THE bizarre true story of how a French man assumed the identity of a missing American boy has now been made into a film. Chitra Ramaswamy talks to the private detective who uncovered the remarkable deception
NOVEMBER, 1997, in San Antonio, Texas. In an office full of autopsy reports, crime scene photos and a hidden camera or two, a private detective called Charlie Parker gets a phone call. It’s a producer from a trashy TV show called Hard Copy and he wants to hire Parker to investigate a local story. So far, so American gothic.
But this is a story stranger even than fiction: in 1994 a 13-year-old Texan boy called Nicholas Barclay vanished without a trace on his way home. Three years later he was found thousands of miles away in a phone box in Spain. He claimed to have been kidnapped, raped, and tortured by an international paedophile ring. Now Nicholas Barclay had been returned home to his family in San Antonio.
Parker instantly accepted the job. “I had not heard about this story,” he tells me in a Texan accent as grainy as coffee grounds. “It had not been in the paper. This producer just told me they wanted me to check it out. Well, I went right on over to the house.”
Then things got weird. At the home of the Barclay family, Parker watched while a TV presenter interviewed them. There was Beverley Dollarhide, Nicholas’s mother, a large woman with sad eyes and a voice scorched by nicotine, and Carey Gibson, her daughter and Nicholas’s older sister, a kind-faced woman who had gone to Spain to bring her brother home. And in between them was Nicholas, a quiet and traumatised boy who wouldn’t meet anyone’s eyes.
Parker was immediately struck by his accent, which seemed French. And then he noticed other things. “It just so happened there was an old picture of Nicholas Barclay on the wall,” Parker recalls. “I looked at the picture and saw blue eyes, but this boy’s eyes were brown. Then I went over and asked the cameraman to zoom in on his ears. You see, I remembered Scotland Yard had used that method to trace the man who killed Martin Luther King.”
By the time Parker left the house he had the photo of Nicholas Barclay in his pocket. Back at the office he fed both images into his computer and zoomed in on the ears until they took up the screen, side by side, completely different. “Clearly,” he tells me with some satisfaction, “this was not Nicholas Barclay.”
This astonishing story of deception, and self-deception, is told in The Imposter, a documentary that has become the talking point of every festival where it’s been shown. Directed by British filmmaker Bart Layton, it uses a cunning mixture of confessional interviews and recreated scenes with actors to tell a tale with more twists and turns than a Raymond Chandler novel. It’s a brilliant and very troubling film about a story that would be utterly unbelievable if it weren’t true.
Parker may not be The Imposter’s main character, but he is its most memorable one. A larger-than-life Texan in braces, white shirt and tie, he has slicked back snowy hair and a surprisingly chirpy demeanour for someone who spends his time investigating unsolved murders. “First, I owned a lumber yard,” he says airily, as if this were how all private eyes started out. “Then we started a club working old murders.” What made him do that? “We just did it,” he says impatiently. “I don’t know why we did it. We just did. Anyway, we had a psychic, a forensic artist, a psychologist… We met once a week and went over old murders with autopsy reports, crime scene photos, everything. People say we were the first cold case squad in the United States.”
Part of the reason Parker is so brilliant in The Imposter is because he’s a fictional character made flesh, someone we instantly recognise. He looks like he’s just walked off the set of a Coen Brothers movie, in other words. “Well thank you ma’am for saying that,” he says. “When I went to see the film I leaned over to my wife and said ‘why are they laughing at me?’ And she said ‘because they love you’.” He chuckles then becomes serious again. “I feel good about catching him, I really do. Nobody was working this case but me. Towards the end everyone got involved but most of the time no-one would believe me.” Is this the biggest case of his life? “Yes ma’am,” he replies softly. “It certainly is.”
The Imposter begins in October 1997, when a boy claiming to be blond haired, blue eyed Nicholas Barclay pitched up in Linares, Spain. Turns out he was a 23-year-old French-Algerian man called Frederic Bourdin with brown hair, brown eyes and a European accent. Still, he convinced everyone. No in-depth inquiries were made. Embassy officials and US federal agents were satisfied. And perhaps most incredibly of all, so was his sister when she set eyes on him in Spain. After all, she reasoned, her brother had been to hell and back. Of course he was changed. They went home and normal life was resumed.
It was only when Parker got involved that the story started to unravel. And it quickly became stranger than even he expected. “I phoned Beverley and said it’s not him,” he recalls. “I told her about the ears. She said she didn’t understand.” The family, for a long time, refused to believe him. “The next day I got a call from Bourdin,” Parker goes on. “I said ‘I don’t know who you are but you’re not Nicholas Barclay. And if any harm comes to that family I’m coming after you’.”
And so he began following Bourdin. “I spent most of my days watching him,” Parker says. “I would park near the house. I would watch him getting on the school bus, doing his Michael Jackson moves. Most of the time he just slept real late. I kept thinking I would catch him at an air base. I thought he was a spy. I thought he was here to blow up something. He scared me, he really did. And my wife was mad because no-one was paying me. All the work I needed to get done was piling up. But I just couldn’t let it go.”
Eventually, one night, Beverley called him. “She was crying and screaming and saying ‘it’s not him’,” he recalls. “She had driven him by his old middle school and he hadn’t recognised it. So I went on over there and Bourdin had a baseball bat and was acting crazy. I calmed him down and told him we would go for breakfast in the morning and sort it all out.”
The following morning, Parker picked Bourdin up and drove him to a diner where they ordered hotcakes. “I said to him ‘your mother – and I purposefully used that word – is real upset with you’. And he said ‘she’s not my mother and you know it. My name is Frederic Bourdin and I’m wanted by Interpol’.” Bourdin has since denied this confession to Parker and has called him “a man who loves attention” and “the real liar”. “It’s actually him who is obsessed with being in the public eye,” Parker sighs. “That’s the way a bad guy operates. He will try and turn it on you. He is extremely manipulative and I personally believe he is evil.”
Bourdin had spent his entire life assuming false identities (usually of children) and was known in his native France as the Chameleon. That day he was arrested. “I went to the bathroom and phoned the FBI,” he explains. “They said to hold him there as long as possible. Well my wife was down the street in a service station and she had my gun. I always wore it in my ankle holster and would let him see it on occasion because I was afraid of him and I wanted him to see that I was armed. But I didn’t take my gun with me that morning and had raised my pant leg to show him because I wanted him to relax. Anyway he started getting antsy and so I drove him back to the motel where he was staying with Beverley and as soon as I let him out the FBI swarmed on him. They got him.”
Bourdin went on to spend six years in prison, sentenced with perjury and obtaining false documents. Although he consented to be interviewed at length for The Imposter – and it’s a chilling, mercurial interview at that – he has since turned his back on the film, its director and, of course, Parker. His Twitter feed is replete with attacks on everyone associated with it. “He feels I betrayed him,” he says. “The first act of betrayal was calling the FBI, which cost him dearly. The second was when he was in prison and was phoning and threatening me so I called the warden. He was punished. He despised me after that.”
The real question behind all those layers of untruth is what happened to Nicholas Barclay. Bourdin has accused the Barclay family of being involved in his disappearance, or murder, and covering it up by accepting a stranger into their home. Parker believes both that they wanted to believe him so desperately and that he was skilled at making them do so. He also thinks Nicholas’s brother, Jason, a drug addict who died of an overdose, might have been involved. “There was trouble in that house,” Parker concedes. “The means and the opportunity were there but no one can say Jason did it.”
The Imposter ends on a question mark, but the search for Nicholas Barclay goes on. “I’m still looking for the body,” Parker tells me. “So far I have dug up a few places and found nothing. But hopefully enough people will see this movie that someone will know something. I will not give up until I find him. This is what I do. And I never stop looking.”
• The Imposter is now on general release.
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