Ondrej. The boys told police and social workers that their mother and their Aunt Katerina had been abusing them since the previous July. Abuse isn’t really the right word, though. Jakob and Ondrej had been tortured. Klara and Katerina sexually abused them, beat them with belts, confined them in dog cages, burned them with cigarettes, chained them to furniture, dunked their heads underwater until they thought they would drown, and locked them in closets without food or clothing. The boys had also been forced to cut themselves with knives, and Ondrej’s skin had been sliced off in strips. The adults then consumed his raw flesh.
The two boys insisted they had deserved to be punished for bad behaviour, and anxiously protected their abusers. As it turned out, their mother and aunt had not been the only adults involved.
The only child in the household who escaped this malevolence was 13-year-old Anicka, or Anna, a tiny, shy girl who seemed very young for her age. Her owl-eyed face was dominated by enormous granny glasses, and she clutched a teddy bear as officers questioned her. In the only known photo of the entire family, taken on a canoe trip, Anna looks down at her feet instead of at the camera while a smiling Klara hugs her tightly. She seemed so socially inept that Officer Gregor referred to her in his report as a “wild girl”.
But it turned out that Anicka wasn’t Klara’s natural child. The young mother explained that Anicka had been abandoned on her late grandmother’s doorstep by drug addicts as an infant. After her grandmother’s death, Klara raised the child her as her own. She had legally adopted the girl just two months earlier.
The three Mauerova children were placed in a children’s home.

Disturbingly, Katerina Mauerova was employed by a youth centre called Paprsek. And Klara has a university degree in pedagogy.

The abuse seemed incomprehensible – the Mauerovas had no known history of violence or child abuse – but investigators soon discovered what they believed to be the explanation for it: Katerina belonged to an offshoot of a little-known religious organization known as the Grail Movement.
On May 19, the Czech newspaper Mlada Fronta DNES siezed on this connection, sparking lurid media stories about the “Grail Movement cult” and its child-abusing, flesh-eating members.
But Grail Movement members do not eat human flesh, nor do they typically turn their homes into torture chambers. The cult Katerina joined was, at most, a mutant offspring of the Grail Movement. In 2009, the Grail Movement Foundation in the Czech Republic successfully sued Mlada Fronta DNES for libel, forcing the paper to print a retraction.

The case became more troubling and sinister when little Anicka went missing from the Klokanek children’s home. During her short time in care, she had lost a lot of weight and appeared to be more confused and troubled than her little brothers. She told a doctor who examined her that she was actually a boy, which was clearly not the case in any physical sense. She was already developing breasts.

The police were beginning to learn that despite the adoption proceedings, Klara hadn’t really treated the girl like one of her own children. Anicka had never attended school like the boys and had no medical records, which indicated she had lived in seclusion for much – if not all – of her young life. Klara claimed Anicka suffered a “social disorder” that made traditional schooling impossible, but given Klara’s track record… well, she wasn’t the most reliable mother in the Czech Republic, was she?
Police couldn’t locate Anicka’s biological parents, nor were they able to find any documents to confirm her identity. Her father, Viktor Skala, had appeared in court to relinquish his rights to the girl back in March, but there was no proof that he was Anicka’s real father.
Stranger still, neighbors of Klara’s late grandmother couldn’t recall ever seeing a young child around her house.

Klara Mauerova, 2008

A nationwide search for the girl commenced immediately. It seemed almost certain that Klara, and/or one of her cohorts, had abducted Anicka when she was younger. And that someone had abducted her from the children’s home to prevent her from disclosing more of the family’s secrets.
In late May, letters from Anicka were received by President Václav Klaus, a state official, and a national newspaper. The girl begged for clemency for her adoptive mother.

Norway, Winter 2007

Adam Fahrner, the 13-year-old son of Czech theater manager Martin Fahrner, was placed in an emergency youth shelter in Oslo. His teachers and psychologists believed his family, recently emigrated from the Czech Republic, had been abusing him in odd and sadistic ways. He talked of being beaten, burned with cigarettes, and sold into child prostitution by his own father from a young age.
Since his enrollment in the autumn, it had been obvious to staff at the Marienlyst school in Oslo that Adam was troubled in some way. Though his work was decent, he seemed skittish and uneasy all the time. He didn’t socialize much, and flat-out refused to take part in any sports activities.

In mid-December, Adam disappeared from the youth home in Oslo.
Missing child posters went up all over Norway. The boy usually had a shaved head and wore a black watchcap, but if he had run away and didn’t want to be found, he could change his appearance easily.
Fortunately, he didn’t. Adam was spotted in the northern city of Tromsoe, by someone who had glimpsed him on a missing child poster.
He had appeared in Tromsoe immediately after his disappearance, in the company of an adult friend named Michal Riha, and was placed in a youth home there.
Adam was returned to Oslo, where the police somehow learned that the real Adam Fahrner was still in the Czech Republic. This Adam was a 33-year-old woman named Barbora Skrlova, wanted in Kurim for abusing two little boys named Jakub and Ondrej Mauerova.

You see, Barbora Skrlova was also “Anicka“. To my knowledge, she is the only teen imposter to successfully pass as a girl and a boy.

As I mentioned earlier, the Mauerova sisters hadn’t been Ondrej and Jakub’s only abusers. Their other tormentors included their “adopted sister” Barbora Skrlova, Barbora’s 25-year-old brother Jan Skrla, 28-year-old Hana Basova , and 25-year-old Jan Turek. All worked at the Brno youth centre Paprsek with Katerina, and all were reportedly connected to a Grail Movement offshoot led by Barbora’s 75-year-old father, Josef Skrla. The old man had apparently crafted a hiking club into his personal religious group. Because his club was known as “The Ants“, some reports refer to the cult members by the same name.
In 2005, the Mauerova sisters took Barbora into their home. That’s when Barbora began instructing Klara on how to break the will of her sons. She enlisted other members of the cult to assist in this effort, and beginning in July 2006 the group operated its own torture chamber in the little yellow house in Kurim. Barbora and Klara supposedly took orders to “train” the Mauerova children from a mysterious doctor who sent detailed instructions via text messages. We do not know if such a person exists.

What we do know for certain is that there were many “Ants” involved in the Mauerova case. In addition to the elderly Josef Skrla (who has not been charged with any crime in relation to the case), they are: Viktor Skala, a Czech actor who posed as “Anicka’s” father in court during the adoption proceedings; Martin Fahrner and his wife; and Michal Riha, the man who brought “Adam” to Tromsoe.

Martin Farhner and his wife were such loyal members of the group that they agreed to let Barbora impersonate their 13-year-old son, using the boy’s passport to smuggle her into Denmark and then Norway. She was already a fugitive by that time, because in late May one of Katerina’s friends had revealed that little “Anicka” was really a grown woman. Just why cult members helped her pass herself off as a teenager is still unclear. There have been suggestions that Skrla and/or some of his Ants were attempting to present Barbora as a child messiah like Krishnamurti or Sai Baba, to draw more followers. Barbora herself has said she created the Anicka persona as a way to cope with reality, a familiar refrain in the world of fake teens.

Josef Skrla remains a murky but persistent presence in the case. According to one report in the South African Independent, he has gone missing. Though the media and a few anonymous sources have painted him as the unseen puppetmaster of the whole affair, no one actually knows if Skrla himself had any involvement in his children’s bizarre activities in Kurim – or if he even knew about them. It’s possible that Barbora and/or her brother Jan crafted their own little cult in Kurim.

Barbora was returned to the Czech Republic to face fraud charges. On the plane, she clasped a teddy bear and other toys.
To this day, not much is known of this strange little woman. She reportedly studied music at Brno’s Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts, and wanted to be a composer. For a time she shared an apartment with Katerina (she may also have worked with her), and feigned being a cancer patient. She had Katerina tell classmates that she had died of leukemia, then resurfaced (with the help of Katerina and others) as a Norwegian orphan named Anna Jervinen. “Anna” first began visiting Klara’s house in 2005, in the company of Katerina. Klara told the Czech magazine Tyden that Anna had some of the characteristics of a feral child at that time; she still drank from baby bottles, and played with baby rattles, though she could converse in three languages (Norwegian, Czech, and English).

Klara claims she was duped into believing Anicka was an abused orphan from Norway, then manipulated into torturing her sons by Anicka, her sister, and that elusive doctor. (She gave investigators the name of a man from Azerbaijan. Neither Czech police nor Interpol could find a person by that name. This brings to mind “Avery” in the Rose Turford/Joyce Stevens case.)
It’s entirely possible that Klara was duped to some extent. Police determined that those text messages originated not from Azerbaijan, but from her sister’s cell phone.
The only problem with Klara’s version of the story is that when “Anicka” was scheduled to appear in court during the adoption proceedings in 2007, the daughter of another cult member (perhaps Viktor Skala) was brought in to play the part.

Barbora Skrlova pled innocence, as well. She said the Mauerova sisters and Hana Basova tortured her just as they did Ondrej and Jakub, and were plotting to sell her and the boys into child sex slavery. They drugged her, beat her, and sexually assaulted her with sharp objects (the latter allegation is particularly unlikely; a physical exam showed Skrlova to be a virgin).
Oddly, she is indignant that Ondrej exaggerated the extent of his abuse. (He actually downplayed it dramatically at first, shielding Barbora and the others.)
What Barbora hasn’t fully explained is just how she came to be adopted, at the age of 33, by a former roommate’s sister. She told the Czech newspaper Lidove Noviny she befriended Ondrej and Jakub Mauer at a scout camp. She already knew their aunt Katerina, she said, because they had worked together at a children’s home in Brno.

Some of the faces of Barbora Skrlova

On June 16, 2008, the trial of the six defendants opened at the City Court in Brno. Some of the testimony only deepened the mysteries of the case. For instance, Mauerova family friend Jirí Hlavácek described how, in the autumn of 2005, Klara asked him to pick up Anna at a remote location. Katerina gave Klara directions over the phone as Hlavácek drove. When they arrived at their destination, a wooded area, they discovered Anna with a bag over her head and her wrists bound.
Klara urged Hlavácek not to call the police, saying this would only put the girl in more danger.

Klara, sobbing continuously throughout the proceedings, admitted to the court that she had willfully tortured her own children. But she had been brainwashed by a 13-year-old girl, her sister, and her own cell phone. Not the strongest defense the judges had ever heard, I’m sure.

Katerina’s testimony didn’t clear the waters, either. Looking frazzled and gaunt, she stated simply, “Whatever my sister Klara said yesterday is a lie.” It was Barbora and Klara, she declared, who got out of control.

Jan Turek would admit only to loaning Klara the two dog cages in which her sons were often confined during their year of torture. He didn’t participate in the abuse himself, he insisted, and wasn’t even aware that the cages were being used for such a purpose.

Hana Basova, the most elusive figure in the case next to Josef Skrla, declined to appear in court at all. She denied any wrongdoing.

With the potent evidence of abuse and the weird, contradictory accounts of the defendants, it’s not shocking that all six were found guilty.
Klara was convicted of repeated abuse with severe cruelty, grievous bodily harm and depriving the boys of their freedom, and was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Katerina received a ten-year sentence for repeated abuse with severe cruelty, grievous bodily harm, depriving the boys of their freedom and giving false testimony.
Barbora was acquitted of fraud charges in relation to her escapades in Norway, but convicted of repeated abuse with severe cruelty. She was sentenced to five years in prison, as was Jan Turek.
Hana Basova and Barbora’s brother Jan received seven years.

Jan Skrla, Barbora’s brother, 2008

Like everyone else, I can only look at the Kurim case and say “WTF?“. But I’m going to venture now into Maybe territory, and propose a possible scenario that could have led Klara (inarguably the most contrite of the abusers) to do the things she did.

In 2005, Klara is presented by her sister with a vulnerable young girl, molested and abused in a Norwegian orphanage to such a degree that she still has some of the traits of an infant. On the other hand, her linguistic abilities show her to be a blazingly intelligent child.
Perhaps she has an air of serenity and innocence about her – a touch of the holy. Katerina and Katerina’s friends are protective of this child, treating her almost like a little idol.

Though they encourage Klara to adopt Anicka into her little family, they begin to disparage her parenting skills. Look how well-behaved Anicka is despite all she has suffered, they point out. And yet your boys are always rough-housing and back-talking and behaving like ruffians.
Being a single parent with insecurities, Klara takes this chiding to heart. She feels she must whip her boys into shape. She devises new, harsher punishments for them, and allows Anicka and her sister to do the same. She accepts the advice of Anicka’s doctor, who obviously cares a great deal for the girl. How many physicians will text-message their patients’ guardian to offer guidance?
This guidance is laden with an aura of the spiritual, even the mystical. Klara senses great holiness in these people surrounding her. They seem to have elevated themselves above the demands of the flesh; they are selfless and serene.
To purify the boys, Klara is told, they must be brought to a state of contrition and submission so that new values can be taught. They must be made to overcome the weaknesses of their flesh so the spirit can be strong.
The Doctor suggests a new regiment of punishment, far harsher than anything Anna and Klara have done. If the boys bicker, talk disrespectfully, or show ingratitude, they will be: Locked in dog cages, deprived of meals, slapped with belts, etc.

Klara, fearing deeply for her boys’ spirits, is grateful for the help. She begins doling out the punishments, and the other adults are kind enough to assist her at every opportunity. With a whole community teaching them, they tell Klara, the boys will know they are loved and cherished even as they suffer. They will come to realize that everyone has made sacrifices for them, and will accept that they must make sacrficies of their own. The ultimate sacrifice, of course, is their own flesh.

When it’s time for Anicka to appear in court to be adopted by Klara, her crippling social phobia incapacitates her. Katerina persuades Klara that it would be best to let another little girl, a friend’s daughter, “stand in” for Anicka so that she doesn’t have to go through the ordeal of appearing before a judge.

By the time Klara realizes that Anicka is older than she is, and that her sister’s friends are lunatics, she’s standing trial for some of the most atrocious child abuse ever seen in the Czech Republic.

This scenario, of course, doesn’t justify a thing. In my opinion, Klara Mauerova and her cohorts got off lightly and should not be permitted within spitting distance of children for the remainder of their messed-up lives.

Fake Teens VI: Online Teens

Spoiler warning: This post contains complete spoilers for the film Catfish.


The Truth 2.0

In 2007, 22-year-old New York photographer Yaniv “Nev” Schulman received an adorable Myspace message from a young girl in Michigan. Abby Wesselman, 12 years old, wanted to show him some of her paintings, including one based on one of his recent photos, a striking image of a ballet dancer holding a ballerina aloft in a field.
Then Nev received a message from Abby’s mom, Angela, informing him that Abby was really 8 years old and wasn’t supposed to be online by herself. Now Nev was even more impressed by Abby’s art. This kid had talent! Real talent, not Marla Olmstead talent! Soon, he was taking ballet photos specifically for Abby’s paintbrush, and getting acquainted with Angela’s fascinating family via Facebook and phone calls.
The Wesselmans lived in the microdot community of Ishpeming, Michigan, and were a lot like the family in You Can’t Take It With You. Angela, a beautiful sloe-eyed brunette, painted and rode horses. Her son Alex was a rock musician. Daughter Megan was a veterinarian who danced, wrote songs, painted, played multiple instruments, kept horses, and did some modeling in her spare time. Abby, of course, was an art prodigy whose paintings sold for up to $7000 apiece. The family had recently purchased an old warehouse on Ishpeming’s main street, and were turning it into a gallery to showcase Abby’s work.

Nev’s brother Ariel (“Rel”), a filmmaker, was intrigued by Abby’s artwork and her talent-laden family. He decided to document the creative process going on between Nev and Abby, though Nev wasn’t enthused about the idea. He went along with it, he later said, because he felt aimless and bored. He had recently dropped out of college to pursue a full-time career in photography, and had to film bar mitzvahs on weekends to make ends meet.
They didn’t have the funds to actually travel to Michigan, so for the next several months, Rel and his creative partner Henry Joost basically just filmed Nev’s phone conversations with the Wesselman family and recorded Nev’s thoughts on Abby’s art.
Angela considered Nev an artistic mentor for her daughter. She even offered to pay him for his advice. When he declined, Abby sent several of her paintings to Nev as gifts, along with half of a $1000 prize she won in an art competition.

Rel and Henry also began to document the burgeoning romance between Nev and Angela’s 19-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Megan Faccio. Megan, the vet, lived on a small farm not far from her parents’ house. The photos she posted on Facebook and sent to Nev showed a lovely girl with luxuriantly long, honey-gold hair. She had the lithe body of a dancer and the soulful eyes of an artist. Intriguingly for Nev, she hadn’t dated much and remained a virgin.
Chatting online soon led to flirting, exchanging photos, and a little sexting. They talked longingly of Meeting in Real Life someday.

There were warning signs along the way, of course. Curiously, though Angela had posted a video of Abby painting wild horses, the family never webcammed. Angela’s husband, Vince Pierce, looked young enough to be Megan’s brother. There were lots of photos of Megan on her Facebook profile, but no family photos – and few photos of Angela. The only clear image of Angela the New Yorkers had ever seen was a painting done by Megan.
Nev’s mother was skeptical. She pointed out that Megan seemed too young to be a veterinarian with her own home. Nev waved away her concerns.

That summer, about eight months after the first message from Abby, a MIRL started to look possible. The Schulmans and Joost were traveling to Colorado to film dancers at the Vail International Dance Festival, and if they drove they would be able to swing through Ishpeming on their way home. Rel and Henry packed up their film gear and mounted a point-and-shoot cam on the dashboard of the car to capture the road trip.

Spoilers below

In their Colorado lodgings, Nev chatted with Megan on his laptop. She had been posting MP3s of herself and Angela singing some favourite songs and playing various instruments, so one evening the three guys listened to them. One song sung by Angela, “Downhill”, was fantastic. Megan accompanied her mom on guitar.
When Megan offered to take requests, Ariel and Henry asked her to record and post “Tennessee Stud”. She was a horsewoman, after all.
Within thirty minutes, Megan’s rendition of the song appeared on Facebook. It also sounded good, but the guys were still crazy about the song “Downhill” and wanted to know more about it. Nev googled some of the lyrics and found Amy Kuney’s original recording of “It’s All Downhill from Here” on iTunes. The song had been featured on the soundtrack of the teen soap opera One Tree Hill.
To their astonishment, the guys gradually realized that Kuney’s version sounded identical to Megan and Angela’s.
Rel began searching for covers of “Tennessee Stud”, and on YouTube he found one by Suzanna Choffel that perfectly matched Megan’s. Clearly, she and/or Angela had been snagging songs from the ‘Net and posting them as their own.
It would be all downhill from there.

The three men agreed not to confront Megan or Angela right away. They would continue to play along, and do some investigating.
On camera, Nev accepted the situation with good humour. He laughed in embarrassment over the sexting, and joked that he was probably having an online relationship with another guy. But discovering Megan’s deception had been traumatic for him.
Phone calls from Megan were now decidedly awkward and strained, with Nev keeping his end of the conversations as brief as possible.

Nev and Ariel investigated the warehouse gallery at 100 North Main Street in Ishpeming. It was a former department store that had been vacant for four years, and according to the real estate agent, it was still on the market.

The group traveled fom Vail to Ishpeming with a lot of questions on their minds. When Nev told Megan he might be in her area very soon, she said one of her horses was giving birth. She would have to be in the stables all night.

Upon reaching the outskirts of Ishpeming after dark, the trio’s first stop was the rural mailbox used by Megan. This was supposedly her home address, but the box stood in front of a lot occupied only by a barn, which was completely empty.
The rest of the family lived in a comfortable, farm-style house in town, with bay windows and a cheery red door. Angela responded to Nev’s knock the next morning, hesitantly. She was a rather plump woman with waist-length auburn hair; pleasant-looking, but hardly the elegant beauty of Megan’s painting.
Angela nervously explained that Megan was many miles away, at her farm. Moments later, Vince showed up on the porch and introduced himself. He was an average middle-aged man, not the young guy in Megan’s photo. He seemed to know nothing about his wife’s online deceptions; he was under the impression that Nev was his wife’s “primary customer”, having purchased a number of her paintings (which were actually sent to him as gifts).
Inside the house, Angela gestured to a partially-completed painting of a woman in a dress and said it was Abby’s latest work.

As it turned out, Abby was not a miniature Degas. The paintings were Angela’s. This became evident when Abby told Nev she didn’t paint very often, and identified “her” wild horse painting as her mother’s work.
There was no sign of Angela’s son, but it turned out she and Vince were the sole caregivers for Vince’s profoundly disabled twin sons. Angela had never mentioned them.

At one point during the visit, when Angela was out of sight, Megan texted Nev to explain that the horses were keeping her very busy, but she would try to see him as soon as possible. “Don’t leave!” she pleaded. Nev wondered why she wouldn’t phone him.
That night, while the guys rested at a local hotel, Megan sent another message revealing that she was an alcoholic. She wouldn’t be able to see Nev because she had just checked into a rehab clinic.

With Angela’s “perfect” life lying unraveled at their feet, the guys decided it was time to put an end to the game.
On the second day of their visit Angela, still seeming quite shy and reticent, took her guests to a horse farm to watch Abby ride. Nev gently asked her why she had created so many stories about her life.
She let go of the deception with surprising ease…almost. She still insisted that Megan was real, though her photos were those of a “family friend”, and that she really was in rehab. This turned out to be false. The lovely girl in the photos was a professional model/photographer from the Northwest, Aimee Gonzalez. She had no knowledge of the Wesselman family and was completely unaware that Angela had been using her Facebook and modeling photos to flesh out “Megan Faccio”.
The previous day, Angela said she was undergoing chemo for uterine cancer. Also false.

Nev was forgiving, and it’s easy to understand why. It would be nearly impossible not to sympathize, to some degree, with this woman. She was living a demanding, isolated life full of imperfection and frustrated dreams.
Angela was embarrassed and seemingly contrite about her behaviour. With admirable candour, she explained how she created at least a dozen Facebook profiles to give the appearance of a small network of family and friends, used a second cell phone for “Megan’s” calls, and adopted a high breathy voice for Megan. Like Mary Shieler, she cited boredom as her primary motivation. “I didn’t have anything else in my life… I didn’t have anything else to do,” she told 20/20.

But unlike Mary Shieler, Angela Wesselman-Pierce didn’t leave a trail of death and devastation in her wake. In fact, just as Vince conveys in the anecdote that gives the film Catfish its title, her deception and its unmasking made everyone involved a little better and stronger. Angela began to sell her paintings online. Schulman and Joost created an acclaimed documentary that premiered at Sundance.

Nev didn’t fare so well, at first. Even though the physical distance between himself and Megan would have made a long-term relationship almost impossible, he had strong feelings for her. The realization that this girl was a figment of someone’s imagination hit him hard.
Upon returning to New York, Nev got back together with an on-and-off girlfriend, Katie, and told his brother he needed some time to recover.

Catfish chronicles Nev’s artistic collaboration with Abby, his romance with Megan, and the fateful trip to Michigan. Much like TalHotBlond, it was marketed as a suspense thriller documentary full of shocking twists. The filmmakers and their subject, however, view it as a story of love, loneliness, and the complexities of online relationships. They clearly made an effort to portray Angela Wesselman-Pierce as a woman worthy of sympathy and understanding. The film even ends with a coda that despite Angela’s false claims of having cancer and having a daughter in rehab, she and Nev remain friends on Facebook.

It’s difficult not to have mixed feelings about Catfish. On one hand, it’s possible that being caught has provided the impetus for Angela Wesselman-Pierce to re-evaluate her life and make changes to it that would not otherwise have occurred to her. Reaching out to a photographer indicates that she wanted to forge some connection to other artistic people, and she now has the opportunity to do that.
On the other hand, one has to examine the ethical dimensions of filming a woman who may have mental issues that prevent her from making sound decisions, a woman who (as Nev realized) was probably infatuated with a much younger man she had never met. This is underlined by the fact that the deception didn’t end when Nev left Michigan. Angela was still insisting she had a daughter named Megan in rehab, and back in New York Nev received an email from the real Megan. He asked her to call him at the office of his brother’s production company. He never received a call. The email account, he learned, was another of Angela’s fronts. Confronted, she confessed that she didn’t want the relationship with Nev to end.
Will Angela Wesselman-Pierce someday regret her participation in the film? One wonders, too, how little Abby will fare when she’s older. Will having her mother outed as an online master of deception become embarrassing and burdensome to her, if it hasn’t already? Where, exactly, should we draw the line between private drama and public accountability?

These certainly weren’t the only questions raised by reviewers of Catfish.

The Truth 2.1

Catfish premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. From its very first screenings, viewers expressed skepticism about the entire film. How could it be, they asked, that three New Yorkers were genuinely duped by a Michigan housewife for almost a year? How could anyone believe “Vince” was old enough to be Megan’s stepdad? Why would a director want to film his brother’s daily life in the first place? And isn’t it convenient that some of the film’s most startling revelations, like Megan’s bogus song covers, just happened to take place when the camera was rolling?

Morgan Spurlock called it “the best fake documentary I’ve seen”. The New York Times review described it as “coy about its motives” and full of “faux-naïf manipulations”.’s Kyle Bucchanan bluntly accused the filmmakers of knowing Angela was lying all along. A reviewer at the blog Very Aware pointed out that the photo of Vince and Megan was posted to Facebook in March 2008, months after the events of Catfish took place. In comments attached to these reviews, people have speculated that Angela, Aimee Gonzalez, and the Schulmans/Joost are fame-hungry artists who collaborated on a hoax. One Movieline commenter claims Angela Pierce is not only a professional artist, but a filmmaker whose work has appeared at small festivals. She even has a production company: Panorama Management Group, LLC in Ipsheming, Michigan. While it’s true that Panorama “respresents” Angela, the operation appears to be a one-woman show. And though Angela listed herself as a filmmaker as late as October of this year, I have found no films to her credit.
On the other hand, Dana Stevens of Slate expressed the view that the events in the film were probably real, though possibly re-created or compressed to some extent.
Other reviewers, like New York magazine’s David Edelstein, freely admitted they didn’t know whether or not there was hoaxery in the film.

The Schulmans and Joost have emphatically denied any fakery. In fact, they insist, they weren’t even planning to make a feature documentary until they discovered Megan’s songs weren’t her own. They just wanted to film interesting events in Nev’s life. Once they decided to make the movie, they re-created only the computer screenshots.
Nev’s mom vouched for him. But then, so did James Frey’s mom.

If the filmmakers did any hoaxing in the production of Catfish, their film’s pivotal scene may prove its undoing. This month, Threshold Media filed a lawsuit against the filmmakers, their producers, and their distributors, maintaining that they should pay licensing fees for Amy Kuney’s “All Downhill From Here”. Schulman and Joost justified their inclusion of the song as fair use, since Catfish is a documentary. With the lawsuit, Threshold is basically challenging the film’s “documentary” status.

These days, who wouldn’t be jaded? We’ve been inundated by mockumentaries like Fubar and Incident at Loch Ness, recreated “reality” shows like Operation Repo (which airs, ironically, on TruTV), Hollywood thrillers “based on true stories” that never happened (The Fourth Kind), movies that convincingly blend truth with fantasy (The Social Network), and PR stunts cleverly disguised as home movies or nervous breakdowns (Lonelygirl15, the tantrum-throwing bride who hacked off her hair, Joaquin Pheonix). Not to mention the rash of “autobiographical” novels and phoney memoirs: Love and Consequences, Sarah, A Million Little Pieces/My Friend Leonard, An Angel at the Fence, Surviving with Wolves.
Then there are credible allegations that Michael Moore staged and fabricated incidents in his award-winning documentaries Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine. And a revealing statement by Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter of The Social Network: “My fidelity is to the story I’m telling, and not to the who, what, where, why of the story.”

So skepticism is definitely warranted. After reviewing the allegations against Catfish, however, I don’t think the Schulmans and Henry Joost perpetrated a full-on hoax. The deception at the core of the movie is real, in my opinion. The youthful inexperience of the filmmakers can account for many of the “red flags” noted by reviewers. It seems quite likely that in their determination to make a gripping first film, they left too much of their own skepticism and doubt on the cutting room floor, leaving audiences to believe they were either gullible buffoons or cruel hoaxers.

The most problematic issue surrounding Catfish remains its ethical dimensions. Thrusting an unbalanced, small-town housewife onto the international film scene is not without its risks, and Angela Wesselman-Pierce’s response to her celebrity has been mixed. She did not attend the film’s premiere at Sundance, and for several months declined to be interviewed. Her only media appearance was on 20/20 in October.

Other Online Teens
Two other fake teens bear mentioning here: Anthony Godby Johnson and Kaycee Nicole Swenson. Both were desperately ill teens created by middle-aged women.

Fake Teens VI: Online Teens

One of the following two stories ends in tragedy. The other ends somewhat happily for everyone. But both shine a bright light into the depths of online deception. I see these cases not so much as suspense thrillers (like the documentaries made about them), nor cautionary tales (as the media presents them), but as reminders of just how far a few people will go for attention.


Four years ago, two families and two innocent young people fell victim to the fantasy lives of two incredibly manipulative, unbalanced chat addicts.

In 2002, college student Brian Barrett began working at the Dynabrade factory in Clarence, New York, to help pay his tuition. A quiet and good-natured former athlete with wholesome good looks, the 18-year-old wanted to become a shop teacher. By 2006 he was studying industrial arts at Buffalo State.
Brian had an unlikely friendship with one of his co-workers, 45-year-old former Marine Thomas Montgomery. Tom had left the Marines as a young man with a drinking problem. When Brian Barrett met him, though, Tom was a dry, thoroughly reliable family man who taught Sunday school, volunteered on his daughters’ swim team, and had not so much as a speeding ticket on his record. He found his work as a machinist monotonous and uninspiring, but the pay was decent.
The only problem in Tom’s life was that he felt disappointed in himself, and craved more adventure. He started gambling and gaming online, and in mid-2005 he began chatting with a 17-year-old girl from West Virginia who called herself “Talhotblond” [sic]. Jessi sent him a few sexy photos of herself, and she was indeed tall, hot, and blond – perfect in every way.
Tom, who called himself “Marinesniper“, sent Jessi a 30-year-old photo of himself in uniform and told her he was 18-year-old “Tommy”, heading off to boot camp.

Jessi was an intriguing blend of woman and girl. She was an outrageous flirt and sent “Tommy” slideshows of herself posing provocatively in miniskirts and bikinis, but she lived with her parents and brother in the little town of Oakhill, West Virginia, where she played softball and basketball.
She and Tommy had cybersex and talked to each other on the phone daily.
Tom quickly fell in love. Not only with Jessi, but with his own online persona. He had given Tommy the Marine a chequered backstory: He hadn’t felt real love since his mother’s untimely death, and became a Marine to assuage his guilt over raping a girl when he was younger. Sometimes he felt suicidal.
Letters Tom Morgan wrote to himself in early 2006 indicate he was fantasizing about becoming the “good looking, battle hardened” Tommy, with a fake birth certificate and Social Security Number. Tommy would look like a redheaded Harrison Ford, sport a 9-inch penis, and have $2.5 million in the bank. He would have a black belt in karate.
Jessi called him her “sweet, sexy Marine”. On Christmas Day 2005, just six months after they met online, Tommy told her he was shipping off to Iraq and asked her to marry him on his return. She said yes.

Bizarrely, Tom also pretended to be “Tom Senior”, Tommy’s military dad. He chatted with Jessie online when his son was unavailable in Iraq, and shipped Jessi’s snail mail to him via “military contacts”.
When Tommy flipped out over Jessi flirting with other guys online, Tom Sr. was angry with her too, because his son really cared for her and would believe her “lying ass”. He remained angry with Jessi long after his “son” forgave her.

When Tommy, facing death in Iraq, lapsed into suicidal depression, Jessi coaxed him out of it.

By the summer of 2006, the guilt was getting to Tom Montgomery. He had an anxiety attack that he mistook for a heart attack. He tried to stay offline, but that made him even more anxious.
His wife of 17 years, Cindy, had been suspicious for a while, asking questions about who Tom was chatting with for hours. He gave her vague, reassuring answers that comforted neither of them.
Then Cindy discovered one of Jessi’s photos, sent by mail along with a pair of panties, and the jig was up. She was deeply weirded out that her husband was posing as a soldier (and a soldier’s dad) to seduce a girl not much older than their daughters.
She fired off a letter to the girl, explaining that “Tommy” was a 46-year-old married man. She warned Jessi to be more cautious online so she wouldn’t again be hurt by someone who had “mastered the art of manipulation and lies”. She enclosed a Montgomery family photo.

Jessi was just as shocked and wounded as Cindy. She demanded to know why Tom had deceived her. Incredibly, though, their relationship didn’t end. Jessi either wanted to learn more about the real Tom, or she wanted to get even: She turned to one of Tom’s online friends – Brian Barrett (“beefcake”). Soon, she began sending Brian photos of herself and calling him “Sexy”, an instant replay of her romance with Tommy. They fell in love, sort of.
Jessi threw her new “relationship” with his young coworker in Tom’s face, praising Brian’s honesty. Of course he realized she was trying to make him jealous, but as soon as she re-initiated contact, Tom knew he wanted her back. He apologized for his lies again and again, pleading for a second chance.

On the surface, Brian and Jessi were a good match. They both loved playing sports, and he was just a few years older than she was. Best of all, Brian wasn’t a middle-aged dad posing as a suicidal teenager. But Jessi craved drama and risk, just like Tom. She finally agreed to resume her relationship with Tom, on one condition: He had to continue pretending he was the 18-year-old Marine she had agreed to marry. “Don’t let Tommy die,” she begged him. At first, Tom refused. That’s when Jessi and Brian began taunting him in the online game chats, calling him a loser and a predator. The harassment amused Brian for a while, but then he began to feel Jessi was taking it too far. He could see a vindictive, manipulative side to her that didn’t appeal to him at all.

By this time, of course, the camaraderie between Tom and Brian was at an end. Brian was creeped out by Tom’s pursuit of a girl young enough to be his daughter, and Tom was extraordinarily bitter that Brian had chosen Jessi over their friendship. More than that, he was threatened. How could he possibly compete with a single guy in his early twenties? He was anchored to a home and family, while Brian could do pretty much as he pleased.
This hit home hard when Brian accepted Jessi’s invitation to visit her in West Virginia. Tom wrote to him, “tell ur little whore to stay the fuck out of my life.”
Before Brian packed his bags, however, Jessi broke it off. She accused him of only being interested in sex. She drifted back to Tom and tried to woo him, but he was still furious with her. “You mean shit to me these days,” he wrote.
She was finally able to melt him somewhat by writing, “U and only U are my connection to Tommy and I will love him till I die.”
Their renewed friendship was an uneasy one, clouded by Tom’s overwhelming hatred for Brian. In one chilling exchange, Tom claimed he had come very close to actually murdering Brian.

Tom: “I hate him with a passion and for 10 cents I would eliminate him.”
Jessi: “that’s a little drastic isn’t it”
Tom: “payback is a motherfucker, Jessi. I am the ultimate weapon. I am a Marine.”
Jessi: “what are u going to do?”
Tom: “Let’s just say ur piece of shit boyfriend came with a hair of dying… the day after U 2 assholes told me you were fucking with me… had I pulled a little harder he would gone… Brian will pay in blood.”

Now for the average person, declarations like “he will pay in blood” would be alarm bells. Not for Jessi. Tom’s fury and threats of homicide only drew her closer to him. She pledged never to betray him again, and began having cybersex with “Tommy” again.
But Jessi’s promises didn’t last long. Very soon, she was flirting with other guys on the online chats right under Tom’s nose.
Finally, Tom had enough. He ordered Jessi to leave him alone, or he’d physically harm her and her mother. (Earlier, he had threatened to post Jessi’s home address online so “the niggers can find you”.) This is when Jessi’s mom appeared online for the first time. She told Tom to keep away from her daughter. He agreed.
Two weeks later, Jessi was back in his life. “I have totally defied my ma to be with you,” she wrote.

While renewing her ties with Tom, Jessi began writing to Brian again, too. Tom discovered this through Myspace and was enraged. He wrote to her, “U will pay now bitch. U better be very afraid now. I told u what would happen if u and Brian got together.”

Jessi informed Brian that Tom was furious with both of them, and that’s as far as it went. Authorities weren’t notified about the repeated threats against Brian, Jessi, and Jessi’s mother at any time. Privately, though, Jessi and Brian expressed concern about Tom’s anger. Brian mentioned that Tom had tried to hit him with his car in the Dynabrade parking lot.

Jessi: “Brian I am really afraid of him.”
Brian: “Yea me too he’s crazy”

On September 15, 2006, Tom phoned Jessi to scream in an incoherent rage. She hung up on him.

That night, Brian finished work around 10:00 PM and headed out to his truck. When he was in the driver’s seat, Tom snuck up on him from behind and fired three shots from a .38-calibre rifle through the window. Because it was a Friday, Brian’s body remained undiscovered for two days.

When police learned about the sick love triangle and couldn’t locate Tom Montgomery, they feared the worst: He could be on his way to West Virginia to harm Jessi. Erie County Lieutenant Ron Kenyon phoned the girl immediately, informing her of Brian’s death and warning her to be cautious. Then he dispatched West Virginia police to her home.When Officer J. L. Kirk and a partner arrived at the little white house in Oakhill, Jessi’s mother answered the door. Mary Shieler already knew about Brian’s murder and seemed distressed about the situation, yet claimed her daughter wasn’t home.
“She was just here,” Kirk pointed out.
Something about Shieler’s attitude triggered his suspicion. After some fruitless back-and-forth, he asked her bluntly if she was “Jessi”.
The woman explained she did have a teen daughter named Jessi, who really wasn’t at home. But, yes, she was the Jessi known to Tom Montgomery and Brian Barrett.
Later, Mary would claim she never had any intention of disrupting her “happy” marriage for either of these men. With her kids nearly grown and Tim at work, she was lonely and bored. She cast herself in something like a heroic role, telling reporters she played along with Montgomery merely to keep him away from actual teen girls. And Brian Barrett? Well, he just got caught in the middle.

Mary Shieler was a 45-year-old housewife, known in her community as a devoted wife and mom. She went to all of Jessi’s games and volunteered at her daughter’s school. Mother and daughter were reportedly quite close, shopping and getting manicures together. Mary was clearly very proud of her lovely daughter, and spared no expense when it came to Jessi.
No one knew that the photos she continuously took of Jessi were being distributed to strangers over the Internet. Her husband, Tim, was mortified when he learned what she had done. He quickly filed for divorce.
Jessi was equally appalled. Mary never apologized to her, nor attempted to explain her actions. Jessi severed all ties with her mother.

Tom Montgomery, as it turned out, didn’t head for West Virginia. He remained at home, and on September 18 was taken in for questioning by Erie County Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Weiss and Detective Charles Tirone. He was shocked and upset to learn that his beloved, virginal Jessi was really a 45-year-old mother of two.
Tom said he took his two daughters, 12 and 14, out to dinner on the night Brian was murdered, and returned home at 10:15. His daughters supported his alibi, but Lisa Montgomery stated Tom arrived home around 11:00. That left plenty of time for Tom to go to the plant in Clarence and shoot his rival.
Worse yet, Tom’s cell phone records placed him near the plant around 10:00.
He denied owning a .38 rifle, even though a photo of it was discovered in his home along with a .38 handbook.
His DNA was found on a peach pit left near Barrett’s vehicle. He had purchased a bag of peaches shortly before the murder.

Charged with Brian’s murder on September 27, Montgomery pled not guilty. Initially, he said Brian had several other enemies who made threatening phone calls to him at work.
But he had no real defense other than the word of his two young daughters. In July 2007, he took a plea deal: 20 years for manslaughter.
He attempted to change his plea again at his sentencing.

Brian Barrett’s parents, Dan and Deb Barrett, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Montgomery, Shieler, and Dynabrade. After the suit was dismissed, they campaigned for the development of “Internet accountability laws”.

In 2009 the documentary TalHotBlond, produced and directed by reporter Barbara Schroeder, aired on MSNBC. The instant message excerpts above were taken from that film.
Some of the more disturbing details were left out of the film, including Montgomery’s impersonation of “Tom Senior”, Montgomery’s racist threat to Jessi, and “Tommy’s” confession of raping a cheerleader.

Other Sources:

– “An IM Infatuation Turned to Romance, Then the Truth Came Out” by Nadya Labi. (Wired issue 15.09)
– “Thomas Montgomery: Bizarre Love Triangle” by Kristal Hawkins ( Crime Library)

Online Teens Part II

Spoiler warning: Part II of this post contain complete spoilers for the film Catfish.

Fake Teens V: Serial Teen Frederic Bourdin

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.

The End?

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“.

No one was ever charged in the disappearance of Nicholas Barclay. He remains missing, as do Till Kratzsch and Leo Balley.

Fake Teens IV: Serial Teen Treva Throneberry

The next two fake teens in this series were “serial teens”, people who posed as teenagers over and over again in multiple locations for reasons that are barely comprehensible.

Treva vs. Brianna

In the spring of 1997, a teenager turned up at Glad Tidings Church in Vancouver, Washington. She was a tall, solidly built girl with brown hair plaited into old-fashioned braids. She said her name was Brianna Stewart, she was 16 years old, and she was homeless. She had been on her own for two or three years, hitchhiking from state to state in search of her biological father. All she knew was that he lived somewhere in the Northwest.
Her mother had been murdered when she was just a small girl, Brianna said (later, she told a boyfriend her stepfather was the killer). This left her in the care of her tyrannical, sadistic stepfather, a Navajo Indian who tortured her, molested her, anf forced her to appear in child porn he produced. Thanks to his close ties with local police, he was beyond the law. That’s why Brianna ran away from Alabama.
This story moved the heart of a church secretary, Debbie Fisher. She and her husband, Randy, immediately offered Brianna a place in their home. That autumn, Brianna enrolled as a sophomore at Evergreen High School, where she gained sympathy and respect as a former street kid with a dark, violent past. Aside from the unusual braids and her habit of wearing bib overalls, Brianna seemed like a wholly normal teen. She was a bit klutzy and awkward. Her grades weren’t remarkable. She joined the school tennis team, hung out at the mall, and won a walk-on part in the Evergreen production of Man of la Mancha. She loved Romeo + Juliet and moony poetry. Soon she had an adoring boyfriend, 15-year-old football player and aspiring actor Ken Dunn. He accompanied Brianna to Glad Tidings with her foster family every Sunday morning, drove her wherever she wanted to go in his ’78 El Camino, and listened for hours to stories of her troubled life. He described their love as “the perfect teenage romance.” For Christmas, he gave her a silver ring engraved with “I love thee”.

Brianna and Ken at an Evergreen school dance

The stories Brianna told the Fishers were astonishing to a straight-laced, Christian couple. Her stepfather was the high priest of a Satanic cult outside Mobile, and before she broke away from him he had been training Brianna to become the high priestess. He impregnated her when she was barely a teen, and she miscarried after he shoved her down a flight of stairs.
Somewhere in the Midwest, she had volunteered to work on a senator‘s re-election campaign. That man also got her pregnant.
Brianna told Ken that some of her stepfather’s cronies knew her whereabouts and were following her, which terrified him.
She also told stories of her stepfather running guns from the Ivory Coast and trafficking in drugs. She talked of an albino grandfather from Romania. She said she had found a man named Michael Stewart living in Aloha, Washington, and contacted him in the hope he was her real dad. He wasn’t, and he turned out to be almost as deranged as her stepdad. He kept Brianna prisoner in his home for two months, drugging her with crack.
Her greatest desire, Brianna told everyone, was to finally have a normal life.

Brianna was too afraid of her stepfather to report his crimes, but she would see justice served for one horrific event in her life. Shortly before she found Glad Tidings, Brianna had reported being raped by a middle-aged security guard named Charles Blankenship.
In March of 1998, Blankenship would be convicted and sentenced to a year for statutory rape.

Brianna’s normal new life in Washington was nearly perfect until the middle of her junior year. That’s when the first suspicion about her age was voiced, by a dentist who found it odd that Brianna’s wisdom teeth were already gone. Ken and the Fishers confronted her, and she responded with such angry indignation that they left the subject alone.
She became accusatory toward the people around her, showing a strong paranoid streak; friends were spreading rumours behind her back, teachers weren’t giving her the grades she deserved, Ken thought he was too good for her after snagging the lead in Fiddler on the Roof. All of her relationships eroded. She argued viciously with the Fishers over chores. They asked her to leave their home in May 1998. She was placed in foster care. Again, a dental exam led to questions about her true age, and social worker Jan Shaffer confronted her. Brianna responded with the same fiery indignation, firing off a letter to the state Department of Social and Health Services. She wrote, “I feel that remaining in foster care is not safe for my physical, mental and emotional well-being. I feel that I have been abused by the very system that I asked for help.”

In the autumn of ’98, Brianna was taken in by another local family, David and Theresa Gambetta. Five months later, her paranoid streak re-emerged with a vengeance. She accused David of placing mini-cameras in the lightbulbs to spy on her. Gambetta was cleared of any wrongdoing, and Brianna was homeless once again.

In May, Portland, Washington police officer Richard Braskette and his wife Virginia took Brianna into their home. Just like the Fishers and the Gambettas, they were moved by her helplessness and felt they could give the girl some of the stability she needed to succeed in life. After all, she wasn’t your average street kid. Throughout all the turmoil of her junior and senior years, Brianna had tenaciously held on to her dreams. She wanted to become an attorney and a children’s rights advocate, so she would have to earn her way through college. That meant finding some way to acquire a Social Security Number, without a birth certificate or any other form of government ID. She wrote letters to reporters, victims’ rights advocates, even the governor and Montel in search of assistance. Because Brianna didn’t know her place of birth, no one could help. She said the FBI had tried and failed to find any proof of her identity (which turned out to be false). Finally, she sued the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, demanding they issue her a birth certificate.

In late 1999, still desperately seeking proof of her identity, Brianna traveled to a town she suspected could be her birthplace: Daphne, Alabama. Friends donated money for the trip. She said that her memories prior to age 4 were extremely hazy, and she wasn’t entirely sure Brianna was her true name. Some therapists suspected she was suffering some form of traumatic amnesia. Brianna herself suspected she may have been abducted by the people she knew as her parents.
A local police officer toured Daphne with Brianna, helping her search for places she might remember. A few spots looked familiar to her, but no relatives or documents surfaced. The trip was a bust.
Brianna also traveled to Montana to investigate the possibility she was a girl who had gone missing in 1983.
Throughout this trying time, Brianna received strong moral support from her school counselor, members of her church, and Evan Burton, an advocate at a Portland drop-in center called Greenhouse.

In June 2000, Brianna joyfully graduated from Evergreen High with the rest of her class. She began scouting prospective colleges, though her identity issue was far from resolved.
For help with that, she turned to the law. A Vancouver lawyer petitioned the government on her behalf, while Portland attorney Mark McDougal apparently worked on her case pro bono, perhaps happy to do a favour for a plucky, hard-luck kid.

Excellent news came from the Vancouver attorney: A deputy state attorney general said the state wouldn’t oppose Brianna’s petition for a birth certificate, if she appeared at a court hearing scheduled for March 2001. The end of her long, hard-fought battle was in sight.
Then the other lawyer, McDougal, made a simple request that should have been made much earlier in the game; he asked that Brianna be fingerprinted so he could submit her prints to the FBI.

The results of that one simple request brought Brianna Stewart’s tireless campaign to a halt…almost. Her fingerprints matched those of Stephanie Danielle Lewis, a woman arrested in Altoona, Pennsylvania in 1996.
And “Stephanie Lewis” was really Treva Joyce Throneberry, a 31-year-old Texas native.

Brianna insisted the FBI had made a mistake. Frustrated and angry, she went to Greenhouse and told Evan Burton the whole story.
Burton had stood by this girl during her struggle to make a normal life for herself, but now the vague doubts at the back of his mind burst to the fore. Something was very wrong with this picture. Brianna did look much older than 18. And if she was in her 30s, as the FBI claimed, that meant Charles Blankenship had been convicted of statutory rape for having sex with a full-grown woman.
Burton called the police.

Detective Scott Smith, the same officer who arrested Charles Blankship two years earlier, was assigned to the Brianna Stewart case. Piece by piece, he put together the story of a fragmented life that began in Electra, Texas and traced a jagged trail through numerous states before landing in Vancouver, Washington. Nothing about this life was simple.

Unlike Brianna Stewart, Treva Throneberry was not from Alabama. She had siblings. She knew her natural father.
Treva was born to Carl and Patsy Throneberry in 1969, the youngest of five kids (one son, four daughters). They were raised in Electra, Texas, where Carl made a modest living as an oilfield truck driver.
As a teen, Treva played on the high school tennis team and waitressed part-time at the Whistle Stop drive-in. She was quiet, sweet, good-natured. She was also unusually devout, reading from her Bible at every opportunity and attending services at a Pentacostal church that her parents considered cult-like.
She occasionally exhibited signs of paranoia or a deceptive nature even then. Her niece recalled Treva waking her in the middle of the night with a strange story about a gun-toting intruder lurking in the house, which wasn’t true at all.
In December of 1985, 16-year-old Treva walked into the Electra police station and reported that Carl had raped her at gunpoint. This was the first of many rape allegations she would make.
Treva’s sisters and niece say they, and Treva, were sexually abused for years by their late uncle, but insist Carl Throneberry would never have done such a thing. Carl and Patsy believed the “cult” had somehow manipulated the girl into accusing her father.
The three older girls married as teens, putting themselves beyond their uncle’s reach.

Treva was placed in the foster home of Witchita Falls schoolteacher Sharon Gentry. She appeared deeply disturbed, knocking her head against walls in her sleep and speaking frequently of suicide. She also told bizarre tales of being abducted by a Satanic cult, lashed to a stake, and forced to witness the ritual sacrifice of cats and dogs. She would later tell similar stories to her sister, Kim, but replaced the animals with human babies.
Treva was soon committed to Witchita Falls State Hospital. She never received a definite diagnosis. After six months of treatment, she was placed in the Lena Pope Home for Girls in Fort Worth, and enrolled as a senior at Arlington Heights High. She graduated in June ’87.
The charges against Carl Throneberry were ultimately dropped for lack of evidence.
Treva briefly visited her sisters the year after her graduation. They wouldn’t see her face again for 13 years, when it appeared on TV and in newspapers.

During that time, Treva wandered from state to state, depending on the charity of strangers for shelter and food. Only two things remained constant in her life: She never used the same name twice, and she was always a runaway teenager. The details of her sad, disturbing stories varied, but there was always hideous family violence and rape involved. Sometimes there were cults that butchered children and animals. Detective Smith charted her peregrinations as thoroughly as he could, but there would always be gaps in the record of Treva’s odd existence.

– 1992: 19-year-old “Keili Smitt” lived with a family she met at a church in Corvallis, Oregon. She told police she was on the run from her father, who had caught up to her once and raped her in his car. Keili left town before the man was located.
– 1993: A teen girl surfaced in Portland, Washington and reported that her father, a local police officer, had raped her. She vanished before the investigation was complete.
– 1994: “Cara Leanne Davis” arrived in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, after fleeing her father’s violent Satanic cult.
– 1995: 16-year-old “Kara Williams” told social workers and police in Plano, Texas about her life in a Satanic cult. She had been forced to pray to Satan every night, and was told she would someday drown in a lake of fire. Most of her childhood friends had been ritually sacrificed. Her father, a Colleyville police officer, had gotten away with murdering her mother. “There was nothing in her behavior or presentation to suggest that she was knowingly misrepresenting the facts,” a psychologist observed.
Kara was placed in several foster homes and youth shelters while social workers scoured the area for her monstrous father. She attended three different high schools. In an effort to help her settle down to something resembling normalcy, her caseworker bought a new tennis racket for her.
In September, a youth home staff member grew suspicious of Kara and uncovered the fact that she was 26-year-old Treva Throneberry. Despite her tearful protests that she was not Treva, a court discharged her from government care.
– 1996: 16-year-old “Emily Kharra Williams” told police in Asheville, North Carolina, she was running from a Satanic cult in Texas.
Later that year, 16-year-old “Stephanie Lewis” told an assistant district attorney in Altoona, Pennsylvania that she was on the run from an abusive Satanic cult to which her father belonged. She was lodged in a local youth home, where a caseworker discovered papers linking her to people in Texas and to her true identity. Charged with giving false information, Treva spent nine days in jail.

Back in Texas, a weird rumour surfaced that Treva had been killed in the Branch Davidian conflagration. Sharon Gentry sent her dental records to Waco to ascertain if Treva was among the dead.

On March 22, 2001, just days before the court hearing that would help make Brianna Stewart a legal adult, Treva Throneberry was arrested at the Portland YMCA and charged with theft and perjury. She had defrauded the foster care system, the courts, and Evergreen High for nearly four years.
Her former classmates, teachers, and caregivers were stunned. She had seemed so average: average grades, average tennis skills, average tastes. Ken Dunn, then employed at Disney World, was boggled to realize that his Sadie Hawkins date had been pushing 30. He had begun to doubt Brianna’s incredible stories when she accused David Gambetta of spying on her with cameras, and he had gently questioned her about her age after that first suspicion was aired by Brianna’s dentist, but he had no idea she wasn’t a teenager.
Charles Blankenship was probably relieved. The “minor” he had confessed to having sex with had really been 28, and his conviction was erased.

Once again, Treva vehemently insisted she was not Treva Throneberry. She rejected every piece of evidence. She insisted on a DNA test to prove she wasn’t the child of Carl and Patsy Throneberry, which of course showed an extremely high likelihood (99.93%) that she was. Even this result she denied. She refused a plea deal that would have given her a short sentence (2 years) in exchange for a confession. Nor would she allow her court-appointed attorneys to argue that she was delusional; she fired them rather than use such a defense.

At her November trial, Clark County senior deputy prosecutor Michael Kinnie argued that Treva was far from delusional. She was a skilled, cunning conwoman.
Kenneth Muscatel, the psychologist hired by the court to examine Treva, concluded she was disturbed yet competent to stand trial.
Treva’s mission in life remained the same: To prove she was Brianna Stewart, 19. In her Clark County jailhouse cell, she hit the law books hard.

“Brianna” often showed up for court with her hair in two braids. She represented herself to the best of her ability.

Sharon Gentry traveled from Texas to testify for the prosecution. She presented photos of a younger Treva and herself on vacation, and Treva examined them before calmly declaring it wasn’t her. She then asked her former foster mother what Treva was like. Gentry’s heart turned over as she described a polite, hard-working, “wonderful” young woman. It seems Treva couldn’t resist the opportunity to learn what others thought of her.
“Was Treva smart?” she asked.
Gentry replied that Treva studied hard and received good grades.
Other witnesses testified to Brianna’s eagerness to establish her identify so she could get an education and become financially independent, but no one testified that she was who she said she was. No one, except perhaps Treva herself, believed that.

Treva was convicted, and judge Robert Harris regretfully sentenced her to three years. He would prefer to send her to a state hospital for treatment, he explained, but the Washington prison system was already overtaxed with mentally ill prisoners.

Treva’s family had more or less given up on her. They found their own ways to comfort themselves after her story hit the media. Patsy firmly believed that Treva had attended her grandmother’s funeral in 1998, disguised as an old woman. Carl claimed that Treva had phoned him a few times over the years, pretending to be someone else, just to touch base with him.

Upon her release from prison in 2003, Treva remained in Washington as Brianna Stewart and continued her fight to be recognized as the girl she had created. She appeared on ABC’s Primetime program, sans braids, to explain that the DNA tests had been flawed.

“Brianna” has not spoken publicly since then, but online comments such as one by “concerned friend” argue that the court covered up evidence of Brianna’s identity. It is entirely possible that “Brianna Stewart” herself wrote them.

Fake Teens Part III: Predatory Fake Teens

Our next four fake teens had darker motives than just recapturing their lost youth.

Two-Time Mormon

In 1994, a young Mormon known (by request) only as Jessica was serving her church mission in Santa Monica when she met a sad and bedraggled homeless boy, 15-year-old Scott Davion. He said he had left his home state, New York, to travel the country. Someone in the Dakotas had advised him to go to L.A., he said.
Jessica’s family in had taken in needy people before, as good LDS members are wont to do, so Jessica told her new friend Scott to go to SLC and call on her mother, Charmayne.
Charmayne and her husband became surrogate parents to the boy, enrolling him Cottonwood High. He was an excellent student, as well as a popular one. He dated several girls and went to the prom. He was also baptized into the LDS church. His foster family helped him procure a Social Security card so he could get a job, and in 1998 he got his own apartment and began work at a computer company called Elite Systems. By the middle of 2000 he had worked his way up to the sales floor. He had a steady girlfriend.

This is where Scott’s life went off the rails. Before the end of the year, everyone in his circle of adopted family and friends knew he was really 32-year-old Kenneth Lickiss from Lethbridge, Alberta. He had already been a Mormon long before meeting Jessica; he served his own mission in Poland.
Elite Systems employees had discovered that computers were being sold out of the shop on the sly, and it didn’t take them long to figure out that Scott was the likeliest culprit. As soon as the police caught on, “Scott” convinced his girlfriend to move with him to his parents’ home in Lethbridge. Needless to say, she figured out he was a lot older than 19 and that his name was not Scott Davion. She returned to SLC solo.

Kenneth remained on the run for a year. Then, in 2001, he confessed his entire scam to a co-worker at a tire store in Mason County, Washington. He was hastily extradited back to Utah to face an array of theft and forgery charges, but there were no charges for posing as a teenager for four years.
In the comments section of this post, someone identifying herself as Lickiss’ sister-in-law informs me that Lickiss never worked at a tire store in Mason County. Rather, he turned himself in after spending time with his family in Canada. A Deseret News story of December 8, 2004 states that Lickiss was arrested in Mason County and was “reportedly” employed at a tire store there.

A Sweet Boy

In 2003, 16-year-old Pia Marcelo of Renton, Washington, began chatting online with an 18-year-old boy named Mark Villaneuva. He was sweet. He had soulful dark eyes and pouty lips. He cried over sad songs and seemed a lot more sensitive than your average teenage boy. Maybe that was because he had suffered so much in his short life; his dad had killed himself, his mom died of cancer. In 2005, Pia convinced her mother to let him live with the Marcelo family, and he became like a brother to Pia and her siblings. Everyone teased him about how shy, modest, and awkward he could be. Then they saw a less cuddly side of Mark. He never seemed to repay loans, and even stole some blank checks. Finally, the Marcelos tired of his scamming and turfed him.

In late 2005, a 13-year-old girl in Everett, Washington began dating a cute older boy. He was cool. He liked hip-hop and was a mall rat. He said he was all alone in the world, without a home; his dad killed himself, and his mom died of cancer. So the girl convinced her mother to let him live in their duplex. He shared a room with her younger brother.
The relationship quickly turned violent. Mark was jealous and abusive, hitting or biting his girlfriend on a routine basis. Perhaps to make sure she didn’t spend time with any other guys, he showed up at her middle school every afternoon and waited patiently for her in the office so he could drive her home in his secondhand car.
Mark was charged with fourth-degree domestic assault for biting and punching her, but the charges were dismissed when he agreed to undergo domestic violence treatment.
The young couple had unprotected sex.
In April 2005, when they had been dating for about 18 months, Mark was pulled over by a police officer at a gas station. Sgt. Robert Goetz peered into the car and asked the girl, who was in the passenger seat, why she was with “this woman”.
“That’s my boyfriend,” the 14-year-old replied.

“Mark” was promptly arrested. Not only was he driving on a suspended license, which is why Goetz pulled him over, but he was not actually a 19-year-old boy. He was Lorelei Corpuz, a 29-year-old woman who drifted from household to household, writing bad checks and mooching cash. (She also received handouts from her mother, who was alive and well.)

The Duke

At the start of the 2005-06 school year at Stillwater Area High School in the small town of Oak Park Heights, Minnesota, a strange English kid visited the school several times. He said he was the Fifth Duke of Cleveland, Caspian James Crichton-Stuart IV, resident of Falkland Castle and personal friend of the royal family. Princess Di used to babysit him. He spoke of hobknobbing with Josh Hartnett and Hilary Duff, and breezily mentioned that he was considering joining the plebes by transferring to Stillwater, presumably from some posh UK boarding school.
You might think think this kid’s Google finger was broken, because Wikipedia clearly states that the Fourth Duke of Cleveland’s titles “went extinct upon his death without issue” in 1891. But skeptical student reporters for Stillwater High’s Pony Express newspaper found that someone had created a Wikipedia page for Caspian James Crichton-Stuart IV, and that person was Joshua Gardner.
Joshua Gardner, it turned out, was a 22-year-old who had been convicted of criminal sexual conduct with an underage girl two years earlier, and was still on parole.
In jail, Gardner told The Today Show, “Becoming Caspian, I was given respect, and people… don’t look at you in that way that they would look at a sex offender.”
Clearly, Gardner doesn’t have the mental agility to successfully impersonate…well, anyone. The most disturbing aspect of the incident is that Stillwater High staff accepted his story at face value and gave him tours of the school, introducing him to students as a 17-year-old duke. Apparently their Google fingers were broken.

The Bait

One of the most complex and disturbing fake teen cases is that of Neil Rodreick II. Unlike every other “teen” you’ll see in this series, he did not act alone.

In January 2007, staff at Mingus Springs Charter School in Chino Valley, Arizona, were growing deeply alarmed about the transcripts of a new student, 12-year-old Casey Price. On some of the documents provided by his grandfather, Lonnie Stiffler, his name was misspelled “Casy”, and much of the information about his educational background had been fabricated. Though his birth certificiate was supposedly German, it didn’t feature metric measurements. Stiffler had listed his attorney as W.A. Drew Edmondson, then Attorney General of Oklahoma. And he had misspelled the name.
Though Casey spoke and behaved like any other seventh grader, everyone at Mingus Springs thought he looked much older than 12.
Fearing that Casey could be an older, abducted child, the school notified the sheriff’s department. Casey was taken out of class by a deputy.

Casey lived with his grandfather, uncle, and cousin in a three-bedroom trailer home in Chino Valley, where he set up a ramp for skateboarding and rode his bike up and down the street. Before enrolling at Mingus Springs, he attended Imagine Charter School in nearby Surprise for four months, and was expelled for poor attendance. His schoolwork had been mediocre, his manner shy and withdrawn.

Detectives Ross Diskin and Tom Buvik of the Chino Valley Police promptly paid a visit to the trailer home on Del Rio Drive, accompanied by Yavapai sheriff’s deputies. Cousin Brian, Uncle Robert, and Grandpa Lonnie were all at home, watching porn together.
Though the men lived in modest circumstances, Casey’s room was stocked with a flat-screen TV, DVD player, game system, and personal computer. He looked like one spoiled kid.
Lonnie Stiffler explained he had legal custody of his youngest grandson, Casey. His oldest grandson, Brian, was 34. Robert Snow was his nephew. He awkwardly insisted that the documents he handed over to the school were authentic, even when the investigators pointed out misspellings and the names of nonexistent people.
“Uncle Robert”, 43, gave confused and confusing answers to questions. He said he wasn’t sure if he ever had custody of his nephew Casey or not. “I have been told that I have and I’ve also seen paperwork that looks just like that indicating that I supposedly had custody of him,” he told the investigators, who were already aware Snow was an unregistered sex offender. They were planning to arrest him.
Snow explained, in a vague and rambling manner, that Linda Price (living in Germany) had handed custody of her son over to the family to protect him from a “large group of sexual predators”, a “special group of people” who had apparently been pursuing Casey since he was a young child. For this reason, Casey had been enrolled at one Arizona school under the name “Casey Rodreick”.
The story gradually meandered into even weirder territory. Snow admitted that he and Lonnie Stiffler weren’t related to the boy at all. They had met Casey online while Casey and Linda were living in Oklahoma, and offered to take care of him when Linda decided to move back to Germany two years earlier. The custody changeover had been facilitated, bizarrely, by a U.S. Marshall named Mike Masters, described by Snow as “a friend of Casey”. Stiffler and Snow never met Linda or Casey’s brothers.
Stiffler then admitted Casey was not his grandson. He was, indeed, an Oklahoma boy he and Robert Snow had met online, and Linda Price had given him permission to visit his “friends” in Arizona.
Ultimately, both Snow and Stiffler confessed to committing sexual acts with 12-year-old Casey.

“Cousin Brian’s” story was much different. He claimed he began taking care of Casey three or four years earlier, while he was attending college in Oklahoma. The boy’s father, Neil Rodreick, had abandoned him. In 2004, Casey ran away from their home in El Mirage to live with Stiffler and Snow. Brian followed.
Brian Nellis, too, was an unregistered sex offender, convicted of molesting a 7-year-old, but denied molesting Casey.

Meanwhile, Casey confided to a deputy he felt uncomfortable around Snow because “he acts gay around me”. He feared that Robert was taking advantage of him sexually while he was asleep. Child Protective Services was summoned to the trailer.
That’s when Brian Nellis blurted out that Casey wasn’t a boy at all – he was a 29-year-old man.

It sounded like the stupidest story yet, but it was true. The investigators learned that “Casey Price” was Neil Rodreick II, a 29-year-old ex-con from Oklahoma. He was released from prison in 2002, having served 7 years of a 10-year sentence for making lewd and indecent proposals to two 6-year-old boys when he was 18.

Rodreick lived rootlessly after his release, drifting from Oklahoma to his an aunt’s home in California. She kicked him out after just two months because, she said, he used her computer to access child porn. He returned to Oklahoma and became roomies with another ex-con a few years older than himself, Brian Nellis. Nellis had done 3 years for lewd molestation. The two pedophiles allegedly worked as a team to observe and attract little boys, lurking around playgrounds and schools in their spare time. At some point, one or both men came up with the idea of having the youthful-looking Neil, then in his mid-20s, pose as a kid.
Rodreick first tested this out at a church in El Reno, Oklahoma, pretending to be a 12-year-old named Casey. The ruse was successful; he befriended at least two young boys, spending the night at one child’s house and taking a trip to the Grand Canyon with an 11-year-old under the supervision of his “Uncle Brian”. He allegedly molested this boy.

In 2005, the duo came under investigation by El Reno police when their computer was repossessed and the new owner found a huge cache of child pornography on the hard drive; 150 videos and over 1,000 images were recovered.
By the time Lieutenant Van Gillock learned about the church imposture, Rodreick and Nellis were already on the road. They had convinced Lonnie Stiffler to take them in. Rodreick had been communicating online with Stiffler and his companion, Robert Snow, for a couple of years. They had been trolling for young boys on the ‘Net, and Rodreick presented himself to them as a preteen boy. Stiffler sent money to Rodreick on several occasions.

To this day, it isn’t known if Stiffler and Snow realized the “boy” they lured to Arizona with his “cousin Brian” was really a grown man, or if they were fully aware of his age and planned to use him as bait to lure actual kids. Though Stiffler had no record of sex offenses, Snow had one conviction in California.
Rodreick and Nellis set up housekeeping with the two older men, and they all agreed to pose as a family. Neil entered into a sexual threesome with Stiffler and Snow.
Shortly after their arrival, Neil enrolled as Casey Price at the Shelby School in Payson. He was a student there for 21 days. He tried to enter a Prescott Valley school before being enrolled at Imagine Charter School by an “uncle”. He would later be charged with assaulting one girl at this school.
After his expulsion, someone made the fateful decision to enroll him in the Chino Valley school, where his smooth face didn’t pass muster and his wonky transcripts immediately raised suspicions.

When they were arrested, Stiffler and Snow both expressed outrage and shock that Neil wasn’t really a kid. They professed to believe he was a parentless boy.

Little is known of Neil Rodreick’s real background. His California aunt has told reporters he was molested as a child, and his mother died when he was 14.

All four men were arrested and slapped with numerous charges, including fraud and failing to register as sex offenders. Child porn was found in the house they shared.
Rodreick pled guilty to child exploitation, assault, failure to register as a sexual offender, and fraud. Last year, he received the maximum sentence of 70.5 years. Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Thomas Lindberg commented that he should have been given an even longer one.

Fake Teens Part II: Brian MacKinnon and Other Fake Students

Close, but no degree

Like the career criminal James Hogue, Brian MacKinnon of Scotland tried to recapture lost opportunities by impersonating a high school student. He just wasn’t terribly good at it.

From boyhood, Brian wanted to be a doctor. And at the age of 18 he was on his way, leaving Bearsden Academy in East Dunbartonshire to enroll in the medical course at Glasgow University. The year was 1980.
MacKinnon claims he became very ill with mono and coxsackie his first winter at university. Fatigued, he fell behind in his studies and failed all his major exams the following spring. He also claims Dean Edward McGirr kindly offered him a second chance, but McGirr wasn’t dean until 1992. At any rate, neither his health nor his grades showed any improvement the following term. MacKinnon was expelled.
In 1986 he began working toward a science degree, in the hopes of successfully re-applying for med school. Those hopes were smacked down when he failed an important chemistry exam. He continued to study, living with his mother and terminally ill father in a Bearsden council flat.

By 1993, 30-year-old MacKinnon despaired of ever getting back into med school by conventional means. His own account of his troubles reads like something out of Dickens; illness, poor circumstances, horribly unfair professors. He had been banished most cruelly from the halls of learning, without recourse.
So it was only fair that he forge some transcripts and re-enroll at Bearsden Academy as a 17-year-old boy.
While MacKinnon’s tale brims with the sadness of the dejected scholar, the details of his fraud show the distinct mark of the Hollywood-obsessed fantasist. He chose the name “Brandon Lee”, and made Brandon’s late father a professor of zoology, his mother an opera singer. Fortunately for MacKinnon, no one at Bearsden checked his background too carefully; his references included an English zoologist and a Canadian schoolteacher named Marsha Hunt – both fictitious. If his Canadian accent lacked authenticity, no one noticed.

Unlike James Hogue, MacKinnon made serious mistakes. First of all, he didn’t really look like a teenager. His classmates quickly, and aptly, nicknamed him “Thirtysomething“. Secondly, he took the risk of enrolling at the very same school he attended in the ’70s, where many of the same teachers were still employed. Lucky for him, he hadn’t been a conspicuous presence back then, and no one recognized him.
On one occasion, MacKinnon slipped up by commenting that he could recall the day Elvis died. Pretty odd for a kid born in 1977. The other students looked askance at him but said nothing.
His mother, May, knew Brian had returned to school. She just didn’t know it was high school.

MacKinnon didn’t take the wallflower route. He captured the lead in the school’s production of South Pacific, worked on the school magazine, and made a lot of friends. His life as the son of a traveling opera singer probably didn’t hurt; even late headmaster Norman McLeod presumed Brandon had a “cosmopolitan background”, which accounted for his mature confidence and good manners. All in all, he was a model student.

Brandon Lee graduated from Bearsden in the spring of 1994 with straight As and an acceptance to the medical course at Dundee University. If anyone found it odd that his jet-setting mother attended neither his stage premiere nor his graduation, they politely said nothing to him. The ruse had succeeded.

The first half of his freshman year at Glasgow University was equally successful, aside from a family illness that forced him to leave school in December. He was set to return in the fall of ’95. Jubilant, Brandon arranged to take a summer holiday to Tenerife with three female school chums. That was his fatal mistake. One of the girls caught a glimpse of MacKinnon’s real passport, and a call was made to the school.
May MacKinnon turned on the TV one day to learn that her 32-year-old son had posed as a teenager for two years, directly under her nose.

Rather pitifully, MacKinnon insisted he would make a good doctor. In 2002, he was reported to be living in his car.

The Stanford Two

In 2007, Stanford officials discovered that a pretty 18-year-old named Azia Kim had been living in a Stanford dorm and studying biology even though she was not (and had never been, and probably never will be) a Stanford student. At the start of the first semester of ’06, Kim told Kimball Hall residents Jenssy Rojina and Missy Penna that she was desperately in need of housing due to some mix-up, and Rojina offered to let her crash in their room until it was straightened out. Rojina and Kim became friends and even traveled to San Francisco together on winter break.
At the start of second semester, Kim sought out a new roomie at another dorm, Okada. She told Amy Zhou that she didn’t like her old roommate. Zhou spent most nights with her boyfriend, so she had no clue that Kim had to crawl through their window night after night because she didn’t have access to the building. This might have gone on longer if Kim hadn’t told a resident advisor she lived in another dorm, Otero. The subject came up at an RA meeting, sparking an investigation.

The whole point of Kim’s ruse is rather murky, as she didn’t speak to the press after being caught. She apparently didn’t attend any classes, and she had never actually applied to the university. She did, however, con her way into Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) courses by pretending to be enrolled at another school, Santa Clara University.
Kim graduated from Troy High School in Fullerton. She reportedly told friends she planned to attend a community college and transfer to Berkeley, but never enrolled anywhere. Instead, she announced at Christmas break that she had gotten into Stanford. Kim’s parents and sister. evidently believed this, too.
Kim considered herself a devout Christian and was regarded as a sweet, studious girl. Her only known bad habits were, you know, breaking into dorm rooms and joining a rigorous military program under false pretenses. So I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt, and tentatively conclude that she is not hardened-criminal material. Maybe she even got into a good school by the front door, and put those impeccable study habits to use.

Of course, it was quite embarrassing for Stanford to have an imposter actually living on-campus for a full 8 months, and many students were spooked (Zhou had a chain installed on her window after Kim was “evicted”). But that embarrassment and unease mushroomed when another young Asian woman was found to be living at Stanford.

Perhaps due to the Azia Kim incident, students and staff were becoming more observant on campus and within a week of Kim’s ousting a second intruder, thirtysomething Elizabeth Okazaki, was rooted out. For at least three years, she had been posing as a grad student in physics, hanging around the lab and sometimes claiming to be an assistant to famed string theorist Leonard Susskind. Not only had Susskind never heard of Ms. Okazaki, but a student by that name had never been enrolled at Stanford. She did attend physics seminars, though, which indicates she could have been an aspiring physicist without the background needed to study at a major university. Students reported that she often puttered around the Varian Hall Physics Lab, making tea or simply hanging out. One university official wildly speculated she was looking for a “sugar daddy” in the physics lab, which would make about as much sense as searching for pearls in a lobster.

It’s beyond ironic that these two girls became, for a brief period in 2007, Stanford’s most famous students. Kim even has a sort of cult status; fans argue she’s actually far brighter and more inventive than your average Stanford student. Stanford alum and author Jeremy Iverson, who went undercover as a student to write his book High School Confidential, said of Kim, “I’m really proud of her for pulling it off as long as she did. I hope she had a great time at our college, and I hope they go easy on her. I salute her.”

But I’m Not a Cheerleader

In August 2008, a cheerleader failed to show up for classes at Ashwaubenon High School in Wisconsin, though her parents hadn’t called in sick for her. Truant officers went in search of the errant blonde 15-year-old and unexpectedly found the girl’s mother, Wendy Brown, in county lock-up. She had been charged with check fraud.
And she was about to be charged with a few other kinds of fraud, because 33-year-old Wendy had stolen her own daughter’s identity to enroll at Ashwaubenon High that summer. The girl was living with her grandmother in Nebraska at the time, oblivious to her mom’s weird scheme.
Brown gave police a sob story about wanting to relive her teen years, but her long criminal record showed she was not just a sentimental fool. She was a career petty criminal who had carried out thefts, forgeries, and frauds for a number of years.
Cheerleaders and teachers commented that the new girl had seemed very mature-looking, but hadn’t raised any red flags with her behaviour.
One wonders how long a thirtysomething woman, only moderately fit, could have kept up with teen cheerleaders without giving herself away.

Brown struck a deal with prosecutors, pleading guilty to identity theft “by reason of mental disease or defect”. She was committed to a mental health facility for three years.

She wasn’t quite as criminally savvy as the former cheerleader who led a team bank robbers in Fullerton. What is it with these Fullerton girls, anyway?