The news brought a flood of interest and hope. On Wednesday, police in Newport, Ky., revealed that a young man found wandering local streets claimed he was Timmothy Pitzen, an Aurora, Ill., boy who had vanished after his mother’s apparent suicide in 2011.
But within 24 hours, the story of a missing child’s fantastic return had been punctured by the lab results. DNA testing proved the man was not Pitzen. Authorities revealed Thursday that he was actually Brian Michael Rini, a 23-year-old Ohioan who had recently left prison.
“It’s devastating,” Kara Jacobs, the missing boy’s aunt, told reporters Thursday at a news conference. “It’s like reliving that day all over again.”
The revelation has only opened up an even stranger mystery. Why would Rini pretend to be Pitzen? How had he chosen a 2011 case now far off the public’s radar? How had he plucked out certain details from Pitzen’s life — such as the missing boy’s birthday and the circumstances of his disappearance — that layered his claims with additional credibility?
Rini is not the first to try such a fraud. Although the phenomenon is rare, examples are strung across past decades. And what these impersonators often find is a susceptible audience, both in family members desperate to fill an emotional hole and in a public eager to fit a happy ending on a situation as unfathomable as the disappearance of a child.
“Your heart takes over and you want to believe,” the member of another family duped by a missing child impostor told the New Yorker’s David Grann in 2008.
The most infamous individual to possibly assume the persona of a missing child was also at the center of one of the 20th century’s great mysteries.
In 1920, a woman jumped off a bridge in Berlin. As she later recovered in a hospital, rumors swirled through the city’s Russian exile community that the nameless woman was actually Anastasia, the 17-year-old daughter of the murdered czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra. When Russia’s deposed royal family was gunned down by a group of Bolsheviks on July 17, 1918, the fevered speculation among loyalists was that some of the children may have escaped the bloodbath.
The identity of the woman who claimed to be the czar’s youngest daughter but began calling herself Anna Anderson became a tug of war between expat supporters and the Romanov extended family; a court battle over whether Anderson was entitled to the family fortune became one of the lengthiest legal cases in German history. In 1970, the German Supreme Court ruled there was no proof either way.
It was only after Anderson’s death in 1984 that DNA testing showed she was probably not a member of the royal bloodline, according to Refinery29.
No dynastic fortunes were at play when Walter Collins, 9, disappeared in California in 1928.
Authorities nationwide searched for the missing child. Five months after he vanished, a 12-year-old Iowa runaway named Arthur Hutchins Jr. was caught by police in Illinois. Investigators began questioning him on whether he was Walter.
According to a statement written by Hutchins in 1933 and published later by People, the runaway said what police wanted to hear. “So I said I was Walter Collins because I was sure that would be my best way to get to California,” Hutchins wrote.
When the impostor was handed over to Walter’s mother, Christine, however, she quickly realized the boy was not her son. Police pressed her that it was her child, explaining the change in his appearance as the aftereffect of torture.
“Tootie, the cat, didn’t like anyone but Walter, but she made friends with me,” Hutchins wrote. “Even Tiny the dog acted as if he knew me. That helped convince Mrs. Collins.”
But Christine became sure that the boy wasn’t her son after a trip to the beach, because Walter was terrified of water, and Hutchins jumped right into the waves. She told the police this was not Walter. Authorities decided Christine was mentally ill, and she was locked up in Los Angeles County General Hospital’s psychiatric ward for a week. While she was away, Hutchins confessed to the charade. Police later determined that the real Walter was probably killed by a child serial killer. Hutchins later said it was “fun to be somebody you aren’t.”
The bizarre situation became the basis for the 2008 film “Changeling,” starring Angelina Jolie.
One of the most baffling situations involving a missing child and an impostor unfolded on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in the late 1990s.
Frédéric Bourdin was a French-born serial impostor, flitting across Europe for most of his life pretending to be a 14-year-old runaway. As the New Yorker recounted in 2008, his saga began in October 1997, when Bourdin — then 23 — raised suspicions at a group home for Spanish youths. He was given 24 hours to prove he was actually a teen.
In a fit of inspiration, he dialed up the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Posing as a shelter staff member, he told the folks on the other line he had an American runaway staying with him who was the victim of a sex-trafficking operation. Bourdin was able to pull out the details of a boy named Nicholas Barclay, who had gone missing from San Antonio in 1994.
Still acting as the youth shelter staffer, Bourdin said the boy at the center was Barclay. When authorities came to investigate, Bourdin slipped into Barclay’s identity. Although he spoke English with a French accent and even had different colored eyes than the missing boy, he was shipped to Barclay’s family in Texas.
“I wanted the attention at the time,” he later told the New Yorker. “It was a psychological need. Today, I wouldn’t do it.”
Bourdin’s con eventually fell apart thanks to a private detective and FBI agent who thought the story was too remarkable to believe. While living with Barclay’s family, Bourdin began to suspect he was receiving a chilly reception from certain family members because they actually had been involved with the boy’s death. Still, he played the part until confessing to the con after almost five months.
“We just kept making excuses — that he’s different because of all this ugly stuff that had happened,” a family member explained to the New Yorker.
Bourdin later told the Telegraph he felt the family knew he was not their missing relative the whole time.
“Most people who go to church don’t believe in God, very few of them really believe, but somewhere deep inside they try to convince themselves there is a God,” he said. “It’s the same thing for [Barclay’s] family. It’s happened exactly the same.”
Bourdin later served five years in prison in the United States for perjury and obtaining false documents.
High-profile cases — including ones featured on television programs or viral social media pages — are particularly susceptible to impostors.
Katrice Lee was celebrating her second birthday on the day she disappeared in November 1981 during a trip to a supermarket with her mother in Paderborn, Germany. According to the Daily Mirror, the British family was living there as part of her father’s military deployment. For decades, no sign of Katrice was found. Eventually, the family set up a Facebook page to help with the search.
Then, in 2011, a woman named Donna Wright contacted the family through the page, claiming to be their long-lost daughter. But when police investigated Wright, DNA testing showed she was not related to the family.
Wright, however, continued bothering the family. In March 2013, she was sentenced to weeks in a British prison for harassment, the BBC reported.
“I am filled with dread every time I log on to Facebook in case I have a message from her,” Natasha Lee, the missing girl’s sister, said at the sentencing.
Grief and anger are the common responses from the parents of missing children who get entangled with such impostors. But they often also express a measure of sympathy for the person who would commit such a fraud — a sentiment also echoed by Timmothy Pitzen’s family.
As of Thursday, there was little information about Rini. As The Washington Post reported, the Medina, Ohio, native had recently left prison after serving more than a year for burglary and vandalism convictions. He is now in police custody. He may face criminal charges, such as falsely reporting an incident.
Police, however, have not yet offered any motive for why Rini posed as Pitzen.
“I feel so sorry for the young man who’s obviously had a horrible time and felt the need to say he was someone else,” Alana Anderson, the still-missing boy’s grandmother, told reporters Thursday.