An adult pretending to be a child and slithering their way into forbidden places? This isn’t just the plot of the horror movie Orphan, it was Frédéric Bourdin’s real life. The King of Imposters spent his troubled days impersonating hundreds of imaginary boys—and getting away with it—until he took it way too far.
1. He Had A Broken Family
On June 13, 1974, Frédéric Pierre Bourdin was born to 18-year-old Ghislaine Bourdin—a broke factory worker. Officially, the young mother listed the father as unknown, despite knowing his true identity. The mystery man was Kaci, her 25-year-old co-worker.
Sadly, her love story turned into heartbreak after Ghislaine discovered not only her pregnancy but also that Kaci was already married. She quit her job, ghosted him, and set out to raise Frédéric on her own. Despite the circumstances, Frédéric seemed like a normal baby. But Ghislaine was anything but a normal mother—and her newborn paid the price.
2. He Had A Bad Mom
Ghislaine and Frédéric were a family until he was three years old. That's when fate intervened in the form of child services. Her parents instigated a custody battle that revealed Ghislaine's abysmal mothering.
She had a reputation for drinking and dancing her way through town as if baby Frédéric wasn’t waiting at home for her. The senior Bourdins emerged victorious with custody of their grandson. And just like that, Frédéric became estranged from his mother.
3. He Witnessed True Horror
Frédéric rarely saw Ghislaine—and whenever that happened, he wished it hadn’t. He accused his mother of deceiving him for the thrill of terrifying him. In particular, Frédéric insists she pretended to be incredibly ill. Though Ghislaine denies this, she did make one chilling confession.
She admitted to attempting to take her own life in front of him. As such, the elder Bourdins took Frédéric in hopes of saving him, but he could never escape his family's demons.
4. He Told Tall Tales
Five-year-old Frédéric and his grandparents moved to a small French town where he learned the hard way how mean people can be. Part Algerian, fatherless, and poor—he didn’t stand a chance. To cope, he began telling tall tales.
Most notably, Frédéric insisted his father wasn’t around because he was a spy. Despite the obviously fictional stories, teachers couldn’t help but be drawn to the imaginative child. But in the end, what the adults saw disturbed them.
5. He Disturbed People
The adults in Frédéric’s life began noticing that there was something not quite right about him. He was a very troubled youth, who even told his grandparents that a neighbor touched him inappropriately. Unfortunately, no one investigated this. As time went on, his behaviors took an even darker turn.
Frédéric’s misbehaviors escalated into taking things from neighbors. Soon, his grandparents had had enough. They sent the boy to a juvenile institution. Everyone hoped this could be a fresh start and a quick fix—but it wasn’t.
6. His Lies Became Crazier
Lots of kids have active imaginations, but Frédéric took it to a whole new level. His tales became even more ridiculous. But terrifyingly enough, they weren’t just stories anymore: He was living out his wildest dreams.
He began wandering the streets, pretending to be an amnesiac. However, when he aged out of the shelter at the age of 16, he did something even more unsettling. He pulled off a vanishing act and left everyone wondering.
7. He Became A Runaway
In 1990, the sixteen-year-old had no choice but to relocate to another youth home. Frédéric took matters into his own hands and became a runaway, eventually hitchhiking all the way to Paris. Now his imaginary life became a terrifying reality: He really was a scared, hungry, and impoverished runaway without anyone.
The teenager felt like he had no choice but to escalate his antics. Big lies, big city—what could go wrong? Everything.
8. He Invented His First Fake Character
It was under these hard circumstances that Frédéric Bourdin created his first character. Equipped with a wild imagination and growing confidence, he approached an officer claiming to be Jimmy Sale, a lost British teenager.
He hoped that the authorities would send him to England—a country he’d romanticized–where he could start a better life. But the boy's inexperience caught up to him, along with the cold hard truth.
9. He Didn’t Fool Anyone
Soon after, both the authorities and Frédéric discovered a gaping hole in Jimmy Sale’s story. Turns out, Frédéric couldn’t speak English. Caught red-handed, he confessed.
Despite deceiving an officer, they only returned the sixteen-year-old to the youth home. After all, Jimmy wasn’t a real missing boy, and he was still very young. Typical teenage rebellion, right? Wrong. And sadly? Law enforcement would learn this the hard way.
10. He Didn’t Give Up
This first and unsuccessful attempt developed Frédéric's imposter technique. Despite his many identities, he stuck to the same script: fictional children with awful pasts. After all, what adult would be heartless enough to doubt a broken child?
With his powers of manipulation, the teenager traveled across Europe in search of his dream home. To find it, he would slither into however many orphanages and foster homes it took.
11. He Knew How To Tug Heartstrings
In 1991, authorities came across Frédéric Cassis. Their hearts melted for the sick, mute, and homeless child they found wandering around the Langres train station. The concerned adults sent the boy to a children’s hospital. There, his identity remained a mystery.
All everyone knew was that Cassis had endured a rough life: He couldn’t speak, communicating only through writing. Every adult melted when Cassis wrote that all he wanted was "A home and a school. That’s all". People believed him...at first.
12. He Liked To Confess
As time passed, doctors became increasingly suspicious of "Frédéric Cassis". The real Frédéric Bourdin preferred voluntarily leaving than being taken away, so he eventually confessed the truth. Confessing was a weird habit of his: He couldn’t help but revel in the attention he garnered from successfully fooling people for so long.
Frustratingly, the seemingly harmless teenager got away scot-free again. Emboldened, Frédéric moved onto bigger and brighter deceptions—but this only led to horrifying consequences.
13. He Had No Idea What To Do
Everything changed in 1992 after Frédéric Bourdin turned 18—a fully-fledged adult. At this point, he’d impersonated over a dozen fake identities. He’d also spent most of his life in shelters, institutions, and foster homes. But in an instant, he was on his own.
Frédéric had no idea what to do next, so he continued doing what he did best: pretending. But he’d find out the hard way that his teenage get-out-of-trouble pass had expired.
14. He Became Addicted To The Game
In November 1993, the kind firemen of Auch rescued a mute child found laying on a street and brought him to a hospital. Once again, this poor child enthralled and tugged at the heartstrings of every adult. However, relying on pure sympathy only worked for so long.
Frédéric fled every time the shadow of suspicion fell upon him. But this time, he had the audacity to attempt the same act in a nearby town. Finally, the 19-year-old admitted he wasn’t a mute child. He was Frédéric Bourdin, a name destined for infamy and wickedness.
15. He Played Games With His Family
One day, Frédéric Bourdin’s family received the worst phone call of their life: German authorities discovered their teenager’s lifeless body. The grief-stricken family waited for the delivery of the coffin—but it never arrived. They came to a devastating conclusion.
Frédéric had a knack for playing games with his own family—and this brazenness made him notorious.
16. He Became Notorious
By the middle of the 1990s, Frédéric had a mile-long rap sheet for deceiving authorities across Europe. He wasn’t just a harmless teenager anymore: Local officers and even Interpol were close on his heels. Soon, the media realized this was a juicy story.
In 1995, producers of the French show Everything Is Possible invited him on, where the host interrogated Frédéric about his motivations.
17. His Mother Didn't Believe Him
Once again, the now-21-year-old claimed all he wanted was love and a family. Viewers—and even his victims—couldn’t help but feel anger and sympathy towards him. On the other hand, Frédéric's mother Ghislaine didn’t buy the act.
She viewed it as a fake justification for villainy. But these producers didn’t share her view and gave Frédéric the opportunity of a lifetime.
18. He Had The Chance To Turn His Life Around
Frédéric Bourdin’s story and interview touched the producers so much, they offered the wanted man and serial imposter a newsroom job. This was a chance for gainful employment and an honest life. Only fools would refuse. Frédéric may have been many things, but he wasn’t a fool.
But this stint didn’t last long. He became restless—and ran off to attempt the deception of a lifetime.
19. He Faced Ruin
It was October 1997, and 23-year-old Frédéric Bourdin faced ruin. A Spanish judge gave him an ultimatum: prove that you’re a teenager within 24 hours or get fingerprinted. Frédéric had nothing but his word and the knowledge his fingerprints were already in international databases. They would lock him up.
He also couldn’t flee, because the youth shelter staff were watching him. Frédéric was cornered. Then, a brilliant—and monstrous—idea came to him in the middle of the night. It set him down the path of no return.
20. He Came Up With A Wild Plan
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Instead of inventing an identity, Frédéric simply took someone else’s. He called an American hotline for missing children, impersonated the director of a Spanish children’s shelter, and gave them his description. The well-meaning operator provided the name, Nicholas Barclay.
He was a 16-year-old missing Texan boy that matched Bourdin’s description. Jackpot. Relieved, he informed the woman: "I have some good news. Nicholas Barclay is standing right beside me". Frédéric had no idea that he'd just opened pandora's box.
21. He Thought It Wouldn’t Work
After impersonating an officer—because of course he did—to obtain more details about Nicholas Barclay, Frédéric realized he was screwed. While the hotline operator believed him over the phone, he realized there was no way anyone who met him would actually believe him.
Nicholas had a distinctive finger tattoo, blue eyes, light hair, and a Texan accent. Meanwhile, Frédéric had brown eyes, dark hair, and a French accent. But he’d do anything to avoid being locked up. Anything.
22. He Told A Crazy Tale
Bourdin gave himself a fake tattoo, a dye job, and the craziest fake backstory. He told everyone that bad guys—from the American army no less—sold his body and that any discrepancies were their fault.
Different eye color? They injected his eyes with color-changing chemicals. Different accent? They didn’t let him speak English. This ridiculous tale didn’t fit his "keep it simple" motto but it was better than nothing. But unlike his fake identities, Nicholas Barclay had a real family to convince.
23. He Preyed On Grief And Hope
After talking to mother Beverly and sister Carey on the phone, his 31-year-old sibling immediately flew to Spain to reunite with her long-lost brother. Frédéric bought himself some time, but now truly believed this wouldn’t work. Carey would instantly know that he wasn’t her brother.
When judgment day arrived, Carey ran and hugged him. Against all odds, she bought it. Despite the glaring inconsistencies, the Barclay family wanted this to be true so badly. Luckily for Frédéric, their grief blinded them and cleared the way for a legendary deception.
24. Everyone Believed Him
The American and Spanish governments didn’t have any doubts after Carey claimed him. Who were they to think they knew Nicholas Barclay better than his own sister? They gave him an American passport and a next-day flight. Against the odds, Frédéric Bourdin prevailed.
He evaded capture and gained a family that was beyond excited to see him. Frédéric had a ticket out of Europe, and into the American dream. But that's when he made a horrifying realization.
25. He Felt Trapped
Soon, the gravity of what Frédéric had done began to take its toll. Carey comforted her panicking brother, who told her he feared the plane crashing. In actuality, that’s what Bourdin hoped and prayed would happen. It was the only way the Frenchman could escape his fate. But it was too late. Bourdin made his bed. Now he had to lie on it.
26. He Was Disappointed
The American dream turned out to be the American disappointment. Frédéric ended up living with Carey and her husband Bryan instead of Beverly, who worked nights. The couple lived in a trailer home in rural Texas. To make matters worse, their house was tiny, and he slept on a foam mattress on the floor.
But Frédéric had no choice but to make it work. So he snuck around to find information on Nicholas. But what Frédéric found freaked him out.
27. He Had An American Twin
Turns out, Frédéric Bourdin and Nicholas Barclays led similar lives. The Bourdins and Barclays were both impoverished broken families. Nicholas had a dad who hadn’t known he existed and was a lonely kid who longed for attention. But the similarities didn't end there.
Nicholas also got into trouble, causing his mother to send him away. The Barclays even reported Nicholas missing on Frédéric’s birthday. This hunt for information led to even more disturbing realizations.
28. He Was In Too Deep
Frédéric naturally wondered what happened to the real Nicholas. Initially, he feared that Nicholas would be found. Even worse, he began worrying someone in the family ended Nicholas’ life. This is where things began to look murky.
Turns out, that Nicholas's half-brother, Jason, was the last person to see him before his disappearance. What's more? After the 16-year-old vanished, officers got involved in disturbances between Jason and Beverly. In fact, Jason went right off the rails.
29. He Had His Suspicions
Jason wasn’t at the airport to greet Nicholas and took his time before visiting him. Basically, Jason's behavior was extremely suspicious. There was a decent chance he knew what happened to Nicholas—or was even responsible for it. Who was fooling who? To make matters worse for Frédéric, this wasn’t the only issue he faced.
30. He Aroused Suspicion
Private investigator Charlie Parker wasn’t expecting much when producers from the show Hard Copy wanted help with a story. But alarm bells soon started going off because Nicholas’s accent sounded strange. Parker noticed a photo of the real Nicholas—the real one—and swiped it.
He believed ears, like fingerprints, were one-of-a-kind, so he secretly asked the cameraman to zoom in. After Parker headed back to the office after filming, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
31. Someone Realized The Truth
Parker couldn’t believe it: The ears didn’t match. This sent him down a rabbit hole. He asked ophthalmologists if eyes could change colors. No. He asked linguistic experts if Nicholas’s accent was realistic. No. With horror and disbelief, he realized this was not Nicholas Barclay. Whoever this was, they were nothing but trouble.
32. He Was Exposed
Parker shared his suspicions with local law enforcement, but they didn’t believe him. Then, the investigator went directly to Beverly. He provided the mom with all the receipts and begged her to do a DNA test. The Barclays family didn’t believe him—or so they claimed.
They were either too grief-stricken, or worse, they already knew the truth. Soon enough, Frédéric Bourdin discovered Parker’s activities and took matters into his own hands.
33. He Had An Enemy
Frédéric confronted Parker in a furious phone conversation. He arrogantly dismissed Parker’s accusations: "Immigration thinks it’s me. The family thinks it’s me". Parker didn’t know what to do. After all, no one believed him. Who was he, a stranger, to believe he knew Nicholas better than his own mom?
But Parker couldn’t let it go because he feared a bad man had slipped into his country. So he spoke to Nancy Fisher, an acquaintance and FBI agent, and found out there was a lot more going on behind the scenes.
34. His Story Was Too Crazy
Telling his most dramatic tale yet—of being sold and experimented on by the army—had caught up to Frédéric Bourdin. He may have been able to convince a supposedly grieving family and sympathetic civilians–but stood no chance against the FBI. Since he’d told such a crazy tale involving the government, authorities naturally wanted to interview and investigate him.
Frédéric didn’t even need to say a word to set off suspicions. Fisher only glanced at his obviously dyed hair and knew there was trouble afoot. While private sector Parker moved fast, the feds moved more slowly and discretely. Parker and the FBI began collaborating in secret to expose Frédéric Bourdin's awful truth.
35. He Was Struggling
While Parker and the FBI continued to investigate Frédéric Bourdin, the imposter was falling apart. It took only two months for him to self-destruct. The 23-year-old began skipping high school classes and was suspended. He felt claustrophobic and "borrowed" a family member’s car for a road trip.
Officers pulled him over for speeding and caught the runaway car thief. The Barclays bailed him out and brought him home, where he found himself at rock bottom.
36. He Had A Meltdown
Frédéric Bourdin looked at his reflection in the mirror and saw the monster he vowed to never become. The Frenchman began mutilating his body with a razor. Beyond disturbed, the family sent him to the psych ward. The gravity of what he’d done dawned on Frédéric and regret crept in.
The adult spent his life pretending to be others and hadn’t done anything with his real life. He’d stuck with invented identities until now. Now, he was stuck with a real family—one he feared might have known about his deception all along.
37. His Family Might Have Known
Frédéric's recent behavior disturbed Carey and she sent him to live with Beverly. Afterward, he could no longer look at them the same way as the puzzle pieces fell into place: Beverly’s coldness at their first meeting, treating him like a "ghost," and Jason’s lack of visits.
Frédéric even claims Beverly once drank too much and screamed, "I know that God punished me by sending you to me. I don’t know who the [heck] you are. Why are you doing this?" She doesn’t remember this—but didn’t deny it either. Despite this, the family stood by him when the FBI came knocking.
38. The FBI Tricked Him
Under the guise of providing mental health treatment, the FBI flew Frédéric out to Houston to meet with a specialist. Afterward, agents felt confident there was no chance he was American—much less Nicholas Barclay—based on his speech.
Now Frédéric and the Barclays weren’t just dealing with a small-time investigator: The FBI had joined the fray. The family’s response stunned the agents.
39. His Family Shocked The FBI
Private investigator Charlie Parker provided Beverly with the truth and begged her to do DNA tests with no success. Now, the FBI informed Beverly of the exact same things. She not only rejected their information and request, but she also raged at the agents: "‘How dare you say he’s not my son". Without her cooperation, the FBI had no choice but to escalate this.
40. He Had No Choice
In February 1998, the courts granted the FBI a warrant to fingerprint and DNA test Frédéric Bourdin. This was no longer a request. As he waited for the tests and results, Frédéric knew the jig was up. There would be no smooth talking and acting his way out of this. He was in for an even worse court battle than the one he escaped from.
41. He Finally Confessed
On March 5, 1998, Beverly finally admitted Frédéric wasn’t Nicholas, and called Parker. The investigator and the imposter went out to dinner, where the latter finally confessed his true identity.
He said, "I’m Frédéric Bourdin and I’m wanted by Interpol". Afterward, Parker called Fisher, who found out the same information from Interpol. Within two hours, authorities took the imposter away in handcuffs. Beverly’s reaction was simply: "What took you so long?"
42. He Accused His Fake Family
Since the Barclays stopped defending him, Frédéric lashed out and accused them of complicity—or responsibility—in Nicholas’s disappearance. He insisted the family they knew the entire time and admitted, "I’m a good impostor, but I’m not that good".
Normally, the FBI would take a serial imposter’s word with a grain of salt, but they secretly agreed. Beverly and Jason were suspicious. They also investigated the Barclay family, but couldn’t find enough evidence. Consequently, the truth about Nicholas's disappearance remains a mystery. Meanwhile, justice swiftly came for his imposter.
43. He Did The Time
In September 1998, Frédéricpleaded guilty to passport forgery and perjury. The judge sentenced to him to six years behind bars—double the recommended amount.
It was time to confront what he’d done not only to the Barclays, but to all his victims: "I apologize to all the people in my past, for what I have done. I wish, I wish that you believe me, but I know it’s impossible". Was Frédéric finally ready to accept the truth? Not quite.
44. He Doubled Down
Even after being exposed, Frédéric just couldn’t help it. The imposter still believed he could slither out of trouble by getting the public on his side. So he contacted journalists and lured them with his sad story and the promise of an exclusive story. Frédéric maintained his crazy story to multiple journalists who fell for it.
As they grew suspicious and called him out, the Frenchman immediately confessed. But he didn't stop there.
45. He Returned Home
After serving his unprecedented sentence, the American government deported Frédéric back to his home country in 2003. He was now France’s problem. Frédéric found himself in a worse situation than the one he’d fled from. Did Bourdin learn his lesson? Not even remotely.
It didn’t take long for him to impersonate someone else again, but this time there was a twist. Oh boy, here we go again.
46. He Learned A Lesson
Frédéric Bourdin only learned one thing from his American nightmare and it was nothing good: He realized that taking a real boy’s identity was a viable option.
He moved to Grenoble, where he pretended to be Léo Balley—a French 14-year-old, who'd been missing for seven years. It didn’t take long for the authorities to catch and put him behind bars again. Like clockwork, he went back to business after his release.
47. He Did It Again
In August 2004, Frédéric slithered his way back into Spain. This time, he claimed he was Rubén Sánchez Espinoza, a fake orphan whose mother perished in a real incident. Authorities placed the now 30-year-old "boy" in a children’s home. Once again, they eventually realized the truth and deported him back to France.
48. He Was Undeterred
On May 3, 2005, French authorities received multiple concerned calls about a 15-year-old old. The teenager—wearing a muffler and a baseball cap that obscured most of his face—arrived at child services with the most heart-wrenching tale.
Francisco Hernandez Fernandez apparently lost his family in a car accident and had to live with a wicked uncle. He had no choice but to flee Spain. Touched by Francisco’s story, French authorities sent him to a children’s shelter in Pau. They learned the hard way that this "teenager’s" story was just that. A story.
49. He Elicited Sympathy
While students at Frédéric's school couldn’t wear hats, principal Claire Chadourne made an exception for her newest student. She accommodated him after he confessed to having fears about being teased for the scars on his head.
Like countless people before her, she felt protective and empathetic toward him. After all, his behavior indicated an extremely dark past. He refused to change in front of others and denied all medical exams. It didn’t take long for Frédéric's notoriety to topple his house of cards.
50. He Got Caught
The last, and worst, thing a school administrator expected to see on a crime show is a student. On June 8, 2005, one of Chadourne’s employees watched a show about a Frenchman who impersonated children. With horror, she realized he looked exactly like Francisco.
After officers came to take him away, they finally removed his hat. Instead of scars, they found a balding head. Busted, Frédéric dropped the act. His voice changed from a boyish tone to a manlier baritone: "I want a lawyer". But not even a lawyer could save him from a four-month sentence.
51. He Confused Everyone
A grown man sneaking into schools and orphanages is beyond horrifying. Naturally, people jump to the very worst conclusions. Did he want access to children? Or perhaps he wanted money? But after Pau’s authorities investigated Frédéric, they were left with more questions than answers. He had no clear motive.
Additionally, psychiatrists believed Frédéric was sane and admitted, "We are very pessimistic about modifying these personality traits". And they were right.
52. He Had To Adapt
Afterward, Frédéric Bourdin stopped pretending. Okay, he stopped impersonating children. But he still had the audacity to continue showing his face in Pau. Well, he showed various different looks: mustaches, beards, different hairstyles, and outfits. From rappers to businessmen, this chameleon changed identities like people change clothes.
Unfortunately for Frédéric, he became too famous to pull off any more big deceptions. But his infamy provided him with the greatest gift.
53. He Won The Ultimate Prize
Turns out, there really is someone for everyone! Isabelle, a Frenchwoman, tracked Frédéric down after seeing him on the news. She didn’t care about what he’d done. She only cared about why.
You see, Isabelle also came from a broken family. She believed Frédéric's claims that he only wanted love and a family—and that they could fulfill their dreams together. Within a year of meeting, they married in 2007. It didn’t take long for the pair to have five children together.
But while he built his own family, Frédéric's family wasn’t exactly supportive.
54. His Family Has Doubts
Frédéric found out it was too late to apologize and rebuild burned bridges. He invited Ghislaine and his grandparents to the wedding, but they were no-shows. After the birth of Frédéric and Isabelle’s children, his uncle commented, "You can’t just invent yourself as a father. You’re not a dad for six days or six months. It is not a character—it is a reality…I fear for that child".
Likewise, Ghislaine maintains he is a "liar and will never change". In spite of this skepticism, Frédéric Bourdin made a huge promise.
55. He Promised To Be Good
This is the end…or is it? In 2012, Frédéric Bourdin vowed to "never impersonate anyone again". It seems the King of Imposters had finally abdicated his throne. Still, one can’t help but remain a little skeptical. After all, it isn’t easy to break bad habits—and boy does Frédéric have an awful one.
Unfortunately, no amount of good intentions could save Frédéric's new life from falling apart.
56. His Life Fell Apart
After a decade of marriage, Frédéric Bourdin revealed that he and Isabelle weren’t only separated, but that she'd ditched him to run off with another man after months of misery.
Turns out, Isabelle had also been unhappy throughout their entire marriage. To pour salt onto his wound, Isabelle allegedly left their children with Frédéric. Since this unraveling, there have been no recent updates on Frédéric, Isabelle, or their children.