In 1994, Nicholas Barclay disappeared. Three years later, his family got a phone call.

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*Content warning: This post contains mild spoilers for the documentary, The Imposter. 

The Imposter is the kind of documentary that will leave you asking ‘why?’ months, even years, after you’ve watched it.

It tells the story of the disappearance of Texas teenager Nicholas Barclay and the French man who tried to take his place.

Nicholas was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed 13-year-old when he disappeared from a basketball court near his home in San Antonio, Texas in 1994.

The teenager had been playing basketball with his friends while his mum slept after completing a night shift at work. When he called the house for a ride home, his older brother refused to help.

Nicholas disappeared that day and his family didn’t hear from him for another three years.

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The family was worried about the teen but he had run away before and the police believed he had left on his own free will. Nicholas had a bit of a troubled past and he was facing time in juvenile detention for stealing from a convenience store.

Then in 1997 the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in Virginia in the United States, received a phone call from a person in Linares, Spain.

An American boy had turned up at a youth shelter, claiming he had escaped a sex trafficking ring. He also declared that he was Nicholas Barclay.

After some back and forth between the two agencies, the boy was positively identified as the missing teen from Texas.

The authorities notified the Barclay family and Nicholas’s sister, Carey, immediately flew to Spain to meet him and confirm that he was her brother.

He was then given an American passport and flown back to the US to be reunited with the rest of the family.

What followed was a touching and tearful reunion… but something wasn’t quite right.

The boy that went missing was a blue-eyed, blonde-haired American teenager and the boy who had turned up had brown eyes and brown hair that he had attempted to dye blonde.

He also had a French accent… and appeared to be much older than 16.

Nicholas told everyone his eyes had changed colour from the chemicals his captors put in them and that his hair had been chemically treated by them too. He also said he had developed the French accent because he lived in Europe for three years.

And the Barclays believed him.

The family welcomed him with open arms and he was soon living in their house and attending the local high school.

But while the family believed him, others were skeptical.

A private investigator named Charlie Baker heard about the case and turned up at the Barclay’s home with a TV crew.

While the family said they didn’t want any media attention, Nicholas lapped it up. He spoke about his time in captivity with ease, which only further piqued Baker’s suspicions.

During the interview, Baker spotted a photo of 13-year-old Nicholas and couldn’t help but compare the two. He noticed alarming differences in the boys’ appearances – especially their ears.

You see, ears are like fingerprints – they fully form when you’re born and they never change. Nicholas Barclay and the man claiming to be him had completely different ears.

This wasn’t Nicholas, it was an imposter.

The FBI got a court order to test the imposter’s identity and discovered he was then 23-year-old Frederic Bourdin – a serial French impersonator. At this stage Bourdin had been living with the family for six months.

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Bourdin has been dubbed “The Chameleon” by the French media, he had used over 40 false identities before taking on the identity of the missing teen.

After he was caught, Bourdin claimed the family knew he wasn’t their son all along. He said he believed they killed Nicholas and they were just putting on a show for the police in order to cover up the crime.

The real Nicholas Barclay has never been found.

The Imposter tells the story from both the perspective of the Barclay family and Bourdin.

The documentary tries to find out why a grown man would pretend to be a teenager and why a family would so openly welcome a stranger into their home.

But ultimately, at the end of The Imposter, we’re still left wondering why.

The Imposter is now streaming on Stan. 

To read more from Keryn Donnelly, follow her on Facebook.

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