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After brilliant success, impostor finally unmasked

Jon Henley

Gendarmes "deeply moved" by "impeccable" performance Bourdin says his behaviour to pass himself off as a teenager is an attempt to find the love he never had as a child

PARIS: He is balding, bespectacled and 31. Strangely, that that did not prevent Frederic Bourdin spending most of last May in a children's home in Pau, where he successfully passed himself off as a destitute orphaned teenager.

A court in the southern French city heard o Thursday that Mr. Bourdin, charged with possessing and using a false identity, had convinced staff and pupils at the home and a local school that he was 15, Spanish, and named Francisco Hernandez-Fernandez. He was caught only when a teacher saw a T.V. programme telling his story and unmasking him as The Chameleon, a serial impostor who had assumed up to 40 different identities.

"He was an impostor, of course, but what an actor," the headmistress at the College Jean-Monnet in Pau told French radio. "He did seem a bit older than his classmates, maybe a couple of years. But 31, it's absolutely unbelievable!"

The court appearance was the talented Mr. Bourdin's second in as many days. On Wednesday, a judge in Grenoble sentenced him to four months in jail for trying to pass himself off as Leo Balley, a seven-year-old local boy who had gone missing in 1996.

The court heard that gendarmes in the Isere department had been "deeply moved" by Mr. Bourdin's "impeccable" performance, in which he perfectly imitated the physical gestures and verbal expressions of a teenage boy. In the end only a DNA test exposed him.

Last August Spanish police deported Mr. Bourdin, who says his behaviour is an attempt to find the love he never had as a child, after he claimed to be Ruben Sanchez Espinosa, a teenager whose mother supposedly died in the Madrid train bombings of March 2004. In 1997 Bourdin, then 23, was sentenced to six years in jail in the U.S. after he convinced a Texan family that he was their missing son Nicholas (14). Mr. Bourdin has also posed as a tiger tamer, a moneyed British holidaymaker in difficulties, a businessman, a college lecturer and — most often — as a teenager whose parents have died or abandoned him.

Mr. Bourdin's lawyer, Sebastien Villemin, told the court his client's behaviour was due to a traumatic childhood. "His mother wanted to abort, she was only 18," he said. "He never knew his father, and was raised by his grandparents and in children's homes, where he was sexually abused." — © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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