Having a child go missing is any parents' worst nightmare. Sadly, most missing children die within the first 24 hours. That's why it was miraculous when one missing child, Nicholas Barclay, was found alive and well only three years later.
The Barclay family was overjoyed to hear that their son had been located, but when he returned home, something just wasn't right. Read on about the strange disappearance and equally strange reappearance of Nicholas Barclay.
Vanished Into Thin Air
Nicholas Barclay was only 13 years old when he vanished from his hometown of San Antonio, Texas on the evening of June 13, 1994. That day would be burned into his family's memories for terrible reasons.
The police investigation and the events that would come from his disappearance not only shocked Nicky's family, but it shocked the world.
A Problem Child
Nicholas wasn't exactly an angel. He may have seemed sweet, but he had some temperamental issues. Nicky often argued with his mother but his anger transferred over to outbursts at school and with friends.
Many neighborhood kids were even told by their parents not to play with Nicholas. These issues forced Nicky's mom Beverly to bring his uncle Jason to live with them. That choice would change everything.
An Average Day
The evening of June 13 wasn't unlike any other summer day. Nicky and his friends were enjoying their summer break. They were outside playing basketball at a park nearby. When it was time to leave, Nicky called home for a ride.
Nicky's uncle Jason picked up the phone because his mothe was asleep after a night shift. Jason didn't want to wake Beverly so he suggested Nicky walk home instead. Unfortunately, Nicky never came home.
Panic Settles In
As the hours passed, Jason soon realized Nicholas wasn't coming home. He woke his sister and the two immediately called the police. Although the police responded quickly, they were initially skeptical.
Nicholas had a juvenile court date set up for the next day. He had also run away from home before. The police figured this was just Nicky's way of trying to avoid going to court.
The Days Passed Slowly
The theory that Nicholas had run away was very likely, but as the days passed, opinions changed. Nicky had never been gone more than 24 hours. He hadn't packed any clothes, had called for a ride home in the first place, and was also known to have only $5 on him.
Finally, the San Antonio police decided to turn the disappearance into a missing persons case.
Running Into Deadends
The police were downright baffled as to what had happened to Nicky. After three months of investigating, they had no evidence and no theories.
Nicholas was last seen in bright purple track pants with a pink backpack, yet no one had reported seeing the eye-catching outfit. Unless someone saw Nicky, the case would soon run cold.
A Shocking Sighting
Finally, someone surprising did call in to say they'd seen Nicky: his uncle Jason. He claimed to have seen Nicholas breaking into the family garage and he ran away once he was spotted.
It was the only lead the police had so they decided to turn over every stone around the family's household. They searched and searched but found nothing. Were the police missing something obvious or was Jason lying?
Time To Play The Waiting Game
After Jason's tip fell through, the police kept on waiting but to no avail. The family and investigators grew continuously frustrated. Sadly, the public slowly began to forget about the disappearance and interest fell away.
That interest would come back quickly though as the case took an unbelievable turn. thanks to a surprising phone call.
A Surprising Reappearance Three Years Later
When the San Antonio police answered the phone on an unassuming day, they were shocked to hear Spanish officials on the other end saying they had located Nicholas Barclay.
According to the Spanish authorities, a boy was found huddled and scared in a phone booth and had been brought to a youth shelter.
A Tragic Tale
Nicholas told authorities that he was kidnapped while walking home from the basketball court and smuggled to Europe. For years he was abused in a human trafficking ring until he finally escaped and fled.
The story was absolutely harrowing and made Nicholas' family even more anxious to reunite with him.
The family decided that they would send one of them over to Spain to identify the teenager as Nicholas and bring him home if necessary. Nicholas' older sister Carey immediately flew out to Spain.
As soon as she walked into the room and saw a boy waiting timidly for her, she ran up and embraced him. The entire family was happy to hear Carey confirm it was indeed her brother.
Carey and Nicholas returned to San Antonio and the entire Barclay family met them. The reunion was long-awaited, yet disappointing.
Nicholas was quiet and shy, not his usual self. The family also looked through some old photos but he didn't seem to have much recollection of them. But given everything he'd been through, it wasn't shocking to see the trauma manifested in memory loss.
When Nicky went missing, he was a thin kid with blonde hair, blue eyes, and a noticeable gap in his teeth. He also had some small tattoos including a cross on his right hand and a letter 'J' on his left shoulder.
The Nicholas Barclay that returned didn't have any of these physical attributes. Sure, some things change with age, but eye color was a little mysterious.
A Surprising Accent
Another interesting difference with the new Nicholas Barclay was that he also picked up a French accent. The change was strange but many experts said it's easy to pick up an accent after years in a foreign country.
Nicky said his captors forbid him from speaking English and that's why he had a different speech tone.
Love And Acceptance
Despite all the strange discrepancies between the old Nicky and the new one, his family welcomed him back with open arms. He slowly began adjusting to life and Nicholas was enrolled back in high school.
The family did their best to keep him out of the media frenzy at first. Nicholas ended up doing one TV interview months after his return, and it would change everything.
A Fatal TV Interview
The Barclay family allowed for a film crew from the television show Hard Copy to come into their home and interview Nicholas. Along with the interviewer, Private Investigator Charlie Parker was on hand.
He had worked on the original missing person case and was eager to witness the interview happen in person.
A Shocking Observation
Charlie Parker was always suspicious, but as the interview with Nicholas Barclay and his family continued on, he had a gut feeling that something was wrong.
He stared at the person in front of him being interviewed while holding an old photo of Nicholas and then finally, it hit him. "Zoom in on his ears!" he told the cameraman.
The Body Part That Never Lies
Of all the physical differences between the old and new Nicholas, the ears were the most telling. As the cameraman zoomed in, Charlie Parker realized that they were nothing alike. Being a P.I., Parker knew that the one body part that doesn't age is your ears.
With this new evidence, Parker was able to get a court order to take Nicky's fingerprints and DNA to confirm it was him. The family had refused beforehand but now there was nowhere to hide.
The results of the court-ordered DNA came back and proved what Parker had believed — this person who was claiming to be Nicholas Barclay wasn't him at all.
The family was shocked and confused that the person who had lived with them as their son for nearly six months wasn't him. But if it wasn't Nicky, who was it?
Meet Frédéric Bourdin
The DNA test proved that the man living with the Barclays was not 16-year-old Nicholas, but rather a 23-year-old Frenchman named Frédéric Bourdin.
He had been posing as Nicholas the entire time and it took a private investigator to figure it out. Between all the shock and anger, everyone just had one question: why?
How He Pulled It Off
After the DNA test was confirmed, Bourdin confessed to everything. According to him, he had heard of the missing American teen and thought nothing of it until a security guard casually mentioned the two looked alike.
Bourdin decided to find out as much information about Nicholas as possible, adjust his appearance to be younger, and hope that the plan worked.
The strangest thing about this mystery is that with Bourdin, there seemed to be no real motive for impersonation Nicky. Psychologists have argued he was just looking for love and affection in any form he could find.
What was more shocking at the time of the reveal is that Bourdin said the Barclay family knew it was him all along.
Possible Foul Play
As Bourdin told the police his story, he also made shocking accusations that the Barclay family knew he was an imposter the entire time.
Why would they accept him so openly then? Bourdin believed it was because one of the family members had murdered Nicholas and they saw Bourdin as a surefire way to avoid being caught.
Two Sides Of The Story
When the Barclay family heard these allegations they immediately denied them. They argued they were so grief-stricken that the desperately wanted Nicky to be home, so they were willing to look past Bourdin's lies.
Still, the accusation couldn't be overlooked and the police decided that they would reopen the Nicholas Barclay case.
A Cold Case Reopened
Charlie Parker decided to once again take it upon himself to find the truth. After Bourdin's accusations, Parker began to look closer at the family. One member of interest was Nicholas' uncle, Jason, who had refused to pick him up the day he went missing.
Jason didn't come see Bourdin when he was impersonating Nicky either, which Parker believed was because he knew it couldn't have been Nicolas.
As Parker looked deeper into Jason, the more suspicious he became. When Jason did finally meet Bourdin as Nicholas, the only words he said were "good luck."
Parker also says that when he questioned Jason about Nicholas' disappearance, he didn't defend any allegations and instead would just stare at the private investigator blankly.
Unfortunately, just days after the Nicholas Barclay case was reopened and they had begun to investigate Jason, he died of a drug overdose. Police combed over Jason's items but no evidence was found.
Without their lead suspect and any evidence, it seemed like the Nicholas Barclay case would stay a mystery.
A Master Manipulator
After he was exposed, Bourdin was sentenced to six years in jail for passport fraud and perjury. When he was released, Bourdin returned to France.
Many hoped that impersonating Nicholas was a one-time thing and that Bourdin would readjust to normal life. What he did for the next few years would shock and hurt more families.
Bourdin Strikes Again
Just months after being released from prison, Bourdin assumed the identity of another missing teenage boy. This time, he played the part of Leo Balley, a 14-year-old boy who had gone missing seven years earlier.
Bourdin was nearly 30 when he tried to pull this one off but a DNA test quickly exposed him. Still, he would strike again.
A Serial Impersonator
One year later, in 2004, Bourdin was found to be illegally posing as Spanish teenager Ruben Sanchez Espinoza. Bourdin claimed his mother was killed in Madrid and he needed a new family. Once again, the police exposed him.
Returning to France, he once again tried to pass off as a 15-year-old Spanish boy named Francisco Hernandez-Fernandez. The police were onto his tricks by now and he was finally sent to jail again.
Frédéric Bourdin's serial impersonations have given him the nickname "The Chameleon" by police around the world. He has lived all his life under fake identities and was wanted by Interpol long before he pretended to be Nicholas Barclay.
Bourdin has even admitted that he's used more than 500 fake identities over his lifetime.
A Final Transformation
It seemed like Bourdin's obsession with becoming other people would never end, that is, until he found love. In 2007, he met his wife Isabelle and decided to settle down. The two now have five children and Bourdin has claimed that he will "never impersonate anyone again."
Maybe becoming a father himself made him realize how much he hurt other families.
Art Imitates Life
The unbelievable story of Nicholas Barclay's disappearance and Frédéric Bourdin's impersonation of him has intrigued the world. It even caught the eye of multiple film directors. The 2010 film The Chameleon and the 2012 documentary The Imposter have both looked into the story.
Sadly, we might never have closure for the Barclay family.