On June 13, 1994, Nicholas “Nicky” Barclay, a lively and independent 13-year-old, went missing after playing basketball at a park in San Antonio, Texas. He initially called home for a ride, but when his older brother refused to wake their sleeping mother, Nicholas hung up the payphone and vanished into thin air.Nicholas had been missing for a little over three years when his family got a call from police in Linares, Spain. Authorities had found the boy. Or had they? In one of the most extreme cases of truth vs. fiction, a man, nicknamed “The Chameleon,” became a Nicholas imposter.
A Troubled Teen
Nicholas, according to his mother, Beverly Dollarhide, was a loving boy at times, but he was also full of rage and had an aggressive streak that landed him in juvenile jail a few times. He had been scheduled to appear in front a juvenile court judge on June 14, for breaking into a convenience store and threatening one of his teachers. There was a chance he would get sent to a juvenile detention center or group home.
“He thought he was an adult. We called him ’13 going on 30.’ [It was] very difficult to discipline him. If he made up his mind he was going to do something, pretty much there wasn’t a lot you could do,” said Dollarhide.
Police initially assumed that Nicholas simply ran away to evade punishment. He’d left home a number of times before, but he always returned within a day or so. With only five dollars in his pocket, authorities figured it wouldn’t be too long before they spotted him. He didn’t have a change of clothes with him, and he’d left home wearing purple pants and carrying a pink backpack. Police were convinced they’d find him in no time. Yet, days turned into weeks without even one clue or glimpse of Nicholas.
About three months after he disappeared, Nicholas’s big brother, Jason, called the police and told them that Nicholas tried to break into the family’s garage. When officers arrived, the missing boy was nowhere in sight. After canvassing the area and coming up empty, police became suspicious of Jason’s story. Although nothing ever came of the call, it would set the stage for a number of accusations placed against the family.
Three years crept by with no sight of Nicholas, except for on the “missing” flyers and posters showcasing his bright blue eyes and blond hair. With no leads, his family did their best to keep occupied. In October 1997, however, their world changed when the San Antonio police called Dollarhide and told her that Nicholas was in Spain.
Meet The Chameleon
In Linares, Spain, a young man, thought to be a teen, was spotted huddled under a large jacket inside a phone booth. A couple of tourists spotted him, and fearing for his safety, phoned the police. He was quickly picked up and taken to a child-welfare judge, who told the fellow to explain who he was or submit his fingerprints.
The man was Frédéric Bourdin (main photo), a 23-year-old from France who made up stories so eloquently that he later boasted that he could convince anyone of anything. He had no intentions of getting fingerprinted. Unbeknownst to those police officers, he had a long track record of impersonating more than 500 different kids all over the world, and there was no way he was going back to jail. Instead, he prepared to pull off the story of his life.
Bourdin told the judge he was from the United States, and asked her to let him sleep in her office for the night. He promised that after a good night’s sleep, he’d give them all the information they needed to locate his family. Amazingly, the judge agreed.
As soon as he was alone in the office, Bourdin began calling American police stations, which eventually led to a call to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in Virginia. Posing as a social worker, Bourdin gave a rough description of himself. He was matched to Nicholas Barclay. When a faxed picture made its way to the judge’s office, Bourdin, still posing as a social worker, told NCMEC that Nicholas was ready to “go home.”
Nicholas’s older sister, Carol “Carey” Gibson, flew out to Spain to fetch her younger brother. Bourdin claimed to have been kidnapped and thrown into a child-sex-ring operation, in which he was tortured and abused for the past three years. He told Gibson he couldn’t remember much about his past.
Miraculously, despite Bourdin’s dark brown eyes and thick French accent, Gibson bought his story, hook, line, and sinker. When they returned home to San Antonio, Dollarhide, too, thought that Bourdin was Nicholas. Although his personality had changed tremendously, she summed it up to his traumatic experiences.
Not everyone was so quick to believe Bourdin. Jason especially had his doubts. The first time he saw Bourdin, he looked him up and down and said, “Good luck.”
The story of how “Nicholas” was found in France was so phenomenal that a Hard Copy television crew began filming the family shortly after Bourdin arrived in San Antonio. A member of the television crew immediately saw the differences between Bourdin and Nicholas, and decided to call a detective onto the case.
Detective Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker, a San Antonio private detective, accepted the assignment after he heard the details surrounding the case. He’d never heard of Nicholas before, but he was intrigued.
“I had not heard about this story,” Parker recalled. “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.”
When he arrived to the home, the first thing that struck Parker as odd was Bourdin’s French accent, followed by his looks. As Parker looked at old photographs, he could tell that the man presenting himself as the lost son was not Nicholas.“It just so happened there was an old picture of Nicholas Barclay on the wall. 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,” said Parker.
Parker became deeply involved in the case, although it was an unpaid assignment. He knew in his heart he was dealing with an imposter. He pursued the case so relentlessly that Bourdin’s story began to unravel. Yet, it took a bizarre turn when Dollarhide and Gibson refused to believe that the person they took in wasn’t Nicholas.
After the family’s denial, the detective decided to go after Bourdin instead, which greatly upset the imposter, who knew his game was almost over. Parker started following him day and night, waiting for the chance to catch him slipping up. That day came when Parker invited Bourdin to breakfast.
While eating at a local cafe, Parker began to question Bourdin. He casually admonished him for fighting with his mother the night before, when Bourdin blurted out, “She’s not my mother and you know it. My name is Frederic Bourdin and I’m wanted by Interpol.”The confession, after five months of living as Nicholas, led to an arrest and an FBI fingerprinting session. The fingerprints of course, came back as Bourdin’s, which left him with a six-year prison stint for perjury and obtaining a false passport.
After serving those six years and returning to France, he continued to impersonate various missing teens for years, serving another few months in prison in one of those cases in which he was proven through DNA to not be the boy he claimed to be.
Bourdin’s story was so sensational that it was made into a feature film, The Chameleon, in 2010, followed by a documentary, The Imposter, in 2012.
Where is Nicholas?
Nicholas Barclay remains missing. Due to his family’s odd behavior, such as refusing to believe that Bourdin wasn’t Nicholas (even when presented with overwhelming evidence), and Jason’s strange call to the police, a number of people believe that the family covered up Nicholas’s death.
One theory is that Jason, a drug addict with a riddled past (he passed away from a cocaine overdose in 1998), beat Nicholas to death after an argument. According to a number of theorists, the family stood behind Jason because there were drug use and other illegal activities going on in the home. Dollarhide was once addicted to heroin. Jason’s phone call to the police played a hand in sparking the speculation, but the two brothers also butted heads often. It’s been said that Jason found Nicholas uncontrollable, and could have possibly lost his temper during yet another argument with his younger brother.
Of course, the family denies any involvement in Nicholas’s disappearance. They claimed that they were so excited to have him back home, that they were willing to believe just about anything Bourdin said.
Meanwhile, in 2012, Parker indicated that he was still “digging for Nicholas’s body.” Parker also feels that the family had something to do with the disappearance, and he thinks Nicholas is likely buried somewhere in San Antonio. Specifically, he thinks Jason killed his little brother.
“I have no real proof, but it could have happened. There was the opportunity. We know that police came to that house over arguments. And when Nicholas was angry, he was ‘rage’ angry,” Parker said. “The neighbors told us that they wouldn’t allow their children to play with him. He cursed his mother; he struck out at his mother. Jason was brought to the house for the sole purpose of trying to solve the problem of Nicholas Barclay.”
Anyone with any information regarding Nicholas should call the San Antonio Police Department (210) 207-7484 or the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (800) THE-LOST.
Main photo: Frédéric Bourdin in 2008. [Francparler (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons]