When missing Texas-teen Nicholas Barclay was found after three years in Spain, no one could believe it was him. The miraculous discovery of the troubled teen seemed too good to be true…and it was. Now, we’re unpacking the real and incredible story of a Nicholas Barclay— his assumed kidnapping, his spine-tingling return, and an imposter performance for the ages.

Losing Nicholas Barclay

When thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay first disappeared from his neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas, no one panicked. Barclay was no stranger to running away from home. The troubled boy was often unpredictable and violent, committing multiple crimes in his youth. Just before his disappearance, he was anticipating a hearing to send him to a group juvenile delinquent home. Both his parents and the authorities figured that his sudden vanishing act was merely him fleeing his tumultuous life for a day. Yet, it soon became clear that Barclay hadn’t just run away to avoid facing his consequences.

Direct Expose/The Apricity

After Barclay didn’t return for over a day—not even to gather more than the $5 he had in his pocket—his family began to worry. Despite opening a missing person investigation, the police weren’t sure how to pursue Barclay. Without a credit card, phone, or vehicle to track, Barclay seemed untraceable. Whether he stayed in town or hiked out, Barclay would prove difficult to track down. His days-long disappearance soon bled into several months as officers tirelessly searched for Barclay. At one point, his uncle called the police and said Barclay was attempting to break into his garage, yet he fled before the cops arrived. This short burst of hope led nowhere…and leads in the case were nonexistent. The Barclays were struggling to believe that they’d ever see Nicholas again.

Yet, three years later, the Barclay family received a jarring phone call. In a small, Spanish village—an ocean away from his Texas home—Nicholas Barclay had been found alive. He was first discovered near a train station and relocated to a youth shelter in Linares, Spain, though he refused to give up his identity. Yet, after weeks of stagnancy, he was finally identified as Nicholas Barclay through a photograph from the missing person registry. His sister flew out to Spain to identify and retrieve Barclay. When he arrived home, his parents welcomed the terrified, stiff, and strange teenager that their child had grown into. However, there was something fishy about the boy that was claiming to be their son.

The strange return of their son

After three years apart from his family, Barclay had quite the tale to tell. On the eve of his disappearance, Barclay had been playing basketball with his friends. The boy who returned claimed that he was kidnapped on his way home, driven to the airport, and tossed on a plane to Europe. After arriving, his kidnappers pushed him into a child sex trafficking ring. He was eventually able to flee and was discovered by European law enforcement. This all resulted in his return back home…yet he didn’t come back as the same kid he was before. Still, the immediate members of his family were so grateful to have Barclay home that the oddities of his behaviors, appearance, and circumstances hardly fazed them.

However, a few members of his extended family began to grow suspicious of the boy claiming to be Nicholas. How did Barclay end up all the way in Spain? How exactly did his hair and eye color both change? Why was he suddenly so calm, collected, and kind— when he’d once been cruel, angry, and terrifying? The new-and-improved Barclay had a magical excuse for most of their questions. He claimed that his kidnappers had dyed his hair and colored his eyes to make him unrecognizable. His new social behaviors could be written off as the effects of trauma. Additionally, he had something that only Barclay and those close to him could recognize: his tattoos. Barclay had three tattoos when he went missing, and he returned with the same three.

Irish Film Institute

Yet, not everyone could settle for the new Nicholas—especially law enforcement. This was especially true of a private investigator named Charlie Parker, who had worked closely in filming the family after their reunion. He noted the inconsistencies in Barclay’s story and behaviors. First, while Barclay described going through extremely scarring experiences, his behaviors reflected maturity rather than trauma. Second, it was highly unlikely that any kidnappers would go to the trouble of dying a child’s hair to force them to blend in. It was also nearly impossible to alter any human’s eye color. He decided to compare photographs of the Nicholas who had fled home and the one who returned…and he found that their ears were different shapes and sizes. These odd inconsistencies were intensified by the fact that Barclay had adamantly refused to surrender any samples of fingerprints or blood for the investigation. Yet, after Parker’s findings, the court ordered for Barclay to submit both. They uncovered a dark truth: the Nicholas Barclay who had returned to the Barclay household wasn’t the boy who went missing.

‘The Chameleon’: An imposter for the ages

The person living with the Barclay family wasn’t Nicholas. Instead, it was 23-year-old Frédéric Pierre Bourdin. He was a serial imposter from France, assuming over 500 identities in his short life. Before he was known as Nicholas, he was known as “The Chameleon”…and was a wanted man by Interpol. As far as missing children went, the Barclay family weren’t his first victims. Thanks to his thin frame and childish features, Bourdin was able to pretend to be a number of kids in the worldwide registry of missing children across his lifetime. What did he get out of it? Bourdin got a place to sleep, food, a bed, a family— for him, it was a pretty sweet gig. For the families he tricked, his true identity was a nightmare… and the Barclay family was no exception.

Alchetron

After Nicholas was proven to be Bourdin, the F.B.I. grew suspicious that the family had something to do with Barclay’s disappearance. How could they not have recognized the fact that their son was an imposter? However, the family truly seemed distraught to lose their son for the second time…and Bourdin was a mastermind in identity theft. After deciding to prey on the Barclays’ pain, he went as far as to have kids at the youth shelter give him an identical stick and poke tattoos to mirror Nicholas Barclay’s tattoos. Pretty spooky, right?

Once Bourdin was found out, he was arrested and sentenced to six years in jail. However, before he was thrown in the slammer, he asserted that the Barclay family were truly at fault. He was certain that they knew he was an imposter of their son. He believed they used his return as a cover for the fact that they had murdered their precious Nicholas Barclay. Despite not being able to prove what he claimed, Bourdin was certain that the troublesome Barclay had died at the hand of a family member. Many people, including Charlie Parker, believed that Bourdin was onto something and are still trying to prove what happened to Nicholas Barclay today.