Longform.org’s Guide to Impostors: Five Amazing Stories of Deception

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
Oct. 15 2011 7:10 AM

The Longform.org Guide to Impostors

Fake Rockefellers and fake rock stars: five amazing stories of deception.

Clark Rockefeller
Clark Rockefeller

Photograph by Boston Police via Getty Images.

Every weekend, Longform.org shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform.org or follow @longformorg on Twitter.

It’s an entirely human impulse to wonder about alternate lives we could be leading. So what separates daydreamers from the guys in these stories? First off, they actually shed their identities and became other people. Second, they were pretty good at it. And, finally, they learned just how ugly things get when the plan unravels.

David Grann • The New Yorker • August 2008

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The Spanish police believed he was a missing American teen. So, seemingly, did the Texas family who had lost him three years prior. Who they had actually found was Frédéric Bourdin, was a 23-year-old Frenchman on the run:

According to Bourdin, the plan came to him in the middle of the night: if he could fool the judge into thinking that he was an American, he might be let go. He asked permission to use the telephone in the shelter’s office and called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in Alexandria, Virginia, trolling for a real identity. Speaking in English, which he had picked up during his travels, he claimed that his name was Jonathan Durean and that he was a director of the Linares shelter. He said that a frightened child had turned up who would not disclose his identity but who spoke English with an American accent. Bourdin offered a description of the boy that matched himself—short, slight, prominent chin, brown hair, a gap between his teeth—and asked if the center had anyone similar in its database. After searching, Bourdin recalls, a woman at the center said that the boy might be Nicholas Barclay, who had been reported missing in San Antonio on June 13, 1994, at the age of thirteen. Barclay was last seen, according to his file, wearing ‘a white T-shirt, purple pants, black tennis shoes and carrying a pink backpack.’ ”

Nadya Labi • Wired • August 2007

He was an 18-year-old Marine bound for Iraq. She was a high school senior in West Virginia. They grew intimate over IM. His dad started contacting her. No one was who they claimed to be:

“Tommy's tales of hard luck drew Jessi in. He was in need of comfort, and Jessi provided it, saying she was proud of him despite his mistakes. Tommy responded by telling her that she was ‘the best thing that ever happened to him.’ As their intimacy grew, he sent her a picture of a young marine, claiming it was himself, and confided that he planned to commit suicide in Iraq; she made him promise to stay alive for her. They talked on the phone when they could. But if Jessi couldn't reach Tommy, she sometimes IM'd Tom Sr. to talk about her lover. Jessi also emailed Tommy photos of herself, care of Tom Sr. She lived up to her screen handle, whether she was running her fingers through her flowing blond hair or wading in a pool in a yellow bikini or showing off her long tan legs in a denim miniskirt.”

Michael J. Mooney • GQ • July 2011

Jerry Joseph showed up in a small Texas town seemingly out of nowhere, produced a birth certificate that said he was of age, and quickly became a star for the local high-school basketball team. It was a role he’d played before:

“Louis Vives swears he knows the guy he saw that day in Arkansas, but he'd never heard the name Jerry Joseph. He knew him as Guerdwich Montimere, a kid who'd played around Florida for years. ‘He walked just like him,’ says Vives, the president of the South Florida Elite basketball club. ‘He talked like him. He played like him. He even sweat like him. This kid used to sweat like someone poured water on him.’

“When the team went for sandwiches later that day, Vives's players joked that they were going to find aliases when they turned 21 so they could keep playing. But that night at the hotel, Vives got to thinking. He Googled the New Mexico squad. He found the Permian roster, along with stories about Jerry's success in Texas. He thought about how strange it was, the idea of a 22-year-old man walking around with a bunch of high school kids. What would they talk about? What would they do? Then he thought about what high school kids do. The coach has a teenage daughter himself. He couldn't sleep that night. This whole thing wasn't so funny anymore.”

Kara Platoni • East Bay Express • Mar 2002

The story of Alan Young, a career con whose go-to move was to pose as a member of the Temptations and smooth-talk his way into luxury hotel rooms and limo rides:

“While Young's scams certainly have gained finesse over the years, police and court records show they almost always adhere to the same template. Young blows into town posing as the musical celebrity du jour, impresses his marks with name-dropping and insider knowledge, then wows them with promises of hefty investments or donations. Young invariably discovers that his briefcase, along with his wallet, credit cards, and identification, is missing. He usually claims they have been accidentally shipped down to Los Angeles with his band's equipment. Young then throws himself on the good graces of his host, promising to reimburse him promptly. The host generally pulls out all the stops to offer his newfound friend Hollywood-style hospitality. Some of Young's marks have paid off hookers, monstrous bar tabs, or bills for unauthorized limousine rides, according to police records. As soon as the victim catches on, Young simply slips away. Within a few days, Young has usually locked onto a new target, and the whole charade repeats itself.”

Mark Seal • Vanity Fair • Jan. 2009

When a man named Clark Rockefeller snatched his daughter during a custody dispute, what the D.A. called “the longest con I’ve seen in my professional career” unraveled:

“He began to be known in Manhattan in late 1992 or 1993, proudly displaying two of the credentials that are catnip to the cognoscenti: a fancy dog, a Gordon setter named Yates—nothing sparks a conversation between strangers faster than a walked dog—and a major collection of modern art. Once again, he gained entry into the higher echelons through the church, in this case Saint Thomas Church, on Fifth Avenue, the epicenter of Manhattan Episcopalianism.

“ ‘He intimated that he was from the Percy Rockefeller branch of the clan—not John D. ultra-rich, but plenty rich,’ one friend remembers. And he cleverly cast himself as properly eccentric, ‘paranoid about security and walking around with a radio device that he claimed was connected to a security office,’ to which he regularly had to report his whereabouts. Thus, questions about his background could be dismissed as plebeian probes. ‘In Clark World, you were always trying to find out how rich he was, because once he had established how maniacally private he was, he could take the position that he could decline questions that impinged on his privacy.’ ”

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longformorg. For more great science and nature writing, check out Longform.org’s complete archive.

 

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