Timmothy Pitzen Hoax: When an Impostor Claims to Be a Missing Child

The Timmothy Pitzen hoax is not the first time someone has claimed to be a missing child.
Brian Michael Rini, left, allegedly told police he was Timmothy Pitzen. Inside Edition

For the Pitzen family, hope was kindled and killed in the span of one day.

A man found wandering along Kentucky's northern border said he was Timmothy Pitzen, who vanished in 2011 at the age of 6 while on a trip with his mother, who took her life in a motel room, leaving a note saying her son was safe and would never be found.

Within 24 hours, DNA analysis proved the wanderer was a 23-year-old ex-con named Brian Michael Rini, who had claimed before to be someone he wasn't, authorities said. It was, according to Timmothy's dad James Pitzen, as if a scab had been "ripped off."

Rini now faces charges of lying to federal authorities. His alleged hoax raises the inevitable questions of why in the world someone would pretend to be a long-lost child? But in rare examples that span decades, others have stepped forward to claim an identity that wasn't theirs, often for two simple reasons: attention and affection.

Walter Collins 

Walter Collins, left, and the boy who impersonated him.
Walter Collins, left, and the boy who impersonated him. Wikipedia

In 1928, a Los Angeles mother gave her 9-year-old son a dime to go to the picture show not far from their home. That was the last time Christine Collins, a telephone operator and single mother, saw her boy Walter. 

Christine reported him missing when he didn't return from the theater. The mother's anguish became a national news story and an avalanche of alleged sightings poured in. None proved accurate. Five months later, a boy claiming to be Walter surrendered himself to authorities in Illinois.

Though he resembled her son, Christine was adamant that the boy wasn't Walter. Police pressed her to take the boy home. She returned him three weeks later, bolstered by the statements of friends attesting to her declaration that the boy was an impostor.

The Los Angeles police chief had the grieving mother committed to a psychiatric ward. Five days later, the boy admitted he was Arthur Hutchins, age 12, from Iowa. He was unhappy living with his father and new step-mother following the death of his mother. "So I said I was Walter Collins because I was sure that would be my best way to get to California," Hutchins wrote in 1933.

Christine spent the rest of her life searching for Walter. He was never found.

Christine's story was depicted in the 2008 film "Changeling" starring Angelina Jolie.

Nicholas Barclay

Nicholas Barclay disappeared in 1994.
Nicholas Barclay disappeared in 1994. Handout

In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Brady, who had a history of troubling behavior, didn't come home from a basketball game. His family initially thought he ran away, because he had a court hearing the next day to determine if he would be sent to juvenile hall.

The boy had run off before, but as the days passed, his family became concerned and reported him missing. Texas Police searched his room and determined he had not packed any of his belongings and had only $5 to his name. The investigation proceeded slowly, with no sightings and no evidence about his whereabouts.

Three years went by. Then came a call from Spain. A boy who appeared to be about 16 said he had been kidnapped from his neighborhood, brought to Europe and forced into human trafficking. He was able to escape, he said, and had been on the run.

He was, he claimed, Nicholas Brady. 

Brady's sister, Carey Gibson, flew to Spain to pick up who she thought was her brother. She brought him home, where he was welcomed with open arms. But soon, his relatives grew worried. Nicholas had tattoos on his shoulder, ankle and hand. The boy that flew home with Carey had none. 

The boy told his family that his eyes had been chemically altered by his abductors, as an explanation for why they were now dark instead of blue. He enrolled in high school, gave interviews and seemed to enjoy the attention. 

Six months later, DNA tests showed the boy wasn't a boy at all — he was a 23-year-old French man named Frederic Bourdin, who had learned about Nicholas from the boy's missing child poster. Bourdin served five years for passport fraud and perjury. He was returned to France but didn't change his ways.

He was again arrested for impersonating a missing boy and passed himself off as an orphan several times, according to authorities. He told investigators he craved attention because his own childhood had been tortured.

Nicholas has never been found. 

Katrice Lee

Katrice Lee as toddler, and in an age-generated photo of what she might look like now.
Katrice Lee as a toddler, and in an age-generated photo to show how she might look now. Handout

In 1981, on her second birthday, Katrice Lee disappeared from a grocery store for British Army soldiers based in Germany. The child was with her mother and her aunt, who were shopping for the toddler 's birthday party to be held later that afternoon.

Katrice vanished in the crowded supermarket. The British family had been living in Germany because her father was stationed there. Decades passed with no leads in the case. Her distraught relatives eventually established a Facebook page to help locate her.

But that social media tool became a form of torture for Katrice's family.

Twice, women have posted to it claiming to be Katrice, much to the anger and dismay of her relatives.

Six years ago, 33-year-old Donna Wright acknowledged sending messages to the site, claiming to be Katrice, even after DNA testing proved she was not the missing girl. A judged sentenced her to 12 weeks in jail.

Last month, a second woman, 40-year-old Heidi Robinson was charged with malicious communication after she allegedly established a Facebook account in the name Katrice Lee and used it to send messages and friend requests to Katrice's sister, authorities said.

Katrice's father, 69-year-old Richie Lee, was livid over the incidents. "Can you imagine your sister has been missing for 37 years and you see a friend request on Facebook, you open it, and you see a picture of your sister asking to be your friend," he told the Hartlepool Mail.

Robinson's first court appearance is scheduled for May. 

Anna Anderson

Anna Anderson, left, claimed she was Anastasia, a daughter of slain Russian czar Nicholas II.
Anna Anderson, left, claimed she was the daughter of murdered Russian czar Nicholas II. Getty

Perhaps the oldest documented case of someone impersonating a missing child involved the strange saga of a woman who jumped from a bridge in Berlin in 1920.

As she recuperated in a hospital, the Russian exile population buzzed with chatter the woman was Anastasia, the 17-year-old daughter of assassinated Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra of Russia. The deposed royal family had been marched into a basement and executed by Bolsheviks in 1918. There was rampant speculation at the time that some of the royal children had been able to escape — namely Anastasia.

After initially refusing to give her name, the woman in Berlin ultimately said she was, indeed, Anastasia and began calling herself Anna Anderson. Her fame grew, and she visited estates and palaces attempting to convince relatives she was the long lost Romanov. She had believers and enemies but was undoubtedly the most convincing of several women who claimed to be Anastasia.

Anderson married an American professor and changed her name to Anastasia Manahan. She moved to the United States with her new husband and died in 1984. DNA testing would later show she was not related to the royal family.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, genetic tests ultimately identified all members of the Russian family.

Anna Anderson's story inspired several fictional works, including the 1956 film "Anastasia" starring Ingrid Bergman. The 1997 animated movie "Anastasia" imagines a world where the real duchess survived her family's execution.

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