The strange case of the vanishing boy

Published September 1998

Just over four years ago, on the afternoon of Monday June 13 1994, a 13-year-old American boy named Nicholas Barclay vanished on his way home from playing basketball near his home in San Antonio, Texas.

When he didn’t come home that evening, his mother, Beverly, guessed at first that he was staying out to punish her for a row that they had had, but by the next morning, she knew there was something badly wrong. The San Antonio police told her that there wasn’t much that they could do and not to worry, he’d surely turn up soon. But he didn’t.

Beverly and Nicholas’ big sister, Carey, who was 14 years older than him, started scouring the city, putting up posters, knocking on doors, begging for a lead, but weeks passed and there was still no sign of the boy and, as the weeks unfolded into months without a word and without a clue, inside herself Beverly began to lose hope, to accept that the son whom she loved must be dead. She was haunted by the pain.

Three years and four months had passed when, one evening in October last year, without any warning, Beverly received a call from the San Antonio police: there was a possibility that Nicholas had been found alive, in Spain. A social worker named Jonathan Dorion had phoned them from a children’s shelter in Linares, near Granada, to say that he had a boy with him answering to the name of Nicholas Barclay, claiming to have been abducted by paedophiles on the streets of San Antonio in the summer of 1994. This social worker had left a phone number.

Beverly and Carey bombarded the number and, although it took them several days to get through to someone who could speak English, they finally found themselves talking to this Jonathan Dorion who confirmed that Nicholas truly was found, that he had escaped from a paedophile ring who had shipped him to Spain and held him with other young children, torturing and abusing them. Although the boy was evidently too traumatised to say much, he came to the phone with one simple request: “Take me home.”

Beverly and Carey were on fire with excitement and relief and also with questions. Where on Earth had Nicholas been all these years? How had he got to Spain? What ever had he suffered? And who were these paedophiles who could kidnap a boy in broad daylight and smuggle him around the world?

They tumbled into action. Beverly didn’t like flying. Carey said she’d go. Neither of them could afford the tickets. Carey’s company said they’d pay. Carey got to Madrid where the Spanish authorities started to cause trouble. A local judge said she wasn’t convinced this was really Nicholas Barclay – until he identified family members in photographs that Carey had brought with her. Then Spanish immigration said that the boy couldn’t leave without a passport, but Carey got on to the FBI who got on to the State Department who cut through the red tape, and so it was that on October 18 last year, Carey walked through the arrivals gate at San Antonio airport, clutching the hand of a miracle. Beverly hugged the boy and, somewhat stiffly, the boy hugged her back. After all the years of hopelessness, Beverly’s family was whole again. She could hardly believe it was real.

It was at this point, just when all the emotional fireworks were at their peak with Nicholas’ grandmother and his cousins and friends and neighbours all joining in the reunion; just as the FBI and the police were finally getting interested and trying to talk to Nicholas about how they could get on the trail of the men who had stolen him; just when Beverly and Carey were trying to come to terms with the emotional damage that had been inflicted on the boy; it was at this point that Charlie Parker smelled something bad.

Charlie Parker, sometimes known as ‘Gumshoe’, is a private investigator, an amiable, silver-haired fellow in his late 50s, who used to be a cop down the road in Corpus Christi. Years ago, he moved to San Antonio and started the Find Anyone Agency. Charlie does all kinds of work. He tracks down runaway spouses and disappearing debtors, he puts in a lot of unpaid time for a charity that deals in unsolved murders but, most of all, he likes to trace missing children. He has worked some good cases and he has been on national television a couple of times. In fact, there is talk that Hollywood might make a drama series based on his life.

So when the Hard Copy current affairs programme got wind of this strange story, that a boy from San Antonio had escaped from some kind of paedophile brothel in Spain, it was natural enough that they should turn to Charlie for help. With luck on his side, Charlie was soon talking to a local FBI agent, Nancy Fisher, who specialises in the investigation of child abuse and who was able to tell Charlie that there was, indeed, such a boy, though she declined to give him his details. Charlie tracked him down all the same and, being an amiable fellow, he soon struck up a rapport with him, and the more he talked to him, the more he smelled something bad. Very bad.

There was the boy’s voice, for example. Charlie Parker had never been to Europe but so far as he could tell, this boy had some kind of French accent. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t American. And then there were his ears. Charlie had often come across people who had tried to change their appearance but one thing that was very hard to change was the shape of the ears. And this guy’s ears were nothing like the ears in the old photos of Nicholas Barclay. But most of all, it was the eyes.

Charlie had persuaded the boy to give an interview to Hard Copy. It was a couple of weeks after the boy’s arrival, and they were all sitting there in the kitchen at Carey’s home, where the boy was staying, and Charlie was watching the filming, nursing his suspicions, when he picked up an old Missing poster that had been stuck up around the town and happened to notice what it said about Nicholas’ eyes. They were blue. And there, sitting at the kitchen counter, talking nervously to the camera, was someone who answered to Nicholas’ name – whose eyes were quite plainly brown. Charlie’s mind was now made up: this was not Nicholas Barclay, this was an impostor.

In the meantime, at the FBI, Nancy Fisher was beginning to smell the same thing. Two weeks after the boy’s return, she had been to interview him. He had given the most detailed and horrific account of his abduction and repeated rape, yet he had refused to give her any kind of information about the men who had done this to him. He said he was too scared of them. Nancy Fisher had been an FBI agent for 20 years and she had dealt with plenty of kidnap victims in the past, but she had never met one as unhelpful as this. Also, he just didn’t seem like an American to her.

A kind of battle now began. On one side was Charlie, along with the journalists from Hard Copy and Nancy Fisher from the FBI, who all agreed they were looking at a fraud. On the other side were Beverly and Carey, together with Nicholas’ grandmother, his cousins and friends, who all agreed that this was their lost boy. Nicholas had already told them about his eyes, they said: these paedophiles had injected him with some chemical to change their colour so he would be harder to recognise. Charlie checked and found there was no drug in the world that could change the colour of eyes, although he had to concede that there was a drug used in the treatment of glaucoma that could darken the colour. That was good enough for the family who said they knew all about his accent, too: Nicholas had been forbidden to speak English for four years and punished if he tried. Charlie checked with a university professor and he had to concede that it was possible that a child of that age might lose his accent. And the ears? That was just part of the regular aging process.

For weeks, the two sides skirmished over the truth. Nancy Fisher persuaded the boy to come with her to Dallas to meet a child psychiatrist, who examined him for several hours and concluded without question that he was not an American and, therefore, that he must be lying. Nancy called the Barclay family to tell them the news, but she arrived back in San Antonio to find Beverly and Carey insisting that the psychiatrist had to be wrong. This boy knew so much about them and their family history, he must be real. Why would any impostor call them all the way from Spain? How would he even have heard of them? And how could he have identified family members in Carey’s photographs for the Spanish judge? Or found out any of the other tiny details of their lives which he very obviously knew? Beverly lost her temper with the FBI agent and told her she was trying to steal her son for a second time.

Nancy said a blood test would find the truth. The boy agreed. But when they reached the hospital, as he took his place in the examination room, he suddenly lost his temper, complaining that the nurses were staring at him as though he were a freak. He stormed out without his blood being taken. Beverly and Carey said everyone should leave the boy alone, they knew their own kin when they saw him, and hadn’t he been through enough without being harrassed by the goddam FBI.

But Nancy Fisher was worried that this guy might be planning some kind of crime. She had another idea to get to the truth: she would take photographs of the boy and of different members of the family and she would show them to the FBI’s forensic artist, Dr Karen Taylor (check), who would use the most advanced technology to make comparisons in the bone structure. To Nancy’s surprise, Dr Taylor reported back that she could not be sure but it seemed to her that the photographs revealed more similarities than differences. Beverly was delighted. But Charlie Parker would not give up and, with the help of a local TV station, he persuaded the boy to take a lie-detector test in front of the TV cameras. The boy took it. And passed. At least, he didn’t fail. The polygraph examiner said the result was inconclusive, there was a 62% chance that the boy was lying but there were key questions to which he appeared to be answering truthfully.

By now, it was late February and the boy had been living with the family for four months. It had not been easy. He had enrolled in school but he fought with the teachers and was suspended. Living at Carey’s, he argued with his cousin, Codie, who was a year younger than him, and finally attacked him and tried to strangle him. He had run up a huge phone bill – $1,690 at Carey’s place, calling France and Spain and all over the United States. He had been back for only two weeks when he stole Carey’s car and drove off to Oklahoma, where he was arrested by local police who agreed not to prosecute him only because of the ordeal he had suffered. The family kept forgiving him. They felt like they owed him that much.

But the battle would not stop. Nancy Fisher got a court order to force him to give his finger prints and a sample of his blood, and she hassled Interpol to search their records for a known offender that might fit him. The boy struck back, disclosing for the first time the name of the one of the boys who had been held alongside him by the paedophile ring. It was a boy from Berlin, he said, who had been kidnapped a year later than himself, in July 1995, and his name was Till Kratzsch. It sounded phoney. It turned out to be real. More than that, when a Dutch TV programme picked up on the story and contacted Till Kratzsch’s mother in Berlin, she agreed to fly out to San Antonio to find out more about her lost child.

On March 5 of this year, Claudia Kratzsch flew into San Antonio. That same day, Nancy Fisher finally heard from Interpol, who sent the finger prints of a suspect. And by chance, again on that same day, Beverly heard something that chilled the blood in her veins. A friend of hers had given the boy a lift in her car and driven him by a block of flats where he had lived for four years, until he was ten years old, a place where Nicholas knew just about every kid on the block. And this boy had known nothing – not the building, not the people, nothing.

The truth was that privately, Beverly had been beginning to have her doubts. The boy was like Nicholas in many ways but, in one very big way, he was different. He was cold. Nicholas was a warm child, always hugging her and kissing her. This boy held back. She had told herself it was just because of the terrible experience he had been through but the truth was that ever since that first moment, at San Antonio airport, when the boy had hugged her so stiffly, she had felt that this was not her son. She had buried the feeling. She had wanted to believe. But she had been worried when he refused to take the blood test and now he had driven by his own former home and failed to recognise it. That evening, she called Charlie Parker and tearfully confided that he must be right. She was scared.

Charlie had his own news. That afternoon, he had taken the boy to meet Claudia Kratzsch and on a piece of paper Charlie had drawn an outline of a human form and asked him to mark any scars that he had seen on his friend Till. The boy had made a few marks on the arms and knees, and then the mother had taken Charlie off to one end of the room and told him: “He’s lying.” Her son had a prominent scar on his forehead. If this boy had spent any time at all with him, he would know that.

The next morning, Charlie Parker took the boy out to breakfast at Jim’s coffee shop on Austin Highway, just down the road from Beverly’s place. Charlie bought them some hot cakes and took off his jacket so the boy could see he was wearing no gun and, in his mildest, most amiable manner, he said: “Nicholas, your mother called me last night at midnight. She’s real upset.”

“Charlie,” replied the boy, in his strange accent, “she is not my mother, and you know it.”

“OK,” said Charlie, who could feel his heart starting to thump.

“She is not my mother,” the boy continued, “and I am not Nicholas Barclay. I am Frederic Bourdin.”

Frederic Who? Charlie Parker retired quickly to the rest room to call Nancy Fisher at the FBI on his mobile. Nancy confirmed that according to Interpol, this was indeed Frederic Bourdin. Her own fingerprint expert had just confirmed it. He wasn’t American. He was French. He wasn’t 16 years old. He was 23. And he had been in trouble with police all over Western Europe. Nancy asked Charlie to keep Bourdin talking, the arrest warrant was on its way, she would be there with the handcuffs just as soon as she could.

For his first few weeks behind bars, Bourdin stuck to his story, but his finger prints betrayed him. He began to talk and with help from Interpol and his mother, whom Nancy Fisher found on the end of a phone in Paris, the truth finally began to emerge. It was the portrait of a man who lied in his bones, a chameleon character who had almost ceased to exist as he re-wrote himself into a sequence of fictional characters.

He was Benjamin Kent from England and Shedgin Gueyere from Mexico (or sometimes Uruguay). He was Jimmy Morrins and Robin Morins and Arnaud Orions from whatever country happened to fit the plot. He was Marc Selopin from France, Thomas Wilson from Australia, Shadjan Raskovic from Bosnia and always he was not just a name, he was a whole story, usually a sad one. In Glasgow, he told Social Services how he had been sold to an Irish couple who had sexually assaulted him. In Luxemburg, he had been on the run from his adoptive parents who had abused him. In Brussels, he collapsed in the street as a result of his suffering. In Dublin, he collapsed in a department store.

And in all of this, he was not a common con artist, for the simple reason that he was not doing any of this for money. His profit was purely emotional. Always, in all of his stories, he played the part of a child and always he set out to immerse himself in warmth and sympathy. When his mother, Ghislaine Bordin, spoke to the FBI, she said frankly that she did not like her son and she described how, when he was four or five years old, she had handed him over to her parents in Brittany for them to raise him. A few years later, her parents had passed him on again, putting him into a children’s home in Nantes. There, apparently, he had done well, until he had reached the age of 16 and been shuffled off to another home, for older children.

In the county jail outside San Antonio, Bourdin spoke to the Guardian and described how he had started to run away from the children’s home, only to be picked up by the police and sent back. Soon he had learned to lie. At first this was simply to fool the police but then, as he had learned to tell more complicated stories, the lie had become a means to a far greater end: “I never really accepted to be an adult. I am not a criminal. I am just a boy who will do anything that his brain know how to do, to get attention and love. My work is to get love. This is my work. I don’t do drugs, don’t kill people, or rape children. I tell stories that will get people to care for me. This is my job.”

He became an expert in the craft of dishonesty. He explained how he had learned to tell a story that was not only detailed and crafted for sympathy but which was always deliberately spiced with a little confusion. When he was in Paris and he wanted to pretend to be a lost English boy, he didn’t just contact the authorities, he got on the phone to the gendarmerie and posed as a Belgian tourist who had just found this boy on a street corner, so that when the police turned up, they not only had the boy to deal with but also the mystery of who this Belgian was and why it was that he had refused to stay with the child.

Bourdin spent six months in the county jail, awaiting trial, telephoning the American media and explaining how he had been able to recreate himself as Nicholas Barclay – he had known Nicholas, he said. The truth was, he went on, that he had been hitch-hiking in southern Spain where he had been picked up by two men who had raped him and locked him in a house in Madrid where there were other children, one of whom was Nicholas Barclay. The boy had become his closest friend, the person he loved most in all the world, and when he had finally escaped – with the help of a very famous American whose name he could not disclose – he had decided to become Nicholas, because Nicholas had asked him to do it, to repair the broken family he might never see again.

The entire story happened to be high-grade Bourdin fiction, complete with the trademark confusing detail about the famous American, but he had several journalists trying to track down the exact location of this house in Madrid. This particular story finally collapsed in the detail when he told the Guardian how he had escaped and called the San Antonio police to get hold of his friend Nicholas’ mother. But if he was doing this for Nicholas, why didn’t he call her direct? Surely Nicholas would have given him his own phone number. Bourdin stumbled, said it was because she had changed her number (so, how would Nicholas have known that?), and then said it was because she wasn’t on the phone (so, how could she have changed the number and, anyway, why not call his sister, Carey?). He called back a few days later and said he had been thinking, the truth was that he had not been abducted and he had never met Nicholas. Then he told a story which fits the recollection of those he dealt with in San Antonio.

He had been staying in a children’s home in Linares in southern Spain, spinning one of his stories, but he knew the authorities were beginning to distrust him. He needed a new story, a really good one and so, for the first time, he decided that instead of simply conjuring up a fictitious character, he would hide himself in a real one. He had always wanted to live in the United States, he had heard that Seattle was a fine city, so he had called the Seattle police and told them that he was a social worker called Jonathan Dorion and he had just found a boy on a street corner, a boy who claimed he came from Seattle. Did they keep records of missing children? The police said the best thing he could do was to talk to the National Centre for Missing Children.

Bourdin told the Guardian that he wanted to pose as a child of about 16, that he knew that he could not choose a child who had gone missing too recently because he would have no chance of looking right, so he called the National Centre and, still posing as the Spanish social worker Jonathan Dorion, explained that he had found this American boy who said he was 16 years old and that he had been abducted in America three or fours ago, but this boy was scared to say any more. Bourdin added a physical description of himself. Did that seem to match anyone, he asked. The National Centre scrolled through their records and said they could not be sure but possibly it might fit this kid Nicholas Barclay from San Antonio. “That was all I needed,” Bourdin told the Guardian.

Half an hour later, he was on the phone to the San Antonio police, still posing as Jonathan Dorion, now accompanied by a boy called Nicholas Barclay who said he had been abducted from the city three or four years ago. The San Antonio police said it was amazing but there was just such a boy on their records. Bourdin played sceptical, the police kindly offered to help by faxing him an information sheet about the missing boy. Bourdin waited, received the fax and called back to say there was a good news. Nicholas Barclay was found. When the family contacted him, Bourdin explained, he simply played the same game, using his Jonathan Dorion character to gather more information – “I need to be sure that this really is Nicholas”. By the time the Spanish judge had challenged him to pick out Nicholas’ relatives in photographs, he had accumulated enough background knowledge simply to rely on guess work. Once he had made it to San Antonio, he had pumped Carey’s son, Codie, for family stories and, when he was left alone in the house, he had rummaged through desks and drawers and photograph albums in search of more detail. Bourdin was clearly very proud of the skill he had shown.

How had he known about Till Kratzsch, the missing Berlin boy? Very simple. He had visited a San Antonio centre for missing children and picked up a postcard with his details. But what about the polygraph test? That was more interesting. He had half-passed that because, even though he knew very well that he was lying, at some deep emotional level – at the level where he genuinely needed to become a child in a family – he believed his own fiction. And that was one final clue to his success in fooling Nicholas Barclay’s family. How could Beverly possibly have looked at a 23-year-old man with a French accent and brown eyes and believed for a second that this was her blue-eyed, 16-year-old all-American son? How could everyone else in the family have done the same? Because they had hope. And hope can tell you lies.

There is little love lost now on Frederic Bourdin. Nancy Fisher boils with anger when she recalls the pain he caused the families of Nicholas Barclay and Till Kratzsch and how he sat in prison making calls to foreign embassies claiming to know about missing children whose details he had picked up from the centre for missing children. “Unfortunately, it is not against the law to be a jerk,” she said but she charged him with entering the country on a false passport and perjury in lying to the FBI. Last month (September), Bourdin pleaded guilty and now awaits sentence.

Beverly looks back on it all now with a chaos of feelings. “I felt real angry. We treated him great, we put the other kids on hold and I got pissed with people who said it wasn’t him. It would anger me. I didn’t want to hear that. You know, if it isn’t Nicholas, then where is my Nicholas? I didn’t want to deal with it all again. But I had to anyway. It’s like losing him all over again.” And yet she feels a curious compassion for Bourdin. “I feel sorry for him, it bothers me that he is in jail. You know we got to know him and this kid has been through hell, he has a lot of nervous habits, he is almost like an innocent in some ways.”

And somewhere, someone knows the rest of the story, the hidden truth about what really happened to a 13-year-old boy who never came home from basketball just over four years ago, a story that remains lost in lies.

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