|NONFICTION / LOST PERSON
MARCH 2009 – NO. 31
Escape from America
Christopher Buckingham as "The Real Jackal"
On a cold, gray Friday afternoon two Octobers ago, I waited by a tram stop in central Zurich. He had said he would meet me in Paradeplatz, a large open square bounded by jewelry shops, luxury hotels, and international banks, and told me to watch for Tram 13. An hour later, when he had not appeared, I cursed him under my breath. It was then that I heard his voice calling my name, still feigning an English accent. I turned to see him walking toward me. He looked much the same as I remembered, with green eyes and thinning brown hair, touched by streaks of gray. He wore a dark coat and a brown sweater over a white-collared shirt and khaki pants. Except for a slight indentation in his forehead above his right eye, the outward evidence of two metal plates inserted after a car crash some years ago, he had few other characteristics and easily blended into the crowd. The effect was no mere accident of physiology; it was a discipline cultivated by his long and varied experience undercover. Christopher Buckingham — "The Real Jackal," as he has now come to be called — is perhaps the most talented imposter in the world today, who over the years has successfully passed himself off as a British aristocrat, Russian royalty, a German businessman, a retired Cold War spy, and even a dead man.
I had been drawn into Buckingham's story a year earlier, when I read in a British newspaper of his unmasking after more than two decades spent inhabiting a fictitious identity. The notion of disappearing, of simply pulling up the stakes and vanishing into the void, the conventions of modern nations be damned, had long been one my most deeply felt, and closely held, fantasies. Let them sit in their cubicles in their government offices and busy themselves with finding me, I thought. I'd be off somewhere in the great wide world, beholden to no one and living a life of my own choosing, a life unburdened by past mistakes and humiliations. I would break free of my inadequacies and go forth not as I was, but as I wanted to be. So went the dream. Buckingham, it seemed, had actually done it. I determined to find him in hopes he could instruct me in the mechanics of personal reinvention and perhaps quiet the voice of doubt in my head that kept asking, could it really be that easy? Can we choose to forget the past and simply start again? It had taken months, but I had finally tracked him down, first to a jail in England, then to Florida, and now to Switzerland. We had been in intermittent contact over the same period and had met in person on several occasions. As he stood before me now, his face broke into a smile. His mere presence in Zurich he viewed as vindication of his talent. "I've won," he said, and 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 was born "Charles Albert Stopford, III" in May 1962 in Orlando, Florida. Named for his father, a Methodist minister, he was the eldest of seven boys and two girls. The family lived together in a house provided by the church. According to those who knew him, Stopford possessed a colorful sense of humor and early on displayed a taste for practical jokes. A recent television documentary told of how, as a teenager, he snuck onto a U.S. military base and even got into the officer's club, simply by pretending he belonged there. Then there was the time he impersonated an undercover narcotics agent and, using a fake gun, convinced a local druggie to hand over his stash. While still in high school, Stopford developed an infatuation with Great Britain. He hung a Union Jack on his bedroom wall, spent hours listening to the Beatles and watching Monty Python, and began to affect an English accent, which he practiced at home with his father. This, too, as one of his high school friends told the filmmakers, grew into yet another prank in which Stopford convinced his teachers and classmates that he was a British exchange student whose father was working on temporary assignment at NASA.
In 1978, when Stopford was 16, his real-life father ran off with a woman from the church, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves. They were evicted from their parsonage and forced to rely on the charity of their father's former parishioners. The scandal made local headlines — "Abandoned Family Braces for Unknown Future," St. Petersburg Times — and was a source of humiliation for them all, but particularly the eldest Stopford. His parents' divorce appears to have triggered a destructive series of events in his life. In 1980, after graduating high school, Stopford joined the Navy. He was arrested later that year on charges of arson and criminal mischief, allegedly for placing an explosive into the tail pipe of a car belonging to the manager of an Orlando-area Burger King. The car was destroyed in the blast. Released on probation, Stopford was kicked out of the Navy for reasons unknown. He worked for a short time at Disneyworld, where he polished his English accent while entertaining tourists at Epcot Center's United Kingdom Pavilion. According to police records, he broke his probation in July 1982, after which it was reinstated with additional provisions, including a mandated weekly meeting with a probation officer and a requirement that he pursue higher education. Then, in the early months of 1983, apparently while still subject to the terms of his probation, Stopford obtained a U.S. passport on a rush, two-day order, packed some clothes and basic identity documents, and bought a one-way plane ticket out of the country. In the months that followed, the Stopford 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, Disneyworld ID, and every other known piece of documentation proving the existence of Charles Albert Stopford III. After that, the postcards stopped coming.
On the afternoon of January 15, 2005, a Saturday, Detective Constable David Sprigg, a police officer at the Port of Dover in southeastern England, was sitting at his desk doing paperwork when there was a knock at the door. It was two of his colleagues, officers with the UK's elite Special Branch. They told him that a passenger had presented a British passport for inspection earlier that day at the Port of Calais in France before boarding a car ferry bound for England. A routine security check revealed that the information on the passport matched an entry in the UK Register of Deaths. It seemed Christopher Buckingham, the passenger in question, had died in infancy in 1963, four months shy of his first birthday. He was currently in transit and would be arriving in Dover later that afternoon. Sprigg said he would look into the matter.
A tall, thickset man with a round face and heavy jowls, Sprigg had the raspy voice of a smoker. Due to retire later that year, he had risen from the uniformed ranks, and, for the past decade, had been a detective with the Frontier Crime Unit, a mix of police and immigration officers assigned to the Port of Dover. Sprigg and his colleagues worked out of a rectangular, red brick building inside the port's perimeter fence, within earshot of ferry traffic and the groaning of heavy longshore cranes. It was an old facility with coffee-stained carpets and fluorescent lights. The officers shared a large room full of desks with a bank of computers in the corner and a sign on the far wall, which read, "Never Trust a Fat Man from a Poor Country."
When Buckingham drove off the ferry later that afternoon, two port policemen directed him to pull over for inspection. According to police records, he was clean-shaven with neatly parted brown hair and was wearing a knitted sweater with a Norwegian flag on the front and dark pants. As the officers approached his car, one of them later remembered, Buckingham was speaking on a cell phone in a language that sounded like German. Inside, on the front seat, they found a Swiss driver's license, a ferry ticket in the name of "Herr Buckingham," a photocopy of his British passport, and a sheaf of blank letterhead emblazoned with a coat of arms above the phrase, "From the Office of Lord Buckingham." The passenger explained that he was a member of the House of Lords, but had not attended since moving to Switzerland several years before. The officers put him into the back of an unmarked car and drove him to the police station in downtown Dover.
Meanwhile, back at the port, Sprigg was already researching the case. Having heard that Buckingham claimed to sit the House of Lords, he looked through a listing of its members. The name did not appear. He searched the Internet for "Lord Buckingham." There was only one: a pedigree cat. A call to the UK Immigration Service confirmed that Buckingham's passport had been revoked after British authorities had matched it to the name of a dead person. Later that evening, Sprigg drove to the Dover Police Station. With tape recorder rolling, he explained to Buckingham the reason for his arrest and asked about his background:
SPRIGG: Mr. Buckingham, you've been arrested on suspicion of obtaining a British passport by deception … in that the person's details on that passport are those of a deceased person. Do you understand that?
BUCKINGHAM: I understand…
SPRIGG: What can you tell me about the allegation made against you?
BUCKINGHAM: It's not true.
SPRIGG: Okay, so you're saying that passport was legitimately issued to you and you are legitimately entitled to hold it?
BUCKINGHAM: It was, and I am.
SPRIGG: Okay, so where were you born then, Mr. Buckingham?
BUCKINGHAM: In London.
SPRIGG: Okay, do you know whereabouts in Lambeth you were born? I mean, were you born at home or were you born in a hospital?
SPRIGG: You don't know?
SPRIGG: And which schools did you go to?
BUCKINGHAM: St. Christopher's School…
SPRIGG: And that's in Lambeth, is it?
BUCKINGHAM: No, it's in Westminster.
SPRIGG: And what age were you when you left St. Christopher's?
BUCKINGHAM: I think I was nine.
SPRIGG: Okay, and which school did you go to after that?
BUCKINGHAM: I don't remember…
SPRIGG: Okay, now you're also calling yourself Lord Buckingham, is that right?
SPRIGG: And where does that title come from?
BUCKINGHAM: I own or inherited four manorial titles.
SPRIGG: Right, and where are they from then?
BUCKINGHAM: One is Fairfield, one is Aston, one is Boworth … and the fourth I can't remember.
SPRIGG: And where did you get those from?
BUCKINGHAM: I inherited them.
SPRIGG: From who?
BUCKINGHAM: My father.
Buckingham would later tell Sprigg that his father had been a British diplomat in Egypt, where he had been killed, together with Buckingham's mother, in a private airplane crash in 1982. But in this initial interrogation, when the detective asked about his parents, Buckingham would say only that they were dead. "I'd rather not go into that," he said, choking up. "Even though it's so long ago, I haven't finished with it." Sprigg moved on, asking if he held any other nationalities. Yes, Buckingham said, he had a German passport due to family ancestry on his mother's side. The Swiss government had also granted him citizenship because of his "special skills" in the field of computer security. He was entitled to a Swiss passport, he said, but had yet to apply for one. Sprigg asked Buckingham if there was anyone who had known him since he was child. Buckingham paused to consider the question, and said, "No, they've all moved off. They've all moved off, died, gotten married, become incontactable." He listed several people he thought would be able to verify his identity, among them his ex-wife, who lived in Northampton, about an hour north of London. Buckingham himself owned a house there, he said, although it had stood empty since his move to Zurich. Sprigg knew Buckingham was lying about his identity, but did not have sufficient evidence to detain him. Buckingham was charged with using false information to obtain a passport and was released on bail on the condition that he return the following week for further questioning. He agreed and walked out. Sprigg was convinced he would never see him again.
In the days that followed, the detective obtained the birth and death certificates for Christopher Edward Buckingham, born in London on Christmas Eve, 1962. The latter indicated the child had died the following summer while on vacation with his parents, Edward and Audrey Buckingham. Just to make sure, Sprigg sent away for a copy of the coroner's report, which came back with a detailed summary of the autopsy. He tried to reach St. Christopher's for evidence of Buckingham's student history, only to find the school did not exist. He contacted the UK Home Office to confirm that Buckingham's father had been a diplomat and that his parents had died in a plane crash. Neither could be verified. When, to his surprise, Buckingham returned the following Friday, Sprigg confronted him with the facts.
"Mr. Buckingham," he said, "since I saw you last weekend, I've made some enquiries … and I do not believe that you are Mr. Christopher Edward Buckingham, born on the twenty-fourth of December 1962. Do you want to tell me your real identity?"
"No comment," Buckingham said.
Sprigg presented him with the birth and death certificates and the coroner's report. "Have you used a copy of that birth certificate to obtain a passport?"
Sprigg took him into custody and held him in jail overnight.
The next day, Buckingham appeared before a judge in nearby Canterbury, who released him on bail. Sprigg was disgusted. "The bloody magistrates let him go!" he told me, when I spoke with him last fall. "How can you let somebody go whose identity is in question? We had no idea who he was. He could have been anybody." After the hearing, Sprigg drove Buckingham back to Dover to pick up his car. As they rode together in silence, it occurred to the detective that Buckingham could be an undercover intelligence agent. Spies were occasionally captured coming through the port on false papers, but were usually released within hours after offering proof of their official status. As Sprigg later remembered it, he offered Buckingham a way out, telling him, "If you are an agent working either for our government or for another government, for goodness sake tell me. Give me a contact number with which I can verify it, and the whole thing will be forgotten. You'll be on your way, end of story." Buckingham was evasive. "Even if I was, I couldn't tell you," he said. It was the last conversation they would ever have. That night, after Buckingham had gone, Sprigg checked his name with the British intelligence services. They did not know who he was.
New cases crossed Sprigg's desk almost daily, but Buckingham's identity continued to preoccupy him. By mid-February, he found a phone number for Jody Doe, Buckingham's ex-wife. "I rang Jody and explained to her who I was," he told me. "I explained that Buckingham had been arrested, and the first thing she said to me was, 'Have you found out who he is?'" Doe refused to discuss the case over the phone, but invited Sprigg to visit her in Northampton. The next day, a Sunday, when she returned home from church, he was smoking a cigar in her driveway. Inside, she explained how it was she first came to know Christopher Buckingham.
They had met in Germany in the summer of 1984. Doe, a nineteen-year-old Canadian on her first trip abroad, was working as a waitress in a hotel café in southern Bavaria. Buckingham was a dishwasher in the kitchen. He spoke with an accent, Doe remembered, which she first mistook as South African. He told her that he was from England, that both of his parents had died in a plane crash in Egypt, and that he had been traveling the world, having just moved to Germany after several months on an Israeli kibbutz. They became intimate and, later that year while vacationing in London, were married at a courthouse. Afterward, the couple settled in Bavaria, where they continued working as seasonal help in Alpine tourist hotels. In July 1986, they had their first child, a girl they named Lyndsey. They moved to England the following year, where they rented a run-down, single-room apartment outside of London. Around the time that Doe gave birth to their son Edward, Buckingham found an IT job with Reuters. He advanced steadily in the company, eventually moving into computer security, and saving enough to relocate his family to a house in Northampton. Things had improved financially, but, beneath the surface, the couple's relationship was strained. Buckingham was secretive about his past and never entertained questions about his family history. 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 row house a short drive away so he could still spend time with Lyndsey and Edward. It was then, Doe said, that she launched a personal inquiry into her husband's background. She placed an ad in The Times of London, listing Buckingham's biographical details and seeking further information. She contacted the UK Home Office about his father's diplomatic career and the Egyptian Embassy about his parents' deaths. She searched through student records at Harrow and Cambridge, the schools Buckingham told her he had 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. Doe became discouraged by the lack of records. When the divorce finally came through, she told the detective, she stopped looking.
In the weeks after his return from Northampton, Sprigg's own investigation faired little better. The Royal College of Arms, the official record-keeper of British heraldry, examined a sample of the letterhead removed from Buckingham's car. It found that the title "Lord Buckingham" belonged to an extinct lineage, one believed to have died out with the second Duke of Buckingham in 1687. A government fraud investigator informed Sprigg that Buckingham had first registered for a national insurance number as an adult on June 23, 1983. It was his earliest known record in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, the German and Swiss governments denied that Buckingham was a citizen of either one. At some point, Sprigg received a phone call from a policeman in Northampton. Buckingham's divorce had been messy, the officer told him, and on several occasions had required police intervention. Sprigg asked him to keep tabs on Buckingham while the investigation moved forward. Later, Sprigg also talked with Buckingham's next-door neighbor, Nicky Carlton, who offered to report back to him each week on Buckingham's activities. From that point forward, whether he knew it or not, Buckingham was being watched.
In April, Sprigg finally located Audrey Wing, the mother of the real Christopher Edward Buckingham. She had remarried some years ago after the death of her husband and had moved to Edinburgh, Scotland. The detective flew up to see her. Wing had been suffering from severe depression since the death of her only child over 40 years before and had long been estranged from the rest of her family. "She led me down a few garden paths that didn't quite work out," Sprigg said later. "I had taken Buckingham's passport with me so she could look at it. She was convinced that she knew him, that he was her long-lost brother's son, and that he was using the name because he knew the real Christopher was dead. It was all conjecture on her part." Sprigg felt certain that she bore no relation to the man claiming to be her dead son, an opinion later confirmed by DNA testing. Additional tests of Buckingham's DNA against criminal databases in the United Kingdom and Switzerland did not yield any hits. Sprigg was running out of leads, but there was one thing he had yet to check: whether Buckingham could have stolen his identity from the gravestone of Wing's dead baby. In July, when Sprigg visited the cemetery, he got his answer. "There was no gravestone," he remembered. "The baby is just buried in a little plot that's roughed over." The realization hit Sprigg hard. "My bosses were a bit concerned," he remembered. "Every other day, I was doing something on this case. We were spending too much time and money trying to find out who he was, because really, it was just an aside to what he was charged with. The offense was quite minor."
That October, almost nine months after his arrest, Buckingham appeared in court to face the charge of having lied to obtain a passport. He petitioned the judge for permission to travel to Switzerland, where he claimed to have a safety deposit box containing proof that he was Christopher Edward Buckingham. It was equipped with high-tech security, he said, and could only be accessed with his thumbprint. When the judge denied the request, Buckingham pled guilty. Sentencing was scheduled for November. Buckingham faced up to two years in prison, after which he would be freed with his false identity intact. Sprigg, who was due to retire from the police in a matter of weeks, was convinced that Buckingham was hiding something. He gave the investigation one final push. The week after Buckingham pled guilty, the police released his mug shot and issued a brief statement asking the public for help. The Frontier Crime Unit was soon inundated with phone calls and letters. Buckingham's photograph circulated widely on the Internet. Newspapers and TV stations in Britain and around the world ran stories about "The Real Jackal," who, like the character in the bestselling spy novel, had stolen his identity from a dead baby. Tabloids speculated that Buckingham was a professional killer, an international fugitive, and even an East German "sleeper agent" left over from the Cold War. Despite his British accent, the fact that Buckingham appeared to have materialized out of nowhere led Sprigg to guess that he could be a foreigner. He remembered back to what Jody Doe had told him — how Buckingham had lived in Germany, spoke with what sounded like a South African accent, and had spent time in Israel. In late October, a few weeks before Buckingham's sentencing, Sprigg forwarded his fingerprints via Interpol to police organizations in all three countries in what he knew might be his last chance to solve the case. All would eventually come back negative. On November 8, 2005, Buckingham, still refusing to identify himself, was sentenced to 21 months in prison. A few weeks later, Sprigg retired from the police.
After the sentencing, media speculation about Buckingham's identity intensified. When it was discovered that he had a girlfriend in Zurich, members of the press descended on the city, camping out in front of her apartment and even chasing her through the streets. Her name was Anita Keller, a middle-aged Swiss woman said to be in her mid-forties. She was employed as a nurse in the Intensive Care Unit at Zurich University Hospital, where she had first met Buckingham in the spring of 2002. In early January of that year, while Buckingham was driving through France on a return trip from Northampton, his car was struck from behind and plowed hard into the brick wall of a tollbooth. His skull was crushed. He spent several months in a coma in a French hospital before transferring to Switzerland for further treatment. It was there that Keller nursed Buckingham back to health. They developed a friendship and, in time, a romance. Later on, before he went to prison, Buckingham told British authorities that Keller had access to the exculpatory documents locked inside his Swiss safety deposit box. Investigators contacted her and asked if she would open it. She refused. "She was of no real help at all," one of them later told me. "She said we had it all wrong, that he really was Christopher Buckingham." The investigators pleaded with Keller, but to no effect. Buckingham's safety deposit box would never be opened.
While some journalists prowled Zurich, others focused their attention on Northampton. Reporters for the Mail on Sunday convinced Nicky Carlton, the neighbor who had been spying on Buckingham for the police, to use a key he had given her to let them into Buckingham's three-bedroom row house. Inside, they found a brass bed, a television, and a wooden table. There was a box of unused fireworks in the kitchen along with two chemical containers, contents unknown. Resting on the television was a pistol, a non-firing replica of the Walther P99 made famous by James Bond. Most unexpected, though, was the condition of the house itself. Buckingham had torn it apart. "It was a wreck, an absolute wreck," Carlton later told me. "He had just decorated the house in December, but when he came home at the end of January, he proceeded to destroy it by the time he left." In the weeks before Buckingham went to prison, Carlton noticed he was doing some construction on the house. When she asked him about it, he said that he had "discovered some faults," particularly with the roof. "Yeah, he had a problem with his roof," Carlton laughed. "He took his ridge tiles off!" At first, investigators thought Buckingham had destroyed his house to cover up evidence of his identity. Only later did they discover that Buckingham had stopped paying his mortgage. As Sprigg explained, "He knew the mortgage company had gotten an order against him, so they could repossess the house. That's why he wrecked it." Buckingham ripped up the floors, tore wiring from the walls, cut away the bottom of his staircase, smashed his bathroom with a sledgehammer, and, by removing the ridge tiles, allowed rainwater to seep through the roof and drain into the house. The day before his October court hearing, as Buckingham loaded some belongings into his car, Carlton went outside to talk with him. She asked if he had noticed that his ridge tiles were missing. As she later remembered it, he responded, "Oh, I've had the roofers around. They've obviously done a bad job. I'll have to talk to them." The next day, he left for the court and never came back.
The Buckingham investigation lost momentum after Sprigg's retirement, but did not stop. Responsibility for the case transferred to others at the Frontier Crime Unit, who continued to gather whatever information they could find. In mid-January 2006, a financial auditor emailed the investigators and explained that British revenue officials had been trying to locate Buckingham about some unpaid taxes. They had first looked for him in London, only to discover his address was a post office box. Later, they sent a series of letters to Switzerland, but received no response. "The only contact they have is when he calls them," the auditor wrote. Attached to the email was a list of limited liability companies that Buckingham had started after leaving his job at Reuters in the mid-1990s. Additional research revealed several people listed as corporate officers, among them Richard James Thomas, David Allan Thomas, David Robert Allen, Paul David Keen, and what appeared to be a German, Hans-Peter Schmidt. Investigators would later determine that all were fictitious, except one: Keen was a fellow computer enthusiast, occasional roommate, and close friend of Buckingham's. He had also been dead for several years. Another name, one that stood out for its apparent connection to the Russian imperial family, was Alexi Romanov. "He's another figment of imagination," an investigator told me. That January, while in prison, Buckingham had placed a phone call to a mailbox company in London. According to police surveillance records, he introduced himself as "Alexi," explained that "Chris" was in the hospital after a serious car accident in France, and arranged for Anita Keller to begin making payments for "Box 35." The police, content to have Buckingham in prison, never questioned him about Romanov or any of his other identities.
In late February, Buckingham won an appeal that reduced his prison sentence to time served. Upon release, he was deemed "stateless" and remanded into the custody of UK immigration authorities. Without admitting his real name, Buckingham might have remained there indefinitely had his own past not intervened. On May 3, 2006, Buckingham's now-teenaged daughter Lyndsey received an email from a man named Kevin Stopford. The subject line read, "Your father I know him." Attached was a full color family photograph showing a younger version of her father, blonde and tan, surrounded by brothers and sisters. Stopford also emailed officers at the Frontier Crime Unit, insisting that he knew Buckingham's real name:
"The person who claims to be 'Christopher Edward Buckingham' is known to me as Charles Albert Stopford …. His current alias has been known to my mother for many years and more recently to my brothers and sisters. We found him yesterday by doing an on-line search using that alias .… I am not at liberty to say what the circumstances were surrounding his sudden departure, but I will say that he was involved in many troubling affairs before leaving .… I would suggest sending his fingerprints to the United States authorities. You most assuredly will obtain a match, for he was involved in the U.S. Navy and other activities that would have required official fingerprinting."
In the absence of any explanation from Buckingham's mother, it is impossible to know why she withheld her son's adopted identity from the rest of the family. But when fingerprint tests in the United States were completed, there could be no doubt: Buckingham was an American.
The following month, as British authorities arranged for Buckingham's deportation, several of his American siblings traveled to England to visit him in detention. Jody Doe managed to get through to Buckingham by phone shortly before their arrival. When she mentioned that he would soon be reunited with his American family, he grew upset, explaining that he had been suffering from amnesia since his car accident in France and had no memory of the United States.
"I don't know who these people are!" he told her. After the car accident, he said, his memory had been erased.
"So, you don't remember being married to me?" she asked.
"No, not really," Buckingham said, adding that he only recognized their children from old photographs.
As Doe later told me, she had spoken with Buckingham several times while he was in the hospital recovering from his accident. He had never expressed any confusion about who she was. But, from that point forward, Buckingham's amnesia, real or not, would figure prominently in discussions of his past. In July 2006, having lost his final battle against deportation, Buckingham was escorted onto a trans-Atlantic flight to Orlando, Florida. Upon arrival, he carefully evaded the press waiting for him outside the terminal and quietly slipped back into the life he had left 23 years before.
Even after his exposure as an imposter, Christopher Buckingham remained a proud man and, though temporarily beaten, did not think himself as defeated. His dream of escape lingered on, even in Clearwater, the place where it had first taken hold. I met him there several months after his return at a Ruby Tuesday restaurant. He pulled into the parking lot in a silver 4x4, driven by his youngest brother Tim. Buckingham, still going by "Christopher" and speaking with an English accent, wore a Polo shirt tucked into his tan slacks; Tim, tough-looking with thick arms and a shaved head, wore a t-shirt and jeans. Tim had been only four-years-old when Buckingham left Florida and was now getting to know his older brother for the first time. Like the rest of the Stopford family, he had welcomed Buckingham home without reservation. "That's Chris' business," he told me, when I asked how he felt about his brother's disappearance. "If there's a story to tell, he should be the one to tell it." Buckingham said he planned to return to Switzerland sometime the following year. Meanwhile, he was having trouble sleeping, and despite some searching, had yet to find a job. He had posted his resume online, only to receive emails from IT companies selling classes and certificates. "A certificate means nothing," he told me. "It's only a name, and that name might not even be real. I mean, what does a piece of paper really say about a person?"
Later, I sat down with Buckingham alone and asked him why he had decided to leave this place and become someone else. He fell back on his amnesia. "The problem that I have at the moment is that I don't remember a lot of this," he said. "All I can remember is being called 'Christopher', which is one of the reasons why, when I was confronted with other information to the contrary, it was almost like they were making it up." His memory had not been lived, but learned — from daily journals he had kept since first leaving the United States. But nowhere in them had he recorded the reasons for his departure and change of identity. I asked to see the journals, but Buckingham explained that, for the sake of security, he had destroyed them after scanning their contents into his computer.
Even if he would not explain his reasons for becoming Christopher Buckingham, on the question of how he had done it, he was more forthcoming. As it turned out, the transformation was no great trick; Buckingham had simply followed what he liked to call the "identity trail," obtaining smaller documents, which led to bigger ones. Shortly after his arrival in England, he went to a government archive and searched through the official records of British births and deaths. As he explained it later, "You have to find someone who died at zero. It just so happened that there were a couple Christopher Buckinghams. You could pretty much assume that they were not going to have any form of identification. There would be nothing that makes a person a person." He therefore objected when the police, many years later, accused him of identity theft. "What identity?" he said. "Did they have a credit card when they died? Or did they have a house? Or did they have a car? There was no identity to actually steal. A name is not necessarily an identity." Having decided on the name "Christopher Edward Buckingham," he requested a copy of the dead child's birth certificate. It arrived in the mail a week later. He moved on from there to obtain a national insurance number, a driver's license, and, eventually, a passport. "I relied on the inconsistencies in the system," he explained. "I just filled in the forms and sent them through the post." The process took about eight months. When at last he received his passport, he became, by all appearances, a British citizen.
The title of "Lord" had come only later, Buckingham told me, in the 1990s. I wondered, given his delicate position as an imposter, why take the risk? Had he done it to add further insult to a system that wouldn't notice such an obvious fraud? Or perhaps he secretly wanted to be discovered. After all, only by the collapse of his deception would the world learn of his accomplishment. Had his arrogance suffered too long in silence? "Certainly not," Buckingham said, because the title was real. He had acquired it through purchase of what he described as several small manorial properties scattered across England. "At first, it was a bit of a joke," he explained. "I thought it would be a hoot to start calling myself Lord Buckingham. But what I noticed was, using the title, you got the respect and consideration that you should be due." Police officers I spoke with in England had an alternate theory; namely that Buckingham's title may have strengthened his cover by leveraging the traditional British deference for authority. People are less likely to challenge a Lord. Either way, the title ultimately had little to do with Buckingham's unmasking.
Knowing he had faked one identity, I was not entirely surprised when Buckingham laid claim to two others — one in the United Kingdom and another elsewhere in Europe — both with a full set of authentic documents. Management of multiple identities is a sensitive thing, Buckingham explained, one that requires careful planning and constant attention. The serial imposter must never confuse his different personas, and, most importantly, never allow them to overlap. "I don't think there has ever been an instance in which I, as Christopher Buckingham, have touched one of my other identities," he said proudly. "It's like stepping into a clean room. If I want to do something in another identity, I leave everything in one place, everything that belongs to Christopher Buckingham — mobile phones, credit cards, driver's license, train pass, everything .… It's not really a good idea to carry around anything that would identify you as being someone else. I was told for a long time that people knew me because I kept a Cross pen in my pocket, and they could pick me out of a crowd. That soon stopped!" he said, laughing. "I like these shoes, but if I go into another identity, then I have to wear something else. I also hate pink shirts. That would be something that Christopher Buckingham would never wear, but someone else might."
Buckingham's claim to multiple false identities raised an obvious question: why had he not simply disappeared after his arrest in Dover? "I could have quite easily gone somewhere else and taken on a new identity," he said. "But, in the end, I'm not criminally minded for the intent of criminality. And, I mean, you have to face the music someday."
Fine, I said, but why build multiple identities if not to use them?
"I don't think it's something that I'm actively doing," he explained. "It's almost like walking down the street and breathing. I do these things and they are, subconsciously or not, mapped out like a big chessboard. I can see each and every move in the near future. The thing is, when you're building up an identity, you can't just build the superficial eggshell around you. You have to go further than that. Even to this day, I'm still building an identity. In my court hearing, the prosecutor said my case was like a hydra, tentacles everywhere, and we don't know where the tentacles will turn up. There might be tentacles turning up in ten years."
As Buckingham spoke, it struck me that a life like his, lived undercover and 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. He inhabits a fragile underworld of his own creation. 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. His feelings toward the Stopford family remained tentative. He understood the connection on an intellectual level, he said, but did not feel the bond. Meanwhile, he had severed all contact with his British children, despite their numerous, desperate attempts to reach him. The only person he remained close with was Anita Keller. I asked how she had reacted to his exposure as an imposter. "She really didn't pass any judgment," Buckingham said. "She was confused and a little upset, but, in the end, she said she didn't care. She always knew me as Christopher anyway, so there was no change for her. She just thinks it's good that I'm seeing my family finally and wants me to get back to Switzerland as soon as possible."
It was unclear how he intended to do that. British authorities had told me that Buckingham was now barred from both the United Kingdom and Switzerland. "If he goes back as Christopher Buckingham," Sprigg said, "he will find it very difficult to get back in." Still, Buckingham seemed confident in his abilities.
I asked him if he had applied for a U.S. passport.
"It's in the process," he said.
"You'll need it to get back to Switzerland, won't you?"
"Theoretically," he said, laughing. "Never say never. There are ways, even still."
A year later, there he was, standing with me in a crowded public square in Zurich. I sensed the smile on his face owed less to the pleasure of seeing me again, than to the satisfaction of demonstrating his triumph over the system. Against the odds, he had done it. I had to admit surprise; I'd thought Buckingham would remain marooned in Florida for the rest of his days, but it had taken him less than a year to escape again. We walked to a coffee shop, where he ordered us drinks in German. He told me his capture and confinement in the UK now seemed to him like a dream. "It's almost like having déjà vu for a moment," he said. "I tripped over, fell down, got back up, brushed myself off, and got back on my way." Only this time, he was legit. Well, mostly legit. He had legally obtained a U.S. passport in his adopted identity, but lied about his birthday on the application, writing in that of the real Christopher Buckingham rather than his own. "I guess that makes me about five months younger," he joked. From there, he had simply boarded a plane and flown to Zurich. The Swiss raised no fuss at his return. He told them he had been traveling abroad. They took him at his word, and just like that he was back.
To his surprise, life continued on as before. He moved back in with the same woman, Anita Keller. They lived in the same small apartment 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." Moreover, he was up to old tricks, building fake identities. Among them, he now counted Charles Stopford. "Today, identity is a commodity, and I have a real identity that is more fictitious than my fictitious identity," he said. "In actual fact, Charles Stopford no longer exists. He only exists on paper."
The reduction of Charles Stopford, from flesh and blood to an empty set of documents, Buckingham considered to be a great success. Despite his arrest and detention in the UK, he had no regrets and said he would do it all again in exactly the same way. "Looking back on it, I think I won," he declared. "You had everybody and their brother jumping up and down and screaming, 'You baby name stealer!' You had the police that said I'd be thrown out of Europe. You had the court, which said, 'He has to leave the country. He is someone else; he is not that man!' And they may have managed to get me out, but all that existed is still intact, despite their hardest efforts."
In spite of this, as we talked, Buckingham seemed nervous. He spoke in hushed tones, so quietly that my recorder sometimes had trouble registering his words. His eyes searched nearby tables for anyone who might be listening in. Several times he referred to his fear of being followed. I asked what he was running from. "I don't know," he said. "I won't know until the circumstance arises." He possessed the paranoid instinct of a survivalist, feverishly preparing for some imagined catastrophe that would never come. But like any lie lived too long, his had taken on elements of truth. Journalists had been phoning the Stopford family in Florida, asking where he was and whether he had returned to Europe. The family would not say. Buckingham clearly pleasured in the chase. Citing his amnesia, he still refused to explain what had first compelled the young Charles Stopford to abandon himself, as if sensing that the mystery, as long as it endured, would keep his pursuers on the hunt.
If the hunters ever got too close, Buckingham assured me he was prepared to disappear again. He was certain he would leave no traces. "I have vanished many times," he told me. "It's nice to just be no one, which makes the authorities really angry. When you vanish from the radar, it annoys them. There are people in offices for that." He laughed at their expense. A year before, I would have cheered him on. But now, having met him and 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. The reality of his experience didn't match the fantasy. Buckingham was not the dashing figure I had imagined; he was like anyone else, but seemed to lack something fundamental. Lately, I had been troubled by the recognition that, despite our talks, I could never really know him. It now 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 now hopelessly diluted. He had desired to become someone else; now he was no one at all.
We sat together until the coffee shop closed for the night. He invited me to walk back to the tram, but something in me needed to be rid of him. We shook hands and parted ways. A moment later, I turned and took his picture. I had wanted to capture a candid moment of the imposter in his element, but he was already far way, a solitary figure on an empty street. The image blurred. In it, he was nothing more than a cluster of darkened pixels. If you didn't know to look, you would never notice him. He would have preferred it that way.
Original art courtesy Rob Grom.
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