A restless American chucks his identity and reinvents himself as English royalty. Writer Bruce Falconer was envious—until he met the imposter and discovered how he really lived.

On a gray Friday afternoon two Octobers ago, I waited by a tram stop in Zurich, Switzerland, for a man I had once hoped could teach me a few tricks. Known to the international press as “the Real Jackal,” he is perhaps the most talented imposter in the world today. Like a character out of a 1970s spy novel, he had recently spent 20-plus years living under an identity he had stolen from a dead baby.

I had tracked the man down roughly a year earlier, after reading about his unmasking. The notion of disappearing, of pulling up stakes and vanishing into the void, had long been a fantasy of mine. Let other people sit in their office cubicles and busy themselves with finding me, I thought. I would be off somewhere living a life of my own choosing. Having put past mistakes and humiliations behind me, I would go forth not as I was, but as I wanted to be.

Or so went the dream. After an hour of waiting to reconnect with my would-be tutor, I cursed him under my breath. It was then that I heard his voice, still feigning a British accent, call my name. I turned toward the sound.

The imposter known as Christopher Buckingham—Lord Buckingham, in fact—looked much as I remembered him from our previous meetings. He was wearing a dark coat and khaki pants; his brown hair was touched by gray. Except for a slight indentation in his forehead above his right eye, the result of a car crash some years ago, he had few distinguishing characteristics.

When he reached me, he smiled. Apparently, he viewed his mere presence in Zurich as vindication of his talent.

“I’ve won,” he said.

In a sense, he was right. But I couldn’t help but feel that the victory, such as it was, had come at too great a cost.

Buckingham’s real name is Charles Albert Stopford III. Born in Orlando in May 1962, he was named after his father, a Methodist minister, and was the eldest of his parents’ nine children. According to those who knew him, he displayed a puckish taste for imposture early on. As a teenager, he once sneaked onto a U.S. military base and into the officers’ club simply by pretending he belonged there. Another time, he impersonated a narcotics agent and, using a fake gun, convinced a local druggie to hand over his stash. During high school, Charles also developed an infatuation with Great Britain. He hung a Union Jack on his bedroom wall, spent hours listening to the Beatles, and began to affect an English accent, even convincing some classmates that he was an exchange student.

When Charles was 16, his father ran off with a woman from the church, making local headlines. The break caused the eviction of the rest of the family from the church parsonage and appears to have triggered a destructive series of events in Charles’ life. He finished high school and soon joined the Navy. But he was arrested that same year on charges of arson and criminal mischief, allegedly for placing an explosive in the tailpipe of a car belonging to the manager of a local Burger King. The car was destroyed in the resulting blast.

Booted from the military, Charles worked briefly at Disney World, where he polished his English accent while entertaining tourists at Epcot Center’s United Kingdom Pavilion. Then, in the early months of 1983, though apparently still subject to the terms of his probation, he obtained a U.S. passport on a rush order, packed some clothes, and bought a one-way plane ticket out of the country.

In the months that followed, his family received postcards from the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, Egypt, South Africa, and Japan. Eventually, a small package arrived, containing a passport, birth certificate, Social Security card, driver’s license, and every other known piece of documentation proving the existence of Charles Albert Stopford III. After that, the postcards stopped coming.

On Jan. 15, 2005, a detective constable at the Port of Dover in southeastern England received word of a suspicious ferry passenger who would be arriving from France later that day. A routine check had revealed that the information on the passport presented by passenger “Christopher Buckingham” matched an entry in the U.K. Register of Deaths. It seemed that the real Christopher Buckingham had died in 1963, four months shy of his first birthday.

The detective, David Sprigg, dug a little deeper. By the time he was able to question the suspect later that evening, port policemen had searched the passenger’s vehicle and found on the front seat a sheaf of letterhead emblazoned with a coat of arms and the phrase, “From the Office of Lord Buckingham.” Sprigg had searched the Internet for a “Lord Buckingham.” There had been mention of only one: a pedigree cat.

The interrogation yielded little explanation. Asked about his background, the suspect named one school he said he had attended as a boy in London. It turned out to be fictitious. Asked about his parents, he said only that they were dead. “I’d rather not go into that,” he said, choking up. He did, however, offer the names of several people he thought would be able to verify his identity, including his ex-wife, Jody Doe, who lived north of London.

Buckingham was soon released on bail, but Sprigg continued his investigation. He phoned Doe a few weeks later. “I explained that Buckingham had been arrested,” he says, “and the first thing she said was, ‘Have you found out who he is?’”

Doe told Sprigg the story of her marriage the next day.

She had met Christopher Buckingham in Germany in the summer of 1984. Doe, a 19-year-old Canadian on her first trip abroad, was working as a waitress in a hotel cafe in southern Bavaria. Buckingham was a dishwasher in the kitchen. He told her that he was from England, that both of his parents had died in a plane crash in Egypt, and that he was traveling the world.

Doe and Buckingham began sleeping together and, later that year while vacationing in London, were married at a courthouse. Afterward, the couple settled in Bavaria, where they continued working in tourist hotels. In July 1986, they had their first child, a girl they named Lyndsey. They then moved to England and rented a run-down, single-room apartment outside of London. But around the time that Doe gave birth to their son, Edward, Buckingham found an IT job with Reuters and began advancing steadily. The family eventually saved enough to relocate to a house in Northampton.

The couple’s relationship, however, was becoming strained. Buckingham was intensely secretive about his past. Often, he would disappear, sometimes for days, and then return without explanation. Doe grew convinced he was having an affair. The couple began to fight regularly, and, in 1996, they separated. Buckingham moved into a small house a short drive away so he could still spend time with the children.

It was then, Doe said, that she launched a personal inquiry into her husband’s background. She contacted the British Home Office, to determine if his father had really been a diplomat, and the Egyptian Embassy, to learn if his parents had really died in a plane crash. She searched through student records at the schools Buckingham had told her he attended. When these efforts failed, Doe asked a policeman in Northampton to run a background check on her husband. Nothing unexpected came up, except that, before 1983, at least on paper, Buckingham had not existed. Discouraged, she gave up the chase.

Authorities still didn’t know who Buckingham was in November 2005, when he was sentenced to 21 months in prison for lying to obtain a passport. Nor did they know two months later, when he won an appeal that reduced his prison sentence to time served and commended him to the custody of British immigration officials.

Though the press had by then begun chasing clues all over Europe, Buckingham might have remained a cipher indefinitely had his past not intervened. On May 3, 2006, Buckingham’s daughter, Lyndsey, then 19, received an e-mail from a man named Kevin Stopford. The subject line read, “Your father I know him.” Attached was a family photograph showing a younger version of her father, blond and tan, surrounded by brothers and sisters. Stopford directed another e-mail to Sprigg’s unit: “The person who claims to be ‘Christopher Edward Buckingham,’” he wrote, “is known to me as Charles Albert Stopford. … I would suggest sending his fingerprints to the United States authorities. You most assuredly will obtain a match ...”

The following month, as British authorities arranged for the imposter’s deportation to America, Jody Doe managed to get through to him by phone. Several of his American siblings were on their way to visit, and when Doe mentioned them, he grew upset, explaining that, since a 2002 car accident in France, he had been suffering amnesia.

“I don’t know who these people are!” he told her, explaining that he had no memories of his life before the accident.

“So, you don’t remember being married to me?” she asked.

“Not really,” he said, adding that he recognized their children only from photographs.

Doe knew that the accident was no invention. In January 2002, her ex-husband was driving back to his new home in Zurich after visiting Northampton when his car was struck from behind in France and plowed into a brick wall. He was in a coma for several months before slowly recovering. In fact, Doe had spoken to him several times while he was in the hospital, and never did he mention any confusion about who she was.

That didn’t matter now. From June 2006 onward, Buckingham’s amnesia, real or not, would figure prominently in his discussions of his past.

Knowing that Buckingham had faked one identity, I was not entirely surprised to learn, when I met him in Florida in the summer of 2006, that he’d laid claim to two others in Europe—both with a full set of authentic documents. Management of multiple identities is a sensitive thing, Buckingham explained, one that requires constant attention. The serial imposter must never allow his different personas to overlap. “It’s like stepping into a clean room,” he said. “If I want to do something in another identity, I leave everything in one place, everything that belongs to Christopher Buckingham.”

As he told me this, it struck me that a life like his, lived in constant fear of discovery, must be a lonesome experience. Others can build friendships, allow themselves to trust, and learn to love. The imposter must stand guard over his deception. Each new acquaintance complicates the lie, bringing with it the fresh possibility of betrayal and drawing nearer the day when the walls might come crashing down. Perhaps for this reason, Buckingham appeared to maintain few personal relationships. Though he was, as we spoke, living in Florida with members of his real family, his feelings toward them remained tentative. Meanwhile, he had severed all contact with his British children, despite their numerous, desperate attempts to reach him.

I must admit I was surprised to find him in Zurich a year later. I’d thought he was destined to remain marooned in Florida for the rest of his days. Instead, it had taken him less than a year to reassume his fictitious identity.

This time, he was nearly legit. He had legally obtained a U.S. passport under his adopted name, and simply boarded a plane and flown to Zurich. The Swiss raised no fuss at his return.

To his own surprise, the life he had created in Zurich earlier in the decade continued on as before. He moved back in with a nurse, Anita Keller, whom he had met while recovering from his car accident. They lived in the same small apartment as before, on the same quiet street. He went back to the same job he’d had before his arrest. He even kept his title, “Lord Buckingham.” 

Despite his arrest and detention in Britain, he said he had no regrets. He was also prepared to disappear once more if authorities ever closed in again. “When you vanish from the radar, it annoys them,” he said, laughing at their expense.

A year before, I would have cheered him on. But now, having seen the life he had led, the sacrifices he had made (and forced others to make on his behalf), I could not bring myself to do it. Buckingham was not the dashing figure I had imagined; he seemed to lack something fundamental. I had already concluded that I could never really know him. Now it occurred to me that he did not know himself. He had been running for so long, in so many guises, that his essence—whatever it is that makes us who we are—was hopelessly diluted. He had desired to become someone else; now he was no one at all.

From a longer story that originally appeared in Lost magazine. Used with permission of the author. All rights reserved.