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True crime. Casually done.

The Disappearance of Nicholas Barclay

On June 10th 1994, thirteen-year old Nicholas Barclay took a walk down to the basketball courts to meet his friends in San Antonio, Texas. He and his friend played for a while, until sunset came and they each peeled off one by one, leaving just Nicholas left. 

He decided to call home from the pay phone next to the courts, to ask for a lift rather than walking  home alone. His 24-year-old half-brother Jason answered, and scolded him for calling at that hour; their mother Beverly was asleep, preparing for the graveyard shift at Dunkin’ Donuts where she worked seven days a week. 

The courts were only about a mile and a half from their house, so Jason, Not wanting to wake their mother by starting up the car, told his little brother to walk. Little did he know the implications of that decision would change all of their lives forever. 

That was the last time anyone would speak to Nicholas. Somewhere between those basketball courts and his house, he went missing. Now, it wasn’t particularly unusual for this teenager to disappear for a few days. Nicholas had a rebellious streak in him — he would often have explosive fights with his mother, then disappear for a day or two. 

That’s actually why Beverly asked her grown son Jason to move in with them in the first place, to help bring Nicholas under control. Sometimes the renegade teen would return with a new tattoo (he had three already, because he was far cooler than any of us at 13). Sometimes the cops would drag him back home, with a shiny new charge on his juvenile criminal record.

Some highlights include convictions for threatening teachers, breaking and entering into a convenience store, and stealing a pair of shoes. Actually, he was due for a court appearance on the 14th of that month for the last of those crimes, where the judge would decide whether or not to dump him in a group home for young offenders.

Nicholas Barclay

At first it seemed like Nicholas might have been lashing out against that possibility by going AWOL. But if so, why hadn’t he packed a bag of clothes and cash like usual? And his stints on the streets usually lasted about 48 hours maximum, before he would knock on the door with his tail between his legs. This time three days passed, and Nicholas still hadn’t reappeared. 

That’s when his mother reported him missing. But unfortunately, Nicholas had run away so much, the police barely took her worries seriously; Beverly was ‘the mother who cried wolf’. Between her own past struggle with heroin addiction, Nicholas’ petty crime, and Jason’s explosive cocaine-fuelled temper, the cops had been called out to their house plenty of times before. As far as they were concerned, this lot were just plain dysfunctional, so they never really took the missing person report seriously. 

They were convinced that the teenager was just shirking away from his problems, so much so that the story never even made the local news. But soon it became clear that this wasn’t another routine tantrum from Nicholas — he really was gone, and nobody had any idea where. He shouldn’t have been hard to spot, wearing purple trousers and a pink backpack, but there wasn’t a single sighting of him anywhere in the city. 

Days turned into weeks, turned into months, without any sign of where he had gotten to. Meanwhile his brother relapsed into his cocaine addiction, unable to handle the guilt. That September, he called the police to report what he thought was Nicholas trying to break into the family’s garage, but the cops were unable to verify the sighting (or any signs of an attempted break-in).

That was the last report connected to the case for years. Beverly too relapsed into drug abuse as she struggled to cope with not knowing what happened to her youngest child. As the years wore on, any hope of finding him alive evaporated.

Until one day, three years later, Nicholas turned up in the least likely of places…

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Coming to America

In October 1997, the San Antonio police department received a phone call from Spain — it was a policeman from the city of Linares, Andalusia. Earlier that week, a young man had been found wandering around the city, distraught, and was taken to a local youth shelter. 

The boy was dazed and distraught. When the authorities quizzed him on his identity, he seemed to barely even remember who he was. Eventually they managed to get a name and a birthplace from him: the young man found halfway across the world was Nicholas Barclay of Texas. What the hell was a missing American child doing lost in a city 5000 miles away, you ask? Well, apparently he had been kidnapped, and trafficked all the way across the Atlantic!

texas to spain
texas to spain

The San Antonio cops got on the phone to his 31-year-old half-sister Carey (Beverly’s other child from a previous marriage). She was in turn given the number of the youth hostel, and had the privilege of being the first one to hear Nicky’s voice after all that time.

“My God, Nicky, is that you?”

A long pause, and then a muffled voice came on the other end.

“Yes, it’s me…”

[Cue the swelling orchestral music, and a single manly tear]

Heartwarming stuff, really. Carey herself couldn’t quite believe it. By now everyone had all but given up hope of finding Nicholas. And now he had just reappeared as suddenly as he went away 3 years ago. Truly miraculous. 

But it wasn’t all rosy over in Spain. Nicholas’ time in Europe was less ‘gap year’ and more ‘total nightmare’. While Carey prepared to travel overseas for the first time in her life to go collect her little brother, the Spanish authorities warned her that the boy was still quite traumatised from his experiences.

Nicky told them he’d been abducted from the States by people from the military, and sold into sex slavery in the service of European military personnel. He was only able to escape from his captors when one of the guards accidentally left a door unlocked, which is how he found himself wandering around an unfamiliar city in Andalusia.

Carey was gifted money by her employer to pay for the trip that would finally bring the traumatised young man home, and touched down in Spain in the second week of October. They were all set for a happy reunion, however when Carey arrived at the youth shelter, her little brother was apparently overcome with nerves. He locked himself in the toilet, and refused to come out.

That kind of erratic, evasive behaviour was characteristic of the new Nicholas, but after 3 years of horrific imprisonment who would blame him? After a while collecting himself in the bathroom, Nicholas eventually worked up the courage to reunite with his sister, and opened the door. He was older looking now, dressed in a baseball cap and thick layers of clothing, but there was no doubt in Carey’s mind: it really was her brother.

While they got reacquainted, she tried her best to make her little brother comfortable, flicking through family picture albums to remind him of better times. It still seemed like he was a million miles away, struggling to reconnect with his old life. So one by one she went through the people and places in the pictures, hoping for a response. 

But Nicholas barely said a word. The poor kid had retreated into himself, hanging his head low under the visor of his cap. It took hours before he finally started to warm up, asking “Is grandpa still an asshole?”

That night Carey rang home to let the others know she had met up with Nicholas — it really was him, safe and sound, and he would be coming home soon. All that was left now was to get him on a plane, so he could continue his recovery with the love and support of his family. 

Carey signed off on all the documents needed to get her little brother a fresh US passport, and they boarded a plane back to Texas the very next day. 

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Bonjour, Fellow Kids

It’s impossible to imagine the sort of joy Beverly must have felt when she was reunited with her child after all that time. A family member captured the magic moment on video, when the family gathered to greet him at the airport. Not a dry eye in the house, as you’d expect. Everyone was over the moon to have him back. 

Nicholas went to live in Carey and her husband’s trailer house in Spring Branch — a remote forested area about 35 miles out of San Antonio. They had already set up a mattress in their own son’s bedroom, and gathered some of Nicholas’ old toys, baseball cards, and clothes. 

They tried to give him everything he would need to reacclimatise to the life he’d left behind. Three years before.But even in an old familiar environment, the road to recovery would be long. According to Nicholas, the men who held him captive those three years had beaten him regularly, sexually abused him, and punished him if he ever spoke English.  

Which would explain why he seemed… Frencher.

Yes, this Texan teenager now spoke with a strong French accent, and European speech patterns — a result of being forced to speak the language for three years straight. Not only did the kidnappers strip him of his language and identity, they also subjected him to sadistic medical experiments; chemicals were dripped into his eyes which ended up staining them from bright blue to dark brown. Horrifying stuff.

These experiments accounted for the slight difference in hair colour too, as when his bleached hair started to grow out Nicholas’ roots showed up dark brown rather than the bright brownish-blonde he used to have. 

Not all of the damage was so superficial; Nicholas suffered from emotional problems while re-acclimatising, and several episodes of self-harm. He was assigned a psychiatrist to help with the readjustment, and after a while he was ready to jump back into life as an all-American teenager.

A month or so after his return, he had a new group of friends, and even a crush on a girl in his class. He dedicated himself to his homework more than ever, and even joined the family to church sometime on Sunday, where they thanked the lord for giving them this impossibly happy ending to their nightmare.

Until… 

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A Smooth Criminal

About one month after his return to the US, tabloid TV show Hard Copy caught wind of the unbelievable story, and attempted to score an interview with the miracle child. The producers hired a San Antonio private investigator named Charlie Parker to track the kid down to that secluded trailer park outside of the city. 

Soon a production assistant was banging on the door of Carey’s trailer with a camera crew at her heels. Being the protective, motherly sort, Carey initially wanted to turn them away for the sake of Nicholas’ mental health. It was actually the kid himself who gave them the go ahead.

Hwas happy for the chance to tell his story in front of a camera. So the production team set up their lights and cameras in the family’s front room. The PI watched on from the sidelines as Nicholas relayed his story: “He was calm as a cucumber. No looking down, no body language. None.”

Like everyone else, he was struck by the strange French flair that the young Texan had picked up during his time in captivity. Trauma can do some crazy things to a person’s mind. Then he caught sight of a picture of pre-disappearance Nicholas, sitting on the table next to him. It really was quite incredible how different he looked now… quite incredible indeed…

Parker had a sudden brainwave — he leaned over close to one of the cameramen, and whispered, “Zoom in on the ears. Get ’em as close as you can.” Bit of a weird request, but the cameraman obliged. As the kid’s harrowing story was wrapping up, Parker slid the Polaroid from the table into his pocket.

Back at his office, he scanned the image into his computer, and loaded it up next to a freeze frame from the Hard Copy interview. Just as he suspected: “The ears were close, but they didn’t match.” 

So what, right? Well, apparently this is a much bigger deal than it sounds, because each person’s particular ear shape is about as unique as their fingerprints. So when the PI looked at the two images side by side, he was convinced that this was not the same person!

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He wasn’t the only one who had these concerns. Nicholas’ psychiatrist expressed confusion when the young boy was brought to him, at the fact that he couldn’t break out of his French accent. He was literally incapable of slipping back into a Texan drawl. 

The psychiatrist knew that, no matter how long he had been forced to speak French, it was inconceivable that Nicholas would lose the capability to speak the way he did for the first 13 years of his life. PI Parker confirmed the same thing with a dialect expert at Trinity University. 

Even the boy’s own uncle thought the same thing — something was very off about this new version of his nephew. But his mother Beverly defended him against the insinuations. She said he was just traumatised; the poor kid had been through so much, and now even his own uncle was rejecting him!

At this point, Beverly was set up in a small one-room apartment in San Antonio. Parker made a habit of waiting on that street on the days when Nicholas would visit, and tailing him down the street. For a young renegade from the mean streets of San Antonio, his behaviour was… odd:  “He would walk all the way to the bus stop, wearing his Walkman and doing his Michael Jackson moves.”

The more he saw, the more the question hung on the PI’s mind day and night: if this teen wasn’t Nicholas Barclay, then who was he? Suddenly it all made sense: the French accent with a slight North-African twinge, the infiltration of an American family — this was no ordinary child. 

Oh my God… It’s a terrorist! Parker thought to himself.

A deceptive, dangerous, disco dancing terrorist. (the worst kind of all)

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Parker took his concerns to the FBI, who had already received a concerned call from the boy’s psychiatrist earlier that month. Meanwhile, Nicholas’ mental state seemed to be unravelling even further. He stopped attending school, and in December he stole Carey’s family car and went on a joyride to Oklahoma, blasting Michael Jackson songs out of the window. 

After being arrested for speeding and brought back home again, his carers found him slicing his own face with a razor in the bathroom. Nicholas was committed to a psychiatric ward for a few days before being released back into the care of Carey and her husband, who were desperate to help her little brother overcome his demons.

But then a more pressing problem cropped up: an FBI investigator called Nancy Fisher, who had interviewed Nicholas about his kidnapping not long after his return, returned with some questions. From the outset, his wild story of a Pizzagate-style international military conspiracy made her suspicious. Now she was asking Beverly for permission to carry out a DNA test.

“How dare you say he’s not my son,” she told them. Beverly resisted the FBI at every turn, terrified that they were going to take her son away from her again. Then, in February 1998, Agent Fisher returned with federal warrants for his fingerprints and a blood sample.

“Merde,” he thought.

Days later the private investigator Charlie Parker — according to the New Yorker — received the phone call he had been waiting on for weeks: it was Beverly. After Parker hung up the phone, he arranged a meeting with young Nicholas a a diner in San Antonio. As they sat down, Parker told the young man that he had upset his mother, to which he replied:

“She’s not my mother and you know it.”

“You gonna tell me who you are?”

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

Frédéric Bourdin
Frédéric Bourdin. By Francparler, is licened under
CC-BY-SA

That’s how Beverly finally discovered the truth. She was faced with irrefutable evidence that her beloved teenaged son was actually a 24-year-old French dude… who could’ve guessed…

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Invasion of Le Bodysnatcher

But why, you ask, did some random French guy decide to take the place of a missing child? Why did he pick that specific kid? And how in hell did he actually manage to pull it off for four months!?

The answers are a thousand times more mental than you could even imagine. See, this was no ordinary Frenchman who had infiltrated the life of the missing teenager — it was Frédéric Bourdin, otherwise known as ‘The Chameleon’. No, he wasn’t a terrorist, he was just a weird, lonely guy whose entire life was a lie. 

This half-Algerian con man had spent the better part of his life moving from deception to deception, impersonating hundreds of children across Europe. He had pulled similar tricks in   Belgium, Spain, Bosnia, Germany, Ireland, England, Italy, Luxembourg, Switzerland,Portugal, Austria, Slovakia, Denmark, France, and Sweden. Honestly, after all that, you’d think this ‘master of deception’ would be a tad better at accents. 

By the time he took on the life of Nicholas Barclay, his fake identities were well into the triple digits. However, this was the first time he had picked a real missing person to take the place of. But as a grown adult sitting there listening to the show, you’re probably wondering, why? Being a teenager is categorically awful, so it seems bizarre that a grown man would want to stay in that world for his entire life. And amazingly, it wasn’t some weird sex thing. A prosecutor in Spain once said of him: 

“In my twenty-two years on the job, I’ve never seen a case like it. Usually people con for money. His profit seems to have been purely emotional.” 

Yes, the Chameleon was apparently just desperate for affection; he grew addicted to the feeling of being brought in from the cold and cared for. Which is fine until the age of about 13, I guess, but it gets extremely creepy once you’re a grown man yourself. 

After being abandoned by his father and growing up as an outcast, Bourdin started creating fantasy lives for himself for attention. In his teens, he started rocking up to new towns, pretending to be a lost child, and then seeing how far he could take the lie until he was caught or confessed.

Things got harder as he became a man, especially since he isn’t what you’d typically call ‘youthful-looking’. But if he wore the right clothes, made his voice higher, and put on a nervous and naive act, he could pass well enough as a gawky 13-to-15-year-old (albeit one who was hit by puberty like a freight train).

As he turned his need for attention into a full-blown lifestyle, Bourdin’s techniques became more sophisticated too. After years of practice, he could slip into a new identity the way the rest of us change clothes. He would start by priming the local cops for the discovery, by calling them to report seeing a distraught child wandering around town. Of course, when the authorities came to investigate, that child was actually him: freshly shaven, crying, pretending to be lost and scared.

As he grew more confident, Bourdin started investigating missing orphans, and taking on the identities of these real people. Just like that, he moved between hostels and juvenile care facilities all over Europe. That was genuinely how he survived in the world as a grown adult man: “I am a manipulator. […] My job is to manipulate.”

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Which brings us to Spain in 1997. By then, Bourdin was wanted by Interpol for lying to the police, and youth organisations across the continent had been warned about the serial conman’s techniques. In fact, he had already achieved a kind of minor celebrity status in France. So when he tried his old tricks in the town of Linares, the child welfare magistrate covering his ‘lost child’ case wasn’t having any of his nonsense.

Before him he saw a 24-year-old man in child’s clothing, like when they cast fully-grown adults in a high school drama show. So when this ‘lost child’ was found quivering in the town square, he was given 24 hours to reveal his identity or she would have him taken to the police station to have his fingerprints taken. That would be disastrous for the 24-year-old conman, whose prints were already on file. He decided to run away from the youth home, but was caught in the act. 

Now the staff were now watching his every move. Locked down with his back to the wall, Bourdin was forced to pull off his most daring deception yet. While lying awake at night, the notion struck him that, if he were to break from his usual habits and impersonate an American, the judge might be more inclined to let him off the hook. No judge wants to ruffle up the feathers of the US embassy, right?

So he hopped out of bed and sneaked into the office room, from where he rang the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children over in Virginia. In his best Spanish accent, he claimed to be the director of the very children’s shelter he was interred in. He told them they had with them a young boy who wouldn’t reveal his name, but spoke English like an American. Of course, the physical description he gave was of himself. 

Just like that, the well-meaning hotline operator became his unwitting personal shopper, picking out the new identity which best suit his own appearance! She ran all of the details through their database, and landed a potential match: one Nicholas Barclay, a teenager who went missing in San Antonio three years prior. Bourdin now had a name for his new self. 

The conman needed more information if he were going to pull off such an audacious trans-continental crime. He asked the operator to fax over a copy of the boy’s missing person poster for comparison, and to also send a copy via overnight mail. 

After hanging up the phone, Bourdin had a nervous wait: if someone came down and caught him in the act, he’d have blown his last chance at freedom. He peered down the corridor through the crack in the door, and was startled when the fax machine whirred into action. It spewed out a low-res, black and white image of a young boy. Not a bad likeness for himself, Bourdin thought, if he squinted… and styled his hair… and wrapped himself up in enough layers… 

On second thought, he looked F all like the kid, but it me was running short, so it was just have to do. Bourdin rang back the missing kids’ hotline in Virginia and said, “I have some good news. Nicholas Barclay is standing right beside me.”

There was no going back now…

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Bourdin then received the number for the San Antonio police department, and he called up this time pretending to be a Spanish cop. Using details from the missing-person poster, he convinced them that they really had found the young man who went missing three years ago. After that, news spread to the FBI and US Embassy in Madrid. Everyone was prepared for a joyous, heart-melting reunion between mother and child… everyone but Bourdin. 

United States Embassy in Madrid (Spain)
United States Embassy in Madrid (Spain). By Luis García, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

It wasn’t until the next morning that he realized just how unprepared he actually was. The conman waited by the front door to intercept the full-sized copy of Nicholas Barclay’s missing person poster in the mail. He ripped open the package, and started sweating — it was actually a lot worse than he thought. Now he could read the text of the poster, and the picture was in full colour, he bought there was absolutely no way he could pull it off.

The young boy’s blondish-brown hair was plain to see. His own was a distinctly darker shade. Even worse: apparently this little 13-year-old was already heavily tatted up. Most of the missing tattoos could be hidden, but not one: the letter “T” between his right index finger and thumb. Boudin knew he only had a matter of hours to completely edit his appearance to match.

After burning the flyer, he bleached his own hair in the bathroom (I’m assuming using the regular kind you’d use to clean the toilet) and enlisted the help of a friend at the shelter for an emergency tattooing. With a needle and pen ink — much like how the real Nicholas had received his from mates at school — Barclay’s friend recreated the missing boy’s distinctive marking on his hand.

Now, stinking of bleach, with blood dripping down his knuckles, there was a chance he might be able to pass for the missing boy. However, there was one last crucial hurdle to overcome: their eyes didn’t match… How the hell can you change your eyes without contact lenses? Can you bleach eyes? Would food colouring work?

All of that probably rattled around Bourdin’s head as he watched the clock ticking on towards his date with destiny. In the end, he settled on a far more stupid solution (yes, more stupid than pouring bleach in your eyes). Rather than just impersonate the missing child, he would have to write a completely fictional chapter in the boy’s life.

So of course, that’s how he came up with the idea of an international pedophile conspiracy of government and military officials, who perform experiments on hundreds of kidnapped children from around the world. As if that actually made him more credible… 

That was the final piece of the puzzle that allowed him to slip through the fingers of the Spanish magistrate, and into the warm and loving arms of a Texan family. Later that day, the phone rang in the office, and Bourdin was there to answer it. 

“My God, Nicky, is that you?”

A long pause, and then, in a muffled voice.

“Yes, it’s me…”

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The Unmasking of Frédéric Bourdin

It really was that simple for 24-year-old Frenchman Frédéric Bourdin to slip into the identity of our missing teenager. But then you have to wonder, how the hell did he manage to stay in character? After all, he had none of the information needed to keep the con going for very long.

So what he did was to start gathering little pieces here and there. When Carey brought the photo album over to Spain, he played the traumatised/amnesiac victim long enough to have her feed him all the information about his new relatives he needed to get started. This information was crucial in getting him out of the country, because the judge would quiz him on it before signing him off and letting him board the plane.

Then once he was safely over in San Antonio, he spent hours rummaging through the missing kid’s possessions to get a feel for who he was supposed to be, and collected pictures from drawers in an attempt to copy his mannerisms. Even though the family must have had a lot of doubts in those early days, Bourdin had one very important advantage: desperation.

His new mother Beverly and sister Carey were so desperate to have the real Nicholas back, that they were willing to overlook all of the suspicious things that didn’t quite add up. Like why their Nicholas had forgotten literally every detail of his own life, accent, hobbies, and general identity. As long as Bourdin kept to his convictions, they weren’t going to call him out. 

Perhaps if he had just bunkered down behind their love and affection, he might have lasted longer. But Bourdin was an attention-seeker to the core. That’s why he agreed to that TV interview, despite the fact that people back in France had seen him on the box multiple times in the past!

A quiet life in a trailer park didn’t offer enough opportunities for limelight like that. For a man used to swinging from identity to identity, the trailer room he shared with his ‘nephew’ started to feel incredibly claustrophobic after a while. Suddenly his new identity started to feel like a poor fit (even by this man-child’s standards). Plus, all the shame and pressure of leeching off his new family’s goodwill became too much to bear: “I was not used to being in someone else’s family, to live with them like I’m one of theirs. I wasn’t ready for it.”

Eventually the mask started slipping, which is how the PI Charlie Parker caught Bourdin (a massive Michael Jackson fan all his life) pulling those sick moves on the way to the bus stop; it was his way of being himself for a little while, when he thought nobody was looking.

As always happened whenever the stress or boredom of his cons became too much, the Frenchman confessed. Parker was stunned to discover this wasn’t a terrorist infiltrator at all, but a lonely Peter Pan type character who just refused to grow up. Honestly, I’d have preferred Al Qaida. 

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After that meeting, Parker drove the imposter back to Beverly’s San Antonio apartment. He had already spoken to his FBI contact — their DNA test revealed the exact same information the Chameleon had just shared with him over pancakes and coffee.

As he pulled away from the building, he watched Agent Fisher and her men putting the slippery reptile in cuffs. Frédéric Bourdin was charged with perjury and illegally obtaining a US passport. At first, they also entertained the idea that he might be some sort of foreign spy, before realizing he was actually just the run-of-the-mill creep we’ve come to know and (perhaps) pity. 

While in custody, Bourdin started trying to work his way into the FBI’s good graces the only way he knew how: a fresh torrent of bullshit. First he said he was a friend of Nicholas back in Spain, and everything he said about the kidnapping conspiracy was actually true. Later, that he knew the boy was dead. Then he just shut his mouth, and said he knew nothing at all about him. 

Initially the Chameleon was looking at about 3 years behind bars for what he did, but the judge overseeing his case decided that wasn’t quite enough. After all, he hadn’t just conned his way to a new life in the States, he had done so by parasitically preying on the trauma of a grieving family. 

Bourdin always loved to play the victim: every time he was caught in one of his strange little performances, he said he was only ever motivated by the need to be loved and cared for, something he never got in his childhood. That justification just proves a narcissistic disregard for the people whose lives he’s messing with. 

His pathological need for attention doesn’t excuse the heartache he put Nicholas Barclay’s family through. So on account of that, the judge doubled down on the recommended sentence, and slapped Bourdin with 6 years in a US federal prison.

That’s karma, Chameleon. 

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What About Nicholas?

Now, we could end things right there; we’ve seen justice served for the man who twisted a family’s grief to his own benefit. But that would ignore the most important part of the case: where the hell is the real Nicholas? Given how bizarre that little European intermission in the story was, the real tragedy at the heart of the case often falls by the wayside.

Unfortunately, we still have no idea what happened to Nicholas back in 1993. It’s possible that he really did run away from home for good that time. Or, as his mother believes, he may have tried to hitch a ride home with a stranger (Nicholas was fearless, and believed himself to be extremely street smart). 

But there is one final possibility, which would explain some of the stranger parts of the story so far. Namely, why Beverly still wouldn’t believe that her ‘son’ was an imposter even when the PI and FBI came knocking. Do we really buy the fact that she believed his lies to the bitter end? Perhaps there’s another angle we’ve yet to explore.

And better to theorise on what really happened to Nicholas, than the man who became him for a full four months. See, when the Chameleon took on the identity of the American teenager, even he was surprised by how easy it turned out to be. For example, he didn’t even have to push Carey to give him all that information about the family back at that Spanish youth home. She kind of just spoon fed him everything:

“They didn’t believe a word that I said. But they were good at not showing it. I remember in Spain, Carey did everything for me. When I didn’t know something, she told me. […] She wanted to put it in my head so I would never forget. […]  If you ask me, no. She did not believe for a second that I was her brother. She decided that I was going to be her brother.”

Then once he was stateside, his new sister and mother seemed determined to fob it off any time he slipped up. No matter how many family members and friends raised concerns about his identity, they would defend him to the death. Most crucial was the strange matter of Jason, the brother who Nicholas called from the basketball courts the day he disappeared. 

Jason wasn’t at the airport for the big reunion in October 1997. In fact, he didn’t even come to visit his ‘younger brother’ until 6 weeks later. You’d expect that he above all people would be relieved to have him home. And even when he did visit, Bourdin said his new big bro was “standoffish”:

“When he came to see me, he didn’t look at me like Nicholas. He didn’t pretend to look at me like Nicholas. And he said ‘Good luck’ to me and left.”

As in, ‘good luck keeping up that act for the next 70 years of your life, mon amis’. But if Jason had already realised it was an imposter, why not say something? And if he didn’t know, why was he being so cold after those long, guilt-filled years knowing he could have potentially prevented the disappearance? Something wasn’t right.

That’s why the Chameleon got it into his head that he was actually part of some elaborate double-bluff: Jason actually knew what happened to his younger brother, and was letting the conman take his place so that nobody would ask any questions. 

That would explain why Jason filed that police report several months after the disappearance, saying the missing boy returned briefly to break into the garage. This is apparently quite a common thing: killers and kidnappers will report fake sightings, to create the illusion that their victims are still alive and well. 

Could it be that Jason — who we already know had a cocaine problem and temper issues — had accidentally killed his half-brother in a fit of rage? And if so, were other members of the family complicit in some kind of cover-up? That’s about as big a bombshell as we’ve ever dropped on the show. 

And it would mean that, when the sleazy Peter Pan conman called them from Spain, he offered the perfect opportunity for the ultimate cover-up: you can’t have a murder case if the ‘victim’ is actually alive and well! 

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My Two Cents

The absolute farce of the Bourdin case-within-a-case actually led the FBI to treat the family with more suspicion. They struggled to find a motive for why the family would have allowed this stranger to weasel his way into their lives, if not to cover up their own guilt. But how much credit do we give that? I mean, if I had killed someone, and the case was 3 years old and stone cold, the last thing I’d want would be a statewide media frenzy on my doorstep! 

I think there’s a pretty obvious alternate explanation: grief. Grief is a powerful thing. The first stage of the grieving process if denial. I think that, if you haven’t quite worked through the rest of the seven stages yet, you might jump at the chance to go right back to that starting point: to deny that the loss ever happened at all. Even if you knew in your heart of hearts I was a lie, your subconscious might just run with it.

Look at it from Carey’s perspective. She was given money by her company to fly over to Spain, with the weight of her entire family’s desperation on her shoulders. Even if her first thought was ‘it’s not him’, the conman’s story gave her the chance to suspend her disbelief. After all, she would have desperately wanted to go back to her mother with good news: the poor woman had relapsed into her heroin addiction big time after Nicholas disappeared.

And as for Jason, the FBI actually interviewed him after the Chameleon told them his theory. Jason just told them that he knew instantly that this 24-year-old French man was not his 16-year-old brother… which seems quite reasonable, in retrospect. I like to think I can tell the difference between my relatives and grown foreign men. 

However, he didn’t have the heart to burst his mother’s bubble by breaking the illusion — it’s kind of like an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ effect: when everyone around you buys into a lie, you might feel naturally compelled to go along with it. I honestly believe that Jason was still living with intense guilt, and didn’t want to be the reason for Nicholas disappearing again

I mean, his own life also fell apart after his little brother disappeared. Back in 94 his mother kicked him out after he got caught assaulting a police officer. Carey’s son told the New Yorker that his uncle was “messed Jason up pretty bad. He went on a bad drug binge and was shooting cocaine for a long time.”

After a stint in rehab in ’96, Jason managed to get himself clean, and actually stayed on at the facility as a counsellor for over a year. That’s what he was doing at the time Bourdin stepped into his life. Perhaps it was the stress of revising all those old wounds, or seeing his family torn. To pieces all over again, which led to his final relapse: Jason died of a cocaine overdose just a few months after the Chameleon was arrested. Those who believe he did accidentally kill Nicholas during a drugged-up episode — including the private investigator Parker — believe that it was a suicide.

But on the flip-side, if Jason really was innocent, then think of how tough it must have been to fight all those old feelings of guilt when the Chameleon set the FBI on him. I guess for Bourdin, it’s easier to cast the brother as the villain (and the family as his potential accomplices) than accept the reality: that he tore those poor people’s hearts to pieces just because he was too pathetic to face up to his own sins.

_____________________________

The Appeal

And so all that’s left is the most important part of all: the appeal for information. The real Nicholas Barclay is still out there somewhere, hopefully still alive and safe, however remote that possibility might be. Whether he really did run away, or was taken, someone out there must have seen him at some point. Here’s everything we know from the Charley Project:

– He went missing from San Antonio on the 10th of June 1994, but wasn’t reported missing until the 13th.

– He was a small-built, 13-year-old white boy, with blue eyes; light brown hair that looked almost blonde; and a gap between his front teeth. 

– His height was 4’8” at the time of his disappearance, and he weighed somewhere around 80 pounds.

– On the day he went missing, he was wearing a white t-shirt, black shoes, pink backpack, and purple trousers.

– Perhaps most important are the home-brew tattoos: the letter “J” on his left shoulder, a “T” between his left thumb and forefinger, and the letters “LN” on the outside of his left ankle.

– And one last thing which could help identify him as an adult: Nicholas was also diagnosed with ADHD. 

Most people have lost any hope of a tidy resolution for this case, especially since 90% of the coverage focuses around the fact a continental conman jumped in to take the kid’s place. But if the extra attention that little charade brought to the case were to be the thing that finally brought it to a close, maybe we’ll even forgive the Chameleon for his crime…

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Wrap up

Actually no, no we won’t forgive him. The man is an awful, awful human being. After his 6 years were served, he was deported back to France to continue his life of lies and manipulation unabated. Since then he’s been wrapped up in countless more scandals, impersonating orphans and other needy children well into his thirties.

He’s now 47 years old, and living as a free man, enjoying the attention that being a notable criminal-celebrity has brought him: documentaries, interviews with the New Yorker, and the odd appearance on primetime TV. All in all, he claims to have taken on the identity of a staggering 500 people — mostly children — both fictional and real. But that’s a story for another time…

To wrap up for today, a quick PSA. With a man like that still on the loose, how can the parents of the world know their little ones haven’t been swapped out for the Chameleon? Well, there are some telltale signs to look out for:

Maybe your little one has suddenly started growing stubble, and their hairline receded 8 inches overnight. 

Maybe they’ve started doing spontaneous Michael Jackson moves when they think nobody’s looking, and using outdated 80s slang like ‘radical’ and ‘bodacious’

Maybe they’ve started calling you “Mama” et “Papa”, or filling up their juice cartons with a fine Pinot Grigio. 

Or maybe you’ve been finding unexplained baguettes around the house, or croissants stuffed under their mattress.

If any of that sounds like you, then I’m sorry to inform you that your child is a fully-grown Frenchman in disguise. Best get on the blower to Interpol. 

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Dismembered Appendices 

1. If you thought finally ending up in prison might have helped reform the Chameleon’s character, you were wrong. In fact, he kept up his nonsense from behind bars, making hundreds of collect calls to the authorities, claiming that he had information about active missing person cases. Again, I cannot stress enough how low this guy would go just for another five minutes of fame.

2. If you really want to run with Bourdin’s murder theory, then there are a few last things you should know. For one, teachers at Nicholas’ school had made reports in the past of bruises on his body, indicating that he might have been beaten at home. And when the FBI made Beverly take three polygraph tests, she passed the first two and botched the third (Agent Fisher thinks that might have been because she was only sober for the last one). But honestly, after everything I’ve read about polygraphs, I place them just a couple of notches above astrology.

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