Join 3,434 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Le Caméléon
August 17, 2012 10:06 PM   Subscribe

On June 13, 1994, blond-haired, blue-eyed Nicholas Barclay was reported missing from his home near San Antonio, Texas. He was 13 years old. In October 1997, the family received a call from a man in Spain informing them their son had been found after having escaped from a child prostitution ring. Nicholas' half-sister immediately boarded a flight to Spain, where she was reunited with her brother and brought him back with her to Texas. There were a few things though, that seemed a bit off...

Nicholas' hair was now bleached blonde with dark roots. He had brown eyes and spoke with a thick accent. He described horrific torture at the hands of his captors and claimed that he had not been allowed to speak English. His captors had chemically altered his eye and hair color. The family were horrified at his tales of what he had endured.
"Nicholas had changed so much it was mind-boggling," said his mother, "but he’d been through so much he was going to be different.’ His diffidence, his reluctance to talk about what had supposedly happened, his off-key behaviour – all of this she says she attributed to his three-year ordeal. "He was traumatised. So much had happened to him."*
Nicholas' story made national headlines. He eventually aroused the suspicion of lumber-salesman-turned-P.I. Charlie Parker, who investigated Nicholas further and finally confronted him while they were eating at a diner, saying "You gonna tell me who you are?". The boy sitting across from him looked at Charlie and said,

“I’m Frédéric Bourdin and I’m wanted by Interpol.”

The stranger-than-fiction story has now been made into a documentary called The Imposter.

Meet Frédéric Bourdin, a 38 year old conman who has impersonated hundreds of people, mostly children - often missing children, in 15 countries and five languages. Having served short stints in prison, he is a free man today, now married and with three children. He talks openly about his crimes on his Facebook and Twitter.

In the midst of all this, Nicholas Barclay has never been found. The P.I. Charlie Parker believes he is dead and will continue to search for his body.

(previously)
posted by triggerfinger (53 comments total) 78 users marked this as a favorite

 
What an insanely weird story. How in the hell a grown man can pass himself off as a ~17 year old boy is utterly dumbfounding to me.
posted by jquinby at 10:15 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wait a second, the film is a documentary? I thought it was a "based on true events" fiction film in which everyone is played by an actor...not the case?
posted by trackofalljades at 10:18 PM on August 17, 2012


Wow, totally not the case...what a horribly misleading advertising campaign. Now I'm actually really interested in seeing this, thanks for the post!
posted by trackofalljades at 10:19 PM on August 17, 2012


Reading this I cannot get over what a truly horrible man this is. Even now he's inventing reasons why what he did wasn't so bad even as he insists he's not trying to abate his guilt. I pity the child he was, but still, he's a horrible, horrible man.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:20 PM on August 17, 2012 [16 favorites]


I read a short story or science fiction short ... was it Bradbury?... on this concept.
posted by infini at 10:26 PM on August 17, 2012


trackofalljades, there are reenactments of certain scenes where actors were used, but all the people involved in the story who are available to talk are interviewed throughout, basically telling the story in their own words.

It is an incredible movie. I highly recommend it.
posted by triggerfinger at 10:32 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


lesbiassparrow, just a cursory glance at his Twitter shows what a nasty piece of work he is.
posted by triggerfinger at 10:35 PM on August 17, 2012


Previously.

I didn't get very far into the article because of the caption on the first picture, which reads "Bourdin once wrote, 'When you fight monsters, be careful that . . . you do not become one.'"

He most certainly did not write that. He may have written it down, even paraphrased a tiny bit, but he didn't write it.
posted by lumensimus at 10:38 PM on August 17, 2012 [10 favorites]


infini: I read a short story or science fiction short ... was it Bradbury?... on this concept.

I was reminded of a Bradbury story too. In The Martian Chronicles there's a story called "The Martian" where a shapeshifter impersonates a family's dead son. The Martian takes on the aspect of whatever the people near him desire him to be. I suspect it's the same story you're remembering.
posted by Wemmick at 10:38 PM on August 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


lumensimus, maybe Bourdin spent too long gazing into an abyss and got confused. ;)
posted by trackofalljades at 10:54 PM on August 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


The returned changeling is a very very old story, one that appears in almost every human culture.

It's sickening to see it played out, particularly in this manner.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:55 PM on August 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's awful - I know this guy is a horrible sociopath with no idea (or care?) of the hurt he's done, and no guilt, and yet, as I read the article I find myself sympathising with him almost to the point that I believed his account. If he's that manipulative in print I can't even imagine what conversing with him in real life would be like. And to a grieving family, already with the kinds of troubles I couldn't even imagine, who all must have been hoping against hope every day, that this would be the day Jason would return?

The charm and calculatedness and plausibility is terrifying.
posted by everydayanewday at 11:06 PM on August 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


The Imposter was awesome. Saw it last weekend and didn't expect it to be as good as it was.
posted by azarbayejani at 11:10 PM on August 17, 2012


Oh, I just visited his twitter account, scratch the stuff about charm. He's mostly using it to call people 'penis licker' and 'dickface'.
posted by everydayanewday at 11:15 PM on August 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


IIRC from reading the excellent New Yorker article on this case (linked in FPP) several years ago, it hints at the possibility that someone in Nicholas Barclay's family -- a brother? -- may have killed him. I don't suppose this question is raised in the film, if Barclay's family was as involved in it as they seem to have been.
posted by FrauMaschine at 11:28 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


FrauMaschina, you might want to see the film before not supposing!
posted by stevil at 11:42 PM on August 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's amazing that people like this exist. He's the type of movie villain that you curse screenwriters for making too over-the-top.
posted by Brocktoon at 11:44 PM on August 17, 2012


David Grann's "The Chameleon" is required reading.
posted by stbalbach at 11:47 PM on August 17, 2012


(..and see those links are already in the OP)
posted by stbalbach at 11:49 PM on August 17, 2012


He's mostly using it to call people 'penis licker' and 'dickface'.

And, by the transitive property, 'face licker'.
posted by Freon at 11:52 PM on August 17, 2012 [8 favorites]


I suspect it's the same story you're remembering.

Actually, not quite that one, but one where its a boy/man who doesn't grow old physically so he's doomed to wander and become a 'son' for people for a while until they start noticing that he doesn't seem to be growing up/older.
posted by infini at 11:54 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Didn't anyone do a genetic test? They had primitive versions in 1997.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:32 AM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


In 2004, when he pretended to be a fourteen-year-old French boy in the town of Grenoble, a doctor who examined him at the request of authorities concluded that he was, indeed, a teen-ager.



Wait what? Was the doctor in on the con? It's pretty easy to tell if someone's a teenager or a full grown man by just looking at dentition patterns.
posted by astapasta24 at 3:59 AM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


trackofalljades: "Wait a second, the film is a documentary? I thought it was a "based on true events" fiction film in which everyone is played by an actor...not the case?"

There's the 2010 narrative film The Chameleon that's based on the story as well. I haven't seen it (or heard of it until just now), so I can't vouch for its accuracy or overall quality, though the trailer certainly pulls all the punches in making it look like a pile of shit.
posted by item at 4:59 AM on August 18, 2012


Can you really permanently dye eyes to change their color???
I know that was part of his story to fool the Barclays, but it would seem that such a thing would be fairly easy to confirm.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:30 AM on August 18, 2012


Can you really permanently dye eyes to change their color???

I've only heard of it as a rare side-effect to using Latisse (eyelash growth medication), where blue and green eyes turn brown.
posted by autoclavicle at 6:24 AM on August 18, 2012


Can you really permanently dye eyes to change their color???
I know that was part of his story to fool the Barclays, but it would seem that such a thing would be fairly easy to confirm.


Not wishing to be snarky, but this point is covered in the New Yorker article, the Wanted by Interpol link.
posted by jontyjago at 6:28 AM on August 18, 2012 [2 favorites]



Didn't anyone do a genetic test? They had primitive versions in 1997.


RTA. The family refused a genetic test because the insisted they knew it was him. The investigator that uncovered his scam thinks it's because the family had something to do with the actual kid's death, which is as yet unproven.
posted by elizardbits at 6:50 AM on August 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


I caught this film last weekend. It was riveting for sure. Although it left me wondering what type of royalties or compensation the fucking loser will end up receiving from the documentary.
posted by foxhat10 at 7:40 AM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


If he claimed to have been kidnapped and victimized by a sex slavery ring, why was this not investigated? You would think that the FBI would be all over that, yet there is no mention of him even being questioned about it.
posted by desjardins at 7:46 AM on August 18, 2012


Never mind, I missed that in the article.
posted by desjardins at 7:54 AM on August 18, 2012


"He most certainly did not write that. He may have written it down, even
paraphrased a tiny bit, but he didn't write it."

I don't understand why a sub didn't pick it up. That's one of the most well trodden Nietzschean quotes going. 90 per cent of New Yorker reads are going to gag on that caption like you did. Shame it spoils an otherwise engrossing story.
posted by londonmark at 7:58 AM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can you really permanently dye eyes to change their color???

If he claimed to have been kidnapped and victimized by a sex slavery ring, why was this not investigated?


One of the many, many, incredible things about this story is the investigation by the FBI. The New Yorker article gives it a different treatment than the movie. The FBI agent, Nancy Fisher, says in the article that she immediately "smelled a rat". But in the movie, where she was interviewed extensively on camera, she basically said (and I'm paraphrasing, but not much) - he said he was Nicholas, his family said he was Nicholas, who am I to question that? Keep in mind that she was investigating a supposed international kidnapping and child sex ring involving high ranking military members.

Enter Charlie Parker, probably the best character in the movie, who cracked the case by zooming in on photos of Nicholas' and Frederic's ears in Photoshop (he had heard once somewhere that ears were as unique as fingerprints). His investigation also involved calling a few ophthalmologists to ask if it was possible to alter your eye color.

Just incredible all around.
posted by triggerfinger at 8:07 AM on August 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ears indeed have unique qualities, among which are , a child's ears very often resemble the father's ears. Yes you could totally verify an identity by means of ears. Kudos to the detective for using unusual information!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:23 AM on August 18, 2012


I have nothing to add except that the New Yorker article is great, and shouldn't be missed. Indeed, they're always good.
posted by Jehan at 8:55 AM on August 18, 2012


The descriptions make it sound like the movie is pretty loose with the truth. That will keep me from watching a film.
posted by bongo_x at 9:18 AM on August 18, 2012


From the New Yorker article:

A friend of the family videotaped the reunion, and Bourdin can be seen bundled up, his hat pulled down, his brown eyes shielded by sunglasses, his already fading tattoo covered by gloves.

Did you notice his Facebook banner photo? Although judging by his older daughter's attire it appears to be a very warm day, he is wearing heavy ill-fitting black leather gloves while holding his son.

Is it just me or does that strike anyone else as strange or disconcerting?
posted by marsha56 at 11:31 AM on August 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


So, thanks to ask mefi, I just found this.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 12:52 PM on August 18, 2012


There is a female version, a woman who went around the United States impersonating a teenage girl, as described in an excellent article from the Texas Monthly: The Day Treva Throneberry Disappeared.
posted by Bokmakierie at 3:57 PM on August 18, 2012


There is a Borges story, "The Implausible Imposter Tom Castro," about the Tichborne mystery.

Tichborne had been a slim, genteel young man with a reserved and somewhat self-absorbed air. He had sharp features, straight black hair, tawny skin, sparkling eyes, and an irritatingly precise way of speaking. Orton was an irrepressible rustic, a "yokel," with a vast belly, features of infinite vagueness, fair and freckled skin, wavy light-brown hair, sleepy eyes, and no, or irrelevant, conversation.

...The plan had an irrational genius to it... Bogle knew that a perfect facsimile of the beloved Roger Charles Tichborne was impossible to find; he knew as that any similarities he might achieve would only underscore certain inevitable differences. He therefore gave up the notion of likeness altogether. He sensed that the vast ineptitude of his pretense would be a convincing proof that this was no fraud...
posted by bad grammar at 4:42 PM on August 18, 2012


Double.
posted by availablelight at 4:44 PM on August 18, 2012


Can you really permanently dye eyes to change their color???

This can mean only one thing...the kidnappers are beauticians in the Emerald City!
posted by granted at 7:23 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I saw The Imposters tonight. It is fantastic. The creepiest thing about it is how charming he is. You actually find yourself rooting for him. The whole dynamic between the audience and the giant sociopathic head is just brilliant. You start out thinking "how could anyone possibly fall for this shit? It's ludicrous!" and by the end of the film you are catching yourself believing what he's saying even though it's totally unsubstantiated.
posted by nathancaswell at 10:38 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Like, you always hear about how sociopaths are really charming and then you see it working on yourself and it's just fascinating. Giving him such a platform actually strengthens your sympathy to the family because you experience first hand how brilliantly manipulative he is.
posted by nathancaswell at 10:41 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


The descriptions make it sound like the movie is pretty loose with the truth. That will keep me from watching a film.

No, the narrators of the movie are perhaps loose with the truth. Tremendous difference.
posted by nathancaswell at 10:45 PM on August 18, 2012


I read a short story or science fiction short ... was it Bradbury?... on this concept.

[...] a boy/man who doesn't grow old physically so he's doomed to wander and become a 'son' for people for a while until they start noticing that he doesn't seem to be growing up/older.

infini, Child of All Ages by P.J. Plauger, pretty sure. Can't find the story online quickly... but the "child" is a girl. Soon as I saw your comment, thought you meant this, Bradbury association incluis.
posted by likeso at 12:15 AM on August 19, 2012


This is turning into a proto Askme since I'm quite sure the one I have is about a prepubertal boy... (will dig and revert) but that's a nice story too, likeso
posted by infini at 12:29 AM on August 19, 2012


Previously, in 16th century France, there was the Martin Guerre imposter. That incident was the inspiration for the movie Sommersby, set during the US civil war.
posted by goshling at 2:25 AM on August 19, 2012


[Spoilers if you have neither seen the film nor read about the case.]

It is indeed a remarkable story. I continue to find it very, very, very difficult to understand -- even accounting for how desperately a family would naturally want it to be him -- how they could have believed this man, with different coloring, a totally differently shaped face, and an accent (it is explained in the film by a scholar that people raised speaking English don't really lose the ability to speak unaccented English, no matter how long they spend elsewhere), was Nicholas. Boys who are blue-eyed blonds at 13 don't have thick, dark eyebrows and aggressively sprout very dark and heavy scruff on their faces at 16. How could this happen?

At the same time, there's essentially no evidence to back up the idea that they knew it wasn't him and had some sinister reason for pretending it was. (After all, nobody was investigating the family at that point; I hardly think acknowledging it wasn't him was suddenly going to arouse suspicion. In fact, it seems much more risky and attention-grabbing to take in a stranger who was inevitably going to be discovered to be an imposter the first time anybody x-rayed his teeth or took his blood. I mean, this was never a deception that was going to last very long, and if they killed Nicholas, why bring attention to the case in this way when it was pretty much cold?) And if they should obviously have known it wasn't him, there is still the matter of how the news coverage and the FBI accepted that it was him, at least for a time.

It's baffling. No matter what the explanation is, it's completely, utterly baffling. We're not talking about someone taken as a baby who came back at 25. We're talking about someone who convinced a LOT of people that a 13-year-old boy could disappear and be utterly unrecognizable and look nothing at all like himself three years later. No matter who did what, it's surprising to me that nobody, like for instance the local news that aired the story, simply looked at him and said, "Wait ... that's obviously not him. What are you talking about?"

In a way, the current film that would pair well with this one is Compliance.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 9:22 AM on August 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not to mention that his story about what happened during his abduction is absolutely ludicrous. Injected in the eyes by high level military operatives / child sex ring?
posted by nathancaswell at 9:45 AM on August 19, 2012


Previously, in 16th century France, there was the Martin Guerre imposter. That incident was the inspiration for the movie Sommersby, set during the US civil war.

More accurately, Martin Guerre is the basis of the film "The Return of Martin Guerre" which is the inspiration for Sommersby. Both decent films, worth watching.
posted by outlier at 1:43 AM on August 20, 2012


The articles mention a brother called Jason. I couldn't work out if he was the brother of the missing boy, or a brother of the mother duped by the imposter (and therefore the missing boy's uncle). Did I miss a detail, or is it clearer in the documentary?

it's a fascinating con - one that preys on people's compassion instead of their greed, and doesn't seem to have led to any material gain for him. Even if he wanted to keep doing it, advances in the speed of international communication and DNA testing would surely have put a stop to it anyway.
posted by harriet vane at 5:07 AM on August 20, 2012


Jason was the brother of the abducted boy.

Not to mention that his story about what happened during his abduction is absolutely ludicrous. Injected in the eyes by high level military operatives / child sex ring?

I think that this is a story of a bunch of strange/unlikely scenarios coming together to create a one in a million thing - a perfect storm.

1. A young boy goes missing
2. A conman in a different country needs an identity
3. Conman calls the Center for Missing and Exploited Children posing as a person who has found a missing child
4. Manages to get the entire file on a missing child sent to him. Says he is missing child
5. Family believes it is their child, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Because:
6. Family either knows child is already dead and doesn't want to draw attention to it, or,
7. Family is so grief-striken they can engage in extreme self-deception
8. Authorities are bumbling, allowing conman's true identity to go undetected for some time, despite overwhelming evidence of things that are impossible, such as claims of chemically altering his eye color.

I mean, I would think there would be some sort of checks and balances or something where at some point along the way, Frederic would be found out. But he wasn't - he sailed right through it and I honestly think he was as astonished by that as we were.
posted by triggerfinger at 6:44 AM on August 20, 2012


« Older Last year, The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU's...  |  Georges Cziffra... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments