When a child is late, parents are understandably anxious. But when the hours stretched into days and then years, parents became fraught with grief.
For the family of Nicholas Barclay, the loss of their son was more tragic. It began when Nicholas was just 13 years old. His initial disappearance from his neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas, was not a cause for panic. After all, he had run away to avoid his behavior’s consequences in the past.
The troubled young man was often unpredictable and could be violent. Throughout those early years, he committed multiple crimes. In fact, prior to his disappearance, Nicholas was awaiting a hearing to decide whether he would be sent to a group juvenile delinquent home.
Nicholas was last seen playing basketball with his friends on June 13, 1994. He called home to get his mother to come and pick him up. His older brother refused to wake their mother, and Nicholas hung up. It was the last time any of his family saw him.
When he disappeared, his parents and the authorities assumed he was trying to flee his legal troubles. They figured Nicholas would come home soon enough, so they didn’t initially raise the alarm.
But his family began to worry when Nicholas hadn’t returned after a day. The police did open a missing person investigation, but they were unsure how to start looking for Nicholas because there was nothing to track. Nicholas did not have a car, credit card, or cell phone.
That first day of his disappearance turned into months, but officers kept looking for him. Leads were non-existent, and the family feared they would never see their son again.
Nicholas’ parents received an emotional call from Spain three years after his disappearance. In a small village a world away from their home in Texas, Nicholas had been found alive. He was discovered near a train station before being taken to a youth shelter, although Nicholas initially refused to share his identity.
After weeks of being unable to determine who he was, Nicholas was eventually identified by a photograph in a missing person registry. His sister flew out to Spain to bring him back to Texas. When he returned home, his parents welcomed him, grateful their son was finally home.
But as he shared details of the three years he was missing, Nicholas started to suspect something was wrong.
According to Nicholas, he was playing basketball with friends. During his walk home, he claimed to have been kidnapped and put on a plane to Europe. Nicholas also shared that he was pushed into a sex trafficking ring.
Eventually, he escaped, was picked up by law enforcement, and returned home. Nicholas was unwilling to share the names of abductors or provide blood samples and fingerprints for analysis, meaning there was no way to confirm his identity.
Immediate family members were so happy to have him returned that they dismissed the oddities of his behaviors, appearance, and circumstances.
Extended family members, however, had their suspicions. They questioned how his eyes and hair color had completely changed, how he had managed to get to Spain, and why his personality had shifted completely.
The angry, cruel, and terrifying child of 13 was now a 16-year-old who was calm, collected, and kind. Yet, for every question they posed, Nicholas seemed to have a magical answer. His kidnappers had dyed his hair and colored his eyes. His new social behaviors were the result of the traumas Nicholas experienced.
Plus, Nicholas Barclay had three tattoos when he was kidnapped and returned with those same tattoos. Despite the stories he told and the physical presence of the tattoos, not everyone was ready just to embrace Nicholas.
A private investigator named Charlie Parker noted the inconsistencies in Barclay’s stories and behaviors.
There was the question of how his eye color could be changed. Plus, his behavior suggested maturity, not evidence of trauma. Parker started comparing photos and noted that the shape of Nicholas’ ears had changed.
Knowing this wasn’t possible, he suggested that fingerprints and blood analysis were necessary. Nicholas refused to provide either one until the courts ordered him to do so. In February 1998, the FBI executed their court order, and the results were stunning.
That bloodwork and fingerprints uncovered a dark truth about the young man who claimed to be Nicholas Barclay. The boy who returned was not the same as the one who had been kidnapped all those years ago.
The Chameleon is Discovered
The young man who claimed to be Nicholas Barclay was actually Frédéric Pierre Bourdin, a 23-year-old. This was not his first attempt at pretending to be someone else.
Frédéric was a serial imposter from France who had assumed over 500 identities. Before he became Nicholas, Frédéric was known as the Chameleon, wanted by Interpol.
The Barclay family was not his first victim. With his thin frame and childish-looking features, he had claimed to be many different children from the missing children registry.
Bourdin got a place to sleep, food, and a family, for a short time at least. The emotional trauma for the families was immense once they discovered his lie.
Bourdin was a master at identity theft, even going so far as having kids give him tattoos that mimicked the ones Nicholas had. Despite the tattoos, the FBI didn’t understand how Frédéric fooled Nicholas’ family.
The family was so distraught at losing their son for a second time that eventually, the FBI backed off.
Once Bourdin’s identity theft was discovered, he was arrested. But for the Barclays, the shadow of Bourdin was not yet over. He claimed that they accepted him so quickly because it provided cover for their crime of murdering their son.
Bourdin also claimed to have met Nicholas Barclay in Spain, then later denied ever meeting him and that he knew nothing about the case or the disappearance.
Bourdin was unable to prove his accusations, but he was convincing enough that others, including Parker, continued to investigate the disappearance of Nicholas Barclay in hopes of discovering what really happened to him.