Meet ‘The Chameleon’: A Pathological Liar Who Convinced a Family He Was Their Missing Son

On June 13, 1994, a 13-year-old boy named Nicholas Barclay went missing from San Antonio, Texas. Nicholas was last seen playing basketball with some friends. When the teenager called home to get a ride, his older half brother, Jason, told him to walk because his mother was asleep.

He never did return home that evening.

Although the troubled boy had disappeared from home before, it  was never for more than a day. It was typical of Nicholas to run away from home after getting into arguments with his mother, Beverly Dollarhide. He was known to shout obscenities at her and physically harm her when upset. The police were even dispatched to the family home on several occasions in response to the commotion. At the age of 13, he already had a juvenile criminal record.

Nicholas’ sentencing hearing was scheduled for June 14, just one day after he disappeared.

Despite endless searches, the family never heard from their blue-eyed boy ever again; that is, until October 1997. Or so they thought.

Nearly four years after vanishing, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Alexandria, Virginia, was contacted by someone from a youth center in Linares, Spain, claiming to have found Nicholas. That particular someone was Frédéric Bourdin, also known by the French press as “The Chameleon.” Bourdin, who was 23-years-old at the time, spent the majority of his life stealing the identities of orphaned and missing children throughout Europe.

Bourdin never really had a family of his own; he was never loved or treated the way he desired. The con artist grew up without a father and was hardly paid attention to by his young mother. During his adolescence, he began impersonating orphans he came into contact with as a means of getting attention. His main goal was to fool people into thinking he was an abandoned teenager with no family, that way, he could be placed into care by social services and attend school.

At first, these false identities were simply imaginary. Bourdin would construct names, characteristics and back stories for each individual he pretended to be. However, soon after being faced with a prison sentence for his fabrications, Bourdin assumed the identity of Nicholas — even though they looked and sounded nothing alike. When he was last seen, Nicholas had blonde hair, bright blue eyes and an American accent; Bourdin had a heavy French accent, brown hair and brown eyes.

It all began when he managed to obtain a fax from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Willing to do anything to avoid being captured by Interpol, he realized his only chance at freedom was pretending to be a missing child. Somehow, he was able to convince everyone around him that he was Nicholas, including law enforcement officials and the American Embassy. Bourdin swore under oath that he was the real Nicholas Barclay and was granted a US passport.

In particular, he was capable of deceiving Nicholas’ distraught family.

That’s when the teenager’s sister, Carey Gibson, flew out to Spain to bring him home to Texas. Despite his appearance and strange behavior, Gibson was oblivious to the fact that he wasn’t actually her brother. You may be wondering how it’s possible to fall for such trickery, but Bourdin had been conning people for years.

To convince Nicholas’ sister, he alleged he had escaped a child sex ring run by high-ranking US military officers, and that his captors dyed his hair and chemically changed his eye color. He also claimed that his accent and speech were the result of being punished for speaking English. Bourdin even went as far as getting three small tattoos to match the ones Nicholas had, including the letter T on his left hand.

barclay disappearance

After arriving in the states, he was able to keep up the deception for about three-and-a-half months. He moved into the family home, attended school and made friends. They never once questioned that he wasn’t their flesh and blood.

But things began unraveling for Bourdin when a private investigator named Charlie Parker tracked him down to obtain an interview for Hard Copy about his traumatic and astonishing story. Can you guess what eventually gave away his ruse? It was the shape of Bourdin’s ears, as ears stay the same since birth and are a great way to identify people. Bourdin’s ears didn’t match those of Nicholas.

Parker tried informing the FBI of his discovery, but it took some time for them to make a move.

Later, when Bourdin refused to provide blood samples or have his fingerprints taken, the FBI obtained a warrant to see who they were really dealing with. In 1998, he finally pleaded guilty to perjury and passport fraud, and was sentenced to six years in prison. Of course, he continued to steal the identities of other orphans almost immediately.

A chilling documentary titled The Imposter, directed by Bart Layton, tells this shocking true story of how Bourdin managed to convince Nicholas’ family that he was their lost son. The film re-examines what really happened and forces you to observe how people are able to be swayed into believing something that isn’t true.

In one scene, Gibson confesses that she can’t explain how the entire family was duped. “How could I be so fucking stupid?” she asks.

Despite only having circumstantial evidence, Parker still alleges that Nicholas’ family know more about his disappearance than they’ve admitted to.

The documentary suggests there’s a reason they took in a complete stranger who looked nothing like their missing relative. It also touches upon the fact that the only family member who seemed to know something was amiss was his half-brother Jason. But Jason died from a drug overdose soon after being investigated by Parker for Nicholas’ disappearance.

But the fact remains that he is still missing, likely dead, and nowhere to be found. Subsequent searches by Parker have never turned up a body.