Remember that movie The Talented Mr. Ripley, where Matt Damon plays a regular guy who decides to impersonate a rich guy (oh, don't tell me that's a spoiler; the movie is almost 20 years old, and it basically says all of that on the poster anyway)? It might seem like that kind of trickery — an imposter who pretends to be another person for weeks or even years at a time— is something that only happens in the movies (and Mad Men, and The Great Gatsby, kinda). But truth is stranger than any Matt Damon movie — and imposters who make up an identity or steal the lives of others are very real. They might even be more common than you think.
Of course, throughout history, many people have become impostors of some sort in order to circumvent unjust rules — think of the long list of women who dressed as men in order to fight in wars or receive schooling. And some imposters are simply criminals who took on new or multiple identities because it made it easier to evade capture (think Frank Abagnale, the infamous former criminal known for his elaborate frauds, forgeries and false identities, who later went on to become a security expert hired by the FBI, and was immortalized in the 2002 Leonardo DiCaprio movie Catch Me If You Can).
However, some imposters take on someone else's identity for much creepier reasons — say, because they're hiding after committing crimes more unnerving than credit card fraud, or because, like Mr. Ripley himself, they just think life might be better if they were somebody else. The four imposters below are a great reminder that you don't need a computer to catfish people — these people were willing to lie about their identity right to people's faces.
1. Frédéric Bourdin
13-year-old Nicolas Barclay vanished from San Antonio, Texas, in 1994. Three years later, his family heard that Nicolas had been found in Spain, and was in police custody. He told police that he had been kidnapped and abused in the years since his disappearance, enduring unthinkable torture at the hands of human traffickers. When "Nicolas Barclay" reunited with his family, they welcomed him with open arms — despite the fact that their blue-eyed son now had brown eyes, and spoke English with a heavy French accent. He claimed his eyes had changed color because his kidnappers had performed scientific experiments on him; he spoke with an accent, he said, because he had been forbidden to speak English the whole time he was in captivity. His family accepted his changes; but a private investigator, Charlie Parker, hired by the TV show Hard Copy to investigate Barclay's miraculous re-appearance, was less convinced.
This was because he wasn't their son at all — he was actually Frédéric Bourdin, a French serial imposter so prolific, he was known in his home country as "the Chameleon." Bourdin had been impersonating orphans since childhood, when he ran away from a youth home and created his first false identity; he eventually went on to create what he estimated in a BBC documentary to be 500 false identities in fifteen different countries and five different languages, always posing as a teenager, even though by the time he was apprehended in 2005 in France, where he was posing as a teenager who had been orphaned in a car wreck, he was 30 years old.
Bourdin's impersonation of Nicolas Barclay was eventually exposed by F.B.I. agents who had spoken with Parker; Bourdin surrendered to authorities after five months of pretending to be Barclay. The real Barclay has never been found.
Unlike most serial imposters, investigators never found that Bourdin impersonated others for financial gain or other dark reasons — according to a 2008 New Yorker profile of Bourdin, they felt that he did it simply for "purely emotional" reasons. And since Bourdin never sought to profit from his false identities, he has rarely accrued much legal trouble; though he's been arrested and served time in jail, he was free at the time of the New Yorker profile, and has remained free since, marrying and raising a family in France.
2. Arnaud du Tilh
Lest you think wandering into a false identity is some kind of new phenomenon, let us examine the tale of Martin Guerre. French peasant Guerre abandoned his family and disappeared from the French village of Artigat in 1548, after being accused of stealing grain from his father. Eight years later, "Martin Guerre" reappeared, and moved back in with his wife, Bertrande, and child. He fathered new children with her and received an inheritance from the estate of his father (who had died while he was missing); life was good for "Guerre" for a while, until his mother-in-law and step-father-in-law (or, in some accounts, uncle) began to have doubts. "Guerre" was tried for impersonating the real Guerre, as well as committing arson, in 1559. However, he was acquitted in 1560.
But Guerre's step-father-in-law was not deterred, and eventually, believed that he had unearthed the real identity of the man living Martin Guerre's life: Arnaud du Tilh, a man from a neighboring area. In 1560, Bertrande was eventually convinced to bring a case against him; in court, she admitted that she had at first believed this man to be Guerre, but had since changed her mind. "Guerre" was convicted, and sentenced to be beheaded. He appealed his case, and things looked to be going his way, until an unexpected guest visited the proceedings — the real Guerre, who had moved to Spain and served in the military in his time away. Tilh finally admitted his true identity, confessing that he had crafted his plan after two people mistook him for Guerre. He was again found guilty, and publicly executed.
If you've grown up in France or with French family members, you may already be familiar with Guerre's story — it's a famous tale that has been turned into both a musical and a 1982 film, The Return of Martin Guerre (which starred a very young Gerard Depardieu, pictured above). It has also been the subject of a number of books.
3. Arthur Hutchins
The 1928 disappearance of nine-year-old L.A. resident Walter Collins captivated and terrified his hometown; the boy seemed to have vanished into thin air after his mother gave him a dime and sent him to the movie theater. Los Angeles police searched high and low for Collins from March until August, when Illinois police sent word that the boy had been found in their state. Collins' mother, Christine, sent money so that Walter could return home to Los Angeles, but as soon as he arrived, Christine Collins realized that the boy who had been found in Illinois was not her son.
Under pressure from local police, Christine took the boy home and lived alongside him for three weeks, at which point she returned to the police and declared that he was not Walter. Despite having dental records for Walter that did not match up with the new "Walter" and a number of family friends who vouched that the boy was not Christine's actual son, the police department chose to not believe Christine and actually had her committed to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation for five days.
While Christine was in the hospital, the true identity of "Walter" came out: his real name was Arthur Hutchins, and he was a 12-year-old from Illinois who had run away from a home life that he said included a step-mother who hated him. He had been told he resembled the missing boy, and so decided to turn himself in and assume the boy's identity as a way to travel to California. The real Walter Collins was never found (though some believe he was a victim of a serial killer named Gordon Stewart Northcott, whose crimes were know as "the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders.")
The Walter Collins story is stranger than fiction — which might explain why it has served as source material for so much TV and film. For example, if the Collins story sounds a bit familiar, it might be because you saw the 2008 Angelia Jolie movie Changeling , which was based on this story. And if the bit about the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders sounded familiar, that's because it was a brief historical plot point on season 4 of American Horror Story.
4. Christian Gerhartsreiter
The German-born Gerhartsreiter came to the U.S. in 1978, at the age of 17 or 18, first moving in with a Connecticut family that hosted him while believing that he was an exchange student. He then attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and in 1981, married a 22-year-old Milwaukee resident, in order to secure his green card. They promptly divorced and Gerhartsreiter then headed to California to pursue an acting career; while using the name "Christopher Chichester," he moved to the wealthy Los Angeles suburb of San Marino, where he led many people in the community to believe that he was actually a distant member of the British royal family. Gerhartsreiter was extremely socially successful in the town, and even had a public access TV show.
Gerhartsreiter moved into the guesthouse of a San Marino resident named Didi Sohus; soon after, in 1983, Sohus's son, Jonathan, and John's new wife, Linda, also moved into her property. In 1985, Jonathan and Linda Sohus went missing — right before their disappeatance, they had told friends that they had landed jobs with a top secret government agency. Gerhartsreiter was named a "person of interest" in the disappearance of the Sohus's — he claimed that the couple were in Europe.
Gerhartsreiter then moved east. In Connecticut, he presented himself as "Christopher Crowe," a TV producer. In 1987, he re-invented himself as a Wall Street banker, calling himself "Christopher Crowe Mountbatten." Gerhartsreiter had taken the Sohus's pickup truck with him when he moved east; he gave the pickup to a friend in Connecticut, who discovered its true provenance when he tried to register it at the DMV. The info was enough to get the local police interested, but as soon as it was clear they were on Gerhartsreiter's trail, he disappeared yet again.
In 1994, bones believed to have been Jonathan Sohus's were discovered buried in the backyard of the Sohus home, which was adjacent to the guesthouse where Gerhartsreiter has stayed. Evidence showed that the victim has been hit in the head, stabbed repeatedly, and then cut into three pieces.
Gerhartsreiter, meanwhile, began using the name "Clark Rockefeller" some time in 1992 in New York. In 1995, he married corporate executive Sandra Boss (though according to some claims, Gerhartsreiter never filed the necessary paperwork to get a marriage license, and he and Boss were never actually legally married). Though the couple had a daughter, Gerhartsreiter went to great lengths to conceal his true identity from Boss. During this time period, Gerhartsreiter sometimes claimed to have attended Yale and to own a business in Canada; he also claimed that he was a member of the famous Rockefeller clan.
Boss left Gerhartsreiter in 2006, and hired a private detective to unearth information about him, after her father pointed out inconsistencies in her husband's life story. The detective didn't discover his true identity, but did find that "Clark Rockefeller" wasn't a real person. Boss filed for divorce; she got sole custody of their child. On a supervised visit with their child and a social worker in Boston in 2008, Gerhartsreiter broke the rules of his custody agreement by running from the social worker, jumping into a limo with his child, and leaving town. The social worker was injured trying to grab on to the limo as it left A week later, Gerhartsreiter was found in Baltimore, Maryland, where he was going by the name Charles "Chip" Smith. His child was found unharmed and he was charged with kidnapping, assault, and battery.
While under arrest, forensic examinations proved that Clark Rockefeller was, indeed, Christian Gerhartsreiter. In 2009, a jury found him guilty of kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon (the limo), and he was sentenced to several years in prison.
Then, in 2011, Gerhartsreiter was charged with the murder of Jonathan Sohus; he was then convicted of first degree murder in 2013. Gerhartsreiter will be eligible for parole in 2039.
Sounds like it should be a book, right? In fact, Gerhartsreiter's story has been turned into two: The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal, and Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn, a novelist who befriended Gerhartsreiter during his New York years.
Not to make your paranoid or anything, of course. I'm sure all of your friends are exactly who they say they are...
Images: Paramount Pictures; Dussault/ France 3/ Société Française de Production (SFP)