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Annals of Crime

The Chameleon
The many lives of Frédéric Bourdin.
by David Grann August 11, 2008

Bourdin once wrote, “When you fight monsters, be careful that . . . you do not become one.” Photograph by François-Marie Banier.

On May 3, 2005, in France, a man called an emergency hot line for missing and exploited children. He frantically explained that he was a tourist passing through Orthez, near the western Pyrenees, and that at the train station he had encountered a fifteen-year-old boy who was alone, and terrified. Another hot line received a similar call, and the boy eventually arrived, by himself, at a local government child-welfare office. Slender and short, with pale skin and trembling hands, he wore a muffler around much of his face and had a baseball cap pulled over his eyes. He had no money and carried little more than a cell phone and an I.D., which said that his name was Francisco Hernandez Fernandez and that he was born on December 13, 1989, in Cáceres, Spain. Initially, he barely spoke, but after some prodding he revealed that his parents and younger brother had been killed in a car accident. The crash left him in a coma for several weeks and, upon recovering, he was sent to live with an uncle, who abused him. Finally, he fled to France, where his mother had grown up.

French authorities placed Francisco at the St. Vincent de Paul shelter in the nearby city of Pau. A state-run institution that housed about thirty-five boys and girls, most of whom had been either removed from dysfunctional families or abandoned, the shelter was in an old stone building with peeling white wooden shutters; on the roof was a statue of St. Vincent protecting a child in the folds of his gown. Francisco was given a single room, and he seemed relieved to be able to wash and change in private: his head and body, he explained, were covered in burns and scars from the car accident. He was enrolled at the Collège Jean Monnet, a local secondary school that had four hundred or so students, mostly from tough neighborhoods, and that had a reputation for violence. Although students were forbidden to wear hats, the principal at the time, Claire Chadourne, made an exception for Francisco, who said that he feared being teased about his scars. Like many of the social workers and teachers who dealt with Francisco, Chadourne, who had been an educator for more than thirty years, felt protective toward him. With his baggy pants and his cell phone dangling from a cord around his neck, he looked like a typical teen-ager, but he seemed deeply traumatized. He never changed his clothes in front of the other students in gym class, and resisted being subjected to a medical exam. He spoke softly, with his head bowed, and recoiled if anyone tried to touch him.

Gradually, Francisco began hanging out with other kids at recess and participating in class. Since he had enrolled so late in the school year, his literature teacher asked another student, Rafael Pessoa De Almeida, to help him with his coursework. Before long, Francisco was helping Rafael. “This guy can learn like lightning,” Rafael recalls thinking.

One day after school, Rafael asked Francisco if he wanted to go ice-skating, and the two became friends, playing video games and sharing school gossip. Rafael sometimes picked on his younger brother, and Francisco, recalling that he used to mistreat his own sibling, advised, “Make sure you love your brother and stay close.”

At one point, Rafael borrowed Francisco’s cell phone; to his surprise, its address book and call log were protected by security codes. When Rafael returned the phone, Francisco displayed a photograph on its screen of a young boy who looked just like Francisco. “That’s my brother,” he said.

Francisco was soon one of the most popular kids in school, dazzling classmates with his knowledge of music and arcane slang—he even knew American idioms—and moving effortlessly between rival cliques. “The students loved him,” a teacher recalls. “He had this aura about him, this charisma.”

During tryouts for a talent show, the music teacher asked Francisco if he was interested in performing. He handed her a CD to play, then walked to the end of the room and tilted his hat flamboyantly, waiting for the music to start. As Michael Jackson’s song “Unbreakable” filled the room, Francisco started to dance like the pop star, twisting his limbs and lip-synching the words “You can’t believe it, you can’t conceive it / And you can’t touch me, ’cause I’m untouchable.” Everyone in the room watched in awe. “He didn’t just look like Michael Jackson,” the music teacher subsequently recalled. “He was Michael Jackson.”

Later, in computer class, Francisco showed Rafael an Internet image of a small reptile with a slithery tongue.

“What is it?” Rafael asked.

“A chameleon,” Francisco replied.

On June 8th, an administrator rushed into the principal’s office. She said that she had been watching a television program the other night about one of the world’s most infamous impostors: Frédéric Bourdin, a thirty-year-old Frenchman who serially impersonated children. “I swear to God, Bourdin looks exactly like Francisco Hernandez Fernandez,” the administrator said.

Chadourne was incredulous: thirty would make Francisco older than some of her teachers. She did a quick Internet search for “Frédéric Bourdin.” Hundreds of news items came up about the “king of impostors” and the “master of new identities,” who, like Peter Pan, “didn’t want to grow up.” A photograph of Bourdin closely resembled Francisco—there was the same formidable chin, the same gap between the front teeth. Chadourne called the police.

“Are you sure it’s him?” an officer asked.

“No, but I have this strange feeling.”

When the police arrived, Chadourne sent the assistant principal to summon Francisco from class. As Francisco entered Chadourne’s office, the police seized him and thrust him against the wall, causing her to panic: what if he really was an abused orphan? Then, while handcuffing Bourdin, the police removed his baseball cap. There were no scars on his head; rather, he was going bald. “I want a lawyer,” he said, his voice suddenly dropping to that of a man.

At police headquarters, he admitted that he was Frédéric Bourdin, and that in the past decade and a half he had invented scores of identities, in more than fifteen countries and five languages. His aliases included Benjamin Kent, Jimmy Morins, Alex Dole, Sladjan Raskovic, Arnaud Orions, Giovanni Petrullo, and Michelangelo Martini. News reports claimed that he had even impersonated a tiger tamer and a priest, but, in truth, he had nearly always played a similar character: an abused or abandoned child. He was unusually adept at transforming his appearance—his facial hair, his weight, his walk, his mannerisms. “I can become whatever I want,” he liked to say. 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. A police captain in Pau noted, “When he talked in Spanish, he became a Spaniard. When he talked in English, he was an Englishman.” Chadourne said of him, “Of course, he lied, but what an actor!”

Over the years, Bourdin had insinuated himself into youth shelters, orphanages, foster homes, junior high schools, and children’s hospitals. His trail of cons extended to, among other places, Spain, Germany, Belgium, England, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Bosnia, Portugal, Austria, Slovakia, France, Sweden, Denmark, and America. The U.S. State Department warned that he was an “exceedingly clever” man who posed as a desperate child in order to “win sympathy,” and a French prosecutor called him “an incredible illusionist whose perversity is matched only by his intelligence.” Bourdin himself has said, “I am a manipulator. . . . My job is to manipulate.”

In Pau, the authorities launched an investigation to determine why a thirty-year-old man would pose as a teen-age orphan. They found no evidence of sexual deviance or pedophilia; they did not uncover any financial motive, either. “In my twenty-two years on the job, I’ve never seen a case like it,” Eric Maurel, the prosecutor, told me. “Usually people con for money. His profit seems to have been purely emotional.”

On his right forearm, police discovered a tattoo. It said “caméléon nantais”—“Chameleon from Nantes.”

“Mr. Grann,” Bourdin said, politely extending his hand to me. We were on a street in the center of Pau, where he had agreed to meet me one morning last fall. For once, he seemed unmistakably an adult, with a faint five-o’clock shadow. He was dressed theatrically, in white pants, a white shirt, a checkered vest, white shoes, a blue satin bow tie, and a foppish hat. Only the gap between his teeth evoked the memory of Francisco Hernandez Fernandez.

After his ruse in Pau had been exposed, Bourdin moved to a village in the Pyrenees, twenty-five miles away. “I wanted to escape from all the glare,” he said. As had often been the case with Bourdin’s deceptions, the authorities were not sure how to punish him. Psychiatrists determined that he was sane. (“Is he a psychopath?” one doctor testified. “Absolutely not.”) No statute seemed to fit his crime. Ultimately, he was charged with obtaining and using a fake I.D., and received a six-month suspended sentence.

A local reporter, Xavier Sota, told me that since then Bourdin had periodically appeared in Pau, always in a different guise. Sometimes he had a mustache or a beard. Sometimes his hair was tightly cropped; at other times, it was straggly. Sometimes he dressed like a rapper, and on other occasions like a businessman. “It was as if he were trying to find a new character to inhabit,” Sota said.

Bourdin and I sat down on a bench near the train station, as a light rain began to fall. A car paused by the curb in front of us, with a couple inside. They rolled down the window, peered out, and said to each other, “Le Caméléon.”

“I am quite famous in France these days,” Bourdin said. “Too famous.”

As we spoke, his large brown eyes flitted across me, seemingly taking me in. One of his police interrogators called him a “human recorder.” To my surprise, Bourdin knew where I had worked, where I was born, the name of my wife, even what my sister and brother did for a living. “I like to know whom I’m meeting,” he said.

Aware of how easy it is to deceive others, he was paranoid of being a mark. “I don’t trust anybody,” he said. For a person who described himself as a “professional liar,” he seemed oddly fastidious about the facts of his own life. “I don’t want you to make me into somebody I’m not,” he said. “The story is good enough without embellishment.”

I knew that Bourdin had grown up in and around Nantes, and I asked him about his tattoo. Why would someone who tried to erase his identity leave a trace of one? He rubbed his arm where the words were imprinted on his skin. Then he said, “I will tell you the truth behind all my lies.”

Before he was Benjamin Kent or Michelangelo Martini—before he was the child of an English judge or an Italian diplomat—he was Frédéric Pierre Bourdin, the illegitimate son of Ghislaine Bourdin, who was eighteen and poor when she gave birth to him, in a suburb of Paris, on June 13, 1974. On government forms, Frédéric’s father is often listed as “X,” meaning that his identity was unknown. But Ghislaine, during an interview at her small house, in a rural area in western France, told me that “X” was a twenty-five-year-old Algerian immigrant named Kaci, whom she had met at a margarine factory where they both worked. (She says that she can no longer remember his last name.) After she became pregnant, she discovered that Kaci was already married, and so she left her job and did not tell him that she was carrying his child.

Ghislaine raised Frédéric until he was two and a half—“He was like any other child, totally normal,” she says—at which time child services intervened at the behest of her parents. A relative says of Ghislaine, “She liked to drink and dance and stay out at night. She didn’t want anything to do with that child.” Ghislaine insists that she had obtained another factory job and was perfectly competent, but the judge placed Frédéric in her parents’ custody. Years later, Ghislaine wrote Frédéric a letter, telling him, “You are my son and they stole you from me at the age of two. They did everything to separate us from each other and we have become two strangers.”

Frédéric says that his mother had a dire need for attention and, on the rare occasions that he saw her, she would feign being deathly ill and make him run to get help. “To see me frightened gave her pleasure,” he says. Though Ghislaine denies this, she acknowledges that she once attempted suicide and her son had to rush to find assistance.

When Frédéric was five, he moved with his grandparents to Mouchamps, a hamlet southeast of Nantes. Frédéric—part Algerian and fatherless, and dressed in secondhand clothes from Catholic charities—was a village outcast, and in school he began to tell fabulous stories about himself. He said that his father was never around because he was a “British secret agent.” One of his elementary-school teachers, Yvon Bourgueil, describes Bourdin as a precocious and captivating child, who had an extraordinary imagination and visual sense, drawing wild, beautiful comic strips. “He had this way of making you connect to him,” Bourgueil recalls. He also noticed signs of mental distress. At one point, Frédéric told his grandparents that he had been molested by a neighbor, though nobody in the tightly knit village investigated the allegation. In one of his comic strips, Frédéric depicted himself drowning in a river. He increasingly misbehaved, acting out in class and stealing from neighbors. At twelve, he was sent to live at Les Grézillières, a private facility for juveniles, in Nantes.

There, his “little dramas,” as one of his teachers called them, became more fanciful. Bourdin often pretended to be an amnesiac, intentionally getting lost in the streets. In 1990, after he turned sixteen, Frédéric was forced to move to another youth home, and he soon ran away. He hitchhiked to Paris, where, scared and hungry, he invented his first fake character: he approached a police officer and told him that he was a lost British teen named Jimmy Sale. “I dreamed they would send me to England, where I always imagined life was more beautiful,” he recalls. When the police discovered that he spoke almost no English, he admitted his deceit and was returned to the youth home. But he had devised what he calls his “technique,” and in this fashion he began to wander across Europe, moving in and out of orphanages and foster homes, searching for the “perfect shelter.” In 1991, he was found in a train station in Langres, France, pretending to be sick, and was placed in a children’s hospital in Saint-Dizier. According to his medical report, no one knew “who he was or where he came from.” Answering questions only in writing, he indicated that his name was Frédéric Cassis—a play on his real father’s first name, Kaci. Frédéric’s doctor, Jean-Paul Milanese, wrote in a letter to a child-welfare judge, “We find ourselves confronted with a young runaway teen, mute, having broken with his former life.”

On a piece of paper, Bourdin scribbled what he wanted most: “A home and a school. That’s all.”

When doctors started to unravel his past, a few months later, Bourdin confessed his real identity and moved on. “I would rather leave on my own than be taken away,” he told me. During his career as an impostor, Bourdin often voluntarily disclosed the truth, as if the attention that came from exposure were as thrilling as the con itself.

On June 13, 1992, after he had posed as more than a dozen fictional children, Bourdin turned eighteen, becoming a legal adult. “I’d been in shelters and foster homes most of my life, and suddenly I was told, ‘That’s it. You’re free to go,’ ” he recalls. “How could I become something I could not imagine?” In November, 1993, posing as a mute child, he lay down in the middle of a street in the French town of Auch and was taken by firemen to a hospital. La Dépêche du Midi, a local newspaper, ran a story about him, asking, “Where does this mute adolescent . . . come from?” The next day, the paper published another article, under the headline “THE MUTE ADOLESCENT WHO APPEARED OUT OF NOWHERE HAS STILL NOT REVEALED HIS SECRET.” After fleeing, he was caught attempting a similar ruse nearby and admitted that he was Frédéric Bourdin. “THE MUTE OF AUCH SPEAKS FOUR LANGUAGES,” La Dépêche du Midi proclaimed.

As Bourdin assumed more and more identities, he attempted to kill off his real one. One day, the mayor of Mouchamps received a call from the “German police” notifying him that Bourdin’s body had been found in Munich. When Bourdin’s mother was told the news, she recalls, “My heart stopped.” Members of Bourdin’s family waited for a coffin to arrive, but it never did. “It was Frédéric playing one of his cruel games,” his mother says.

By the mid-nineties, Bourdin had accumulated a criminal record for lying to police and magistrates, and Interpol and other authorities were increasingly on the lookout for him. His activities were also garnering media attention. In 1995, the producers of a popular French television show called “Everything Is Possible” invited him on the program. As Bourdin appeared onstage, looking pale and prepubescent, the host teasingly asked the audience, “What’s this boy’s name? Michael, Jürgen, Kevin, or Pedro? What’s his real age—thirteen, fourteen, fifteen?” Pressed about his motivations, Bourdin again insisted that all he wanted was love and a family. It was the same rationale he always gave, and, as a result, he was the rare impostor who elicited sympathy as well as anger from those he had duped. (His mother has a less charitable interpretation of her son’s stated motive: “He wants to justify what he has become.”)

The producers of “Everything Is Possible” were so affected by his story that they offered him a job in the station’s newsroom, but he soon ran off to create more “interior fictions,” as one of the producers later told a reporter. At times, Bourdin’s deceptions were viewed in existential terms. One of his devotees in France created a Web site that celebrated his shape-shifting, hailing him as an “actor of life and an apostle of a new philosophy of human identity.”

One day when I was visiting Bourdin, he described how he transformed himself into a child. Like the impostors he had seen in films such as “Catch Me If You Can,” he tried to elevate his criminality into an “art.” First, he said, he conceived of a child whom he wanted to play. Then he gradually mapped out the character’s biography, from his heritage to his family to his tics. “The key is actually not lying about everything,” Bourdin said. “Otherwise, you’ll just mix things up.” He said that he adhered to maxims such as “Keep it simple” and “A good liar uses the truth.” In choosing a name, he preferred one that carried a deep association in his memory, like Cassis. “The one thing you better not forget is your name,” he said.

He compared what he did to being a spy: you changed superficial details while keeping your core intact. This approach not only made it easier to convince people; it allowed him to protect a part of his self, to hold on to some moral center. “I know I can be cruel, but I don’t want to become a monster,” he said.

Once he had imagined a character, he fashioned a commensurate appearance—meticulously shaving his face, plucking his eyebrows, using hair-removal creams. He often put on baggy pants and a shirt with long sleeves that swallowed his wrists, emphasizing his smallness. Peering in a mirror, he asked himself if others would see what he wanted them to see. “The worst thing you can do is deceive yourself,” he said.

When he honed an identity, it was crucial to find some element of the character that he shared—a technique employed by many actors. “People always say to me, ‘Why don’t you become an actor?’ ” he told me. “I think I would be a very good actor, like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. But I don’t want to play somebody. I want to be somebody.”

In order to help ease his character into the real world, he fostered the illusion among local authorities that his character actually existed. As he had done in Orthez, he would call a hot line and claim to have seen the character in a perilous situation. The authorities were less likely to grill a child who appeared to be in distress. If someone noticed that Bourdin looked oddly mature, however, he did not object. “A teen-ager wants to look older,” he said. “I treat it like a compliment.”

Though he emphasized his cunning, he acknowledged what any con man knows but rarely admits: it is not that hard to fool people. People have basic expectations of others’ behavior and are rarely on guard for someone to subvert them. By playing on some primal need—vanity, greed, loneliness—men like Bourdin make their mark further suspend disbelief. As a result, most cons are filled with logical inconsistencies, even absurdities, which seem humiliatingly obvious after the fact. Bourdin, who generally tapped into a mark’s sense of goodness rather than into some darker urge, says, “Nobody expects a seemingly vulnerable child to be lying.”

In October, 1997, Bourdin told me, he was at a youth home in Linares, Spain. A child-welfare judge who was handling his case had given him twenty-four hours to prove that he was a teen-ager; otherwise, she would take his fingerprints, which were on file with Interpol. Bourdin knew that, as an adult with a criminal record, he would likely face prison. He had already tried to run away once and was caught, and the staff was keeping an eye on his whereabouts. And so he did something that both stretched the bounds of credulity and threatened to transform him into the kind of “monster” that he had insisted he never wanted to become. Rather than invent an identity, he stole one. He assumed the persona of a missing sixteen-year-old boy from Texas. Bourdin, now twenty-three, not only had to convince the authorities that he was an American child; he had to convince the missing boy’s family.

According to Bourdin, the plan came to him in the middle of the night: if he could fool the judge into thinking that he was an American, he might be let go. He asked permission to use the telephone in the shelter’s office and called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in Alexandria, Virginia, trolling for a real identity. Speaking in English, which he had picked up during his travels, he claimed that his name was Jonathan Durean and that he was a director of the Linares shelter. He said that a frightened child had turned up who would not disclose his identity but who spoke English with an American accent. Bourdin offered a description of the boy that matched himself—short, slight, prominent chin, brown hair, a gap between his teeth—and asked if the center had anyone similar in its database. After searching, Bourdin recalls, a woman at the center said that the boy might be Nicholas Barclay, who had been reported missing in San Antonio on June 13, 1994, at the age of thirteen. Barclay was last seen, according to his file, wearing “a white T-shirt, purple pants, black tennis shoes and carrying a pink backpack.”

Adopting a skeptical tone, Bourdin says, he asked if the center could send any more information that it had regarding Barclay. The woman said that she would mail overnight Barclay’s missing-person flyer and immediately fax a copy as well. After giving her the fax number in the office he was borrowing, Bourdin says, he hung up and waited. Peeking out the door, he looked to see if anyone was coming. The hallway was dark and quiet, but he could hear footsteps. At last, a copy of the flyer emerged from the fax machine. The printout was so faint that most of it was illegible. Still, the photograph’s resemblance to him did not seem that far off. “I can do this,” Bourdin recalls thinking. He quickly called back the center, he says, and told the woman, “I have some good news. Nicholas Barclay is standing right beside me.”

Elated, she gave him the number of the officer in the San Antonio Police Department who was in charge of the investigation. This time pretending to be a Spanish policeman, Bourdin says, he phoned the officer and, mentioning details about Nicholas that he had learned from the woman at the center—such as the pink backpack—declared that the missing child had been found. The officer said that he would contact the F.B.I. and the U.S. Embassy in Madrid. Bourdin had not fully contemplated what he was about to unleash.

The next day at the Linares shelter, Bourdin intercepted a package from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children addressed to Jonathan Durean. He ripped open the envelope. Inside was a clean copy of Nicholas Barclay’s missing-person flyer. It showed a color photograph of a small, fair-skinned boy with blue eyes and brown hair so light that it appeared almost blond. The flyer listed several identifying features, including a cross tattooed between Barclay’s right index finger and thumb. Bourdin stared at the picture and said to himself, “I’m dead.” Not only did Bourdin not have the same tattoo; his eyes and hair were dark brown. In haste, he burned the flyer in the shelter’s courtyard, then went into the bathroom and bleached his hair. Finally, he had a friend, using a needle and ink from a pen, give him a makeshift tattoo resembling Barclay’s.

Still, there was the matter of Bourdin’s eyes. He tried to conceive of a story that would explain his appearance. What if he had been abducted by a child sex ring and flown to Europe, where he had been tortured and abused, even experimented on? Yes, that could explain the eyes. His kidnappers had injected his pupils with chemicals. He had lost his Texas accent because, for more than three years of captivity, he had been forbidden to speak English. He had escaped from a locked room in a house in Spain when a guard carelessly left the door open. It was a crazy tale, one that violated his maxim to “keep it simple,” but it would have to do.

Soon after, the phone in the office rang. Bourdin took the call. It was Nicholas Barclay’s thirty-one-year-old half sister, Carey Gibson. “My God, Nicky, is that you?” she asked.

Bourdin didn’t know how to respond. He adopted a muffled voice, then said, “Yes, it’s me.”

Nicholas’s mother, Beverly, got on the phone. A tough, heavyset woman with a broad face and dyed-brown hair, she worked the graveyard shift at a Dunkin’ Donuts in San Antonio seven nights a week. She had never married Nicholas’s father and had raised Nicholas with her two older children, Carey and Jason. (She was divorced from Carey and Jason’s father, though she still used her married name, Dollarhide.) A heroin addict, she had struggled during Nicholas’s youth to get off drugs. After he disappeared, she had begun to use heroin again and was now addicted to methadone. Despite these difficulties, Carey says, Beverly was not a bad mother: “She was maybe the most functioning drug addict. We had nice things, a nice place, never went without food.” Perhaps compensating for the instability in her life, Beverly fanatically followed a routine: working at the doughnut shop from 10 P.M. to 5 A.M., then stopping at the Make My Day Lounge to shoot pool and have a few beers, before going home to sleep. She had a hardness about her, with a cigarette-roughened voice, but people who know her also spoke to me of her kindness. After her night shift, she delivered any leftover doughnuts to a homeless shelter.

Beverly pulled the phone close to her ear. After the childlike voice on the other end said that he wanted to come home, she told me, “I was dumbfounded and blown away.”

Carey, who was married and had two children of her own, had often held the family together during Beverly’s struggles with drug addiction. Since Nicholas’s disappearance, her mother and brother had never seemed the same, and all Carey wanted was to make the family whole again. She volunteered to go to Spain to bring Nicholas home, and the packing-and-shipping company where she worked in sales support offered to pay her fare.

When she arrived at the shelter, a few days later, accompanied by an official from the U.S. Embassy, Bourdin had secluded himself in a room. What he had done, he concedes, was evil. But if he had any moral reservations they did not stop him, and after wrapping his face in a scarf and putting on a hat and sunglasses he came out of the room. He was sure that Carey would instantly realize that he wasn’t her brother. Instead, she rushed toward him and hugged him.

Carey was, in many ways, an ideal mark. “My daughter has the best heart and is so easy to manipulate,” Beverly says. Carey had never travelled outside the United States, except for partying in Tijuana, and was unfamiliar with European accents and with Spain. After Nicholas disappeared, she had often watched television news programs about lurid child abductions. In addition to feeling the pressure of having received money from her company to make the trip, she had the burden of deciding, as her family’s representative, whether this was her long-lost brother.

Though Bourdin referred to her as “Carey” rather than “sis,” as Nicholas always had, and though he had a trace of a French accent, Carey says that she had little doubt that it was Nicholas. Not when he could attribute any inconsistencies to his unspeakable ordeal. Not when his nose now looked so much like her uncle Pat’s. Not when he had the same tattoo as Nicholas and seemed to know so many details about her family, asking about relatives by name. “Your heart takes over and you want to believe,” Carey says.

She showed Bourdin photographs of the family and he studied each one: this is my mother; this is my half brother; this is my grandfather.

Neither American nor Spanish officials raised any questions once Carey had vouched for him. Nicholas had been gone for only three years, and the F.B.I. was not primed to be suspicious of someone claiming to be a missing child. (The agency told me that, to its knowledge, it had never worked on a case like Bourdin’s before.) According to authorities in Madrid, Carey swore under oath that Bourdin was her brother and an American citizen. He was granted a U.S. passport and, the next day, he was on a flight to San Antonio.

For a moment, Bourdin fantasized that he was about to become part of a real family, but halfway to America he began to “freak out,” as Carey puts it, trembling and sweating. As she tried to comfort him, he told her that he thought the plane was going to crash, which, he later said, is what he wanted: how else could he escape from what he had done?

When the plane landed, on October 18, 1997, members of Nicholas’s family were waiting for him at the airport. Bourdin recognized them from Carey’s photographs: Beverly, Nicholas’s mother; Carey’s then husband, Bryan Gibson; Bryan and Carey’s fourteen-year-old son, Codey, and their ten-year-old daughter, Chantel. Only Nicholas’s brother, Jason, who was a recovering drug addict and living in San Antonio, was absent. 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. Though Bourdin had thought that Nicholas’s relatives were going to “hang” him, they rushed to embrace him, saying how much they had missed him. “We were all just emotionally crazy,” Codey recalls. Nicholas’s mother, however, hung back. “She just didn’t seem excited” the way you’d expect from someone “seeing her son,” Chantel told me.

Bourdin wondered if Beverly doubted that he was Nicholas, but eventually she, too, greeted him. They all got in Carey’s Lincoln Town Car and stopped at McDonald’s for cheeseburgers and fries. As Carey recalls it, “He was just sitting by my mom, talking to my son,” saying how much “he missed school and asking when he’d see Jason.”
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