Duped by a Mysterious Con Man, a Florida Couple 'Find' a Missing Son Only to Lose Him Again

UPDATED 08/14/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/14/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

For Joe and Marjean Hagans, the pain never went away. Though it happened 21 years ago, the shock seemed as close as yesterday: One minute 3-year-old Jonathan was playing by the shore in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., with his older sister and brother; the next he had disappeared. The Haganses never accepted that their son was dead. That Christmas, Joe took a job as a store Santa, hoping his child would sit on his knee. Three years later Marjean still waited in front of schools. "I watched the kids come and go," she says, "thinking, 'Jonathan is in first grade.' " Local police didn't feed her hope. "They kept saying, 'He's presumed drowned. Give it up.' But I wouldn't. I can't."

In a sense Marjean, now 55, was ready for the phone to ring last April 28 and to hear a police detective say, "Mrs. Hagans, we got a call from a young man who thinks he may be your son." The young man in question, David Bonnabel of Buffalo, N.Y., had read a description of the case in a missing children's bulletin and seen an artist's projection of what he'd look like at 24. Marjean, her heart "beating like a drum," dialed Bonnabel over and over. When he returned her call that evening, she was heartened to hear a "soft, sweet voice, just like Joe's." The next day, when David flew into Tallahassee and headed for Marjean's arms, the whole family broke down. "He's my boy!" said Marjean. "Miracles happen."

So, alas, does deceit.

Bonnabel, who presented himself to Marjean as a successful interior decorator, spent the next couple of months winning the Haganses' hearts, even as the story of the reunion made national news reports. Physical similarities bolstered his claim, as did his seeming memory of a green car the family owned in the '60s. But when the question of a DNA analysis to prove his parentage arose, David wasn't eager. "If he's our son, why won't he help prove it?" Marjean wondered aloud. "Something's not right."

Something wasn't right. On July 27 the DNA test came back negative. Worse, the young man the Haganses had accepted into their home, the boy their children had embraced as a brother—sharing family memories, perhaps mentioning that green car—appeared to be a con man. David had been retelling a fictitious story of his lifelong search for his "parents" for years. He peddled it in 1986 on The Oprah Winfrey Show and in 1987 to the Buffalo News. He had even signed an agreement with Dick Clark Productions to film his remarkable tale.

According to David, he was kidnapped at a young age by a crazed Rumanian named Rita who sexually abused him and imprisoned him in a swamp near Lafayette, La. When he was 13 or 14, he finally mustered the courage to run away. Wandering through the South, he took his surname from the Bonnabel High School in Metairie, La. Then came Emma, whom he described as a Swiss exchange student he met in New Orleans. David followed her to Buffalo in 1982, but after a few days she left. "I didn't know where I was," David told the Buffalo News.

This was just the latest version. Prior to the News performance, David, who has an accent, is said to have told a well-to-do Buffalo widow, Cicily Grando, that he was the illegitimate son of a wealthy Frenchman who had cut him off financially. He called Mrs. Grando "Chi Chi," and she let him stay in her apartment for two months while she was away.

Mrs. Grando, who died last year, was not the only older woman Bonnabel charmed. Rhoda Surma of Fort Erie, Out., has been David's landlady since 1982. She allowed him to use an office attached to her property in Buffalo for the antiques business he opened several years ago. "There are moochers, you know," she says with certainty. "But David isn't one. He's self-sufficient. A typical Frenchman."

This is news to David's real parents, who are Mexican. Interviewed at his home in Zamora, Leon Bonnabel, 65, says he hasn't seen his son, who is 27, for nine years. A Seventh-Day Adventist minister, Leon says David was the third of seven children raised near Guadalajara. "David was from a fine family," says a former teacher. "If his father had any fault, it was that he was too strict." Asked to account for his son's fabrications, Leon says, "Only David can answer." He adds, "It's hard to clear up a lie."

Not that David isn't trying. Confronted with the inconsistencies of his story by PEOPLE even before the DNA results were in, David tried to revise his tale again. In the latest version David was the missing Jonathan's best friend. Rita had abducted Jonathan from Jacksonville Beach, raising him in the infamous swamp. Later she picked up a hitchhiking David, and both boys were put to work in a baby-selling ring. One day Jonathan tried to escape and was probably killed. Luckier, David got away. In this new script, his nine-year search for Jonathan's parents was an attempt to "avenge" his friend's death by revealing the possible murder. "Everything I've done, I've done for Jonathan," he insists. "No matter what I lose, I am at peace."

At the moment David seems to have lost a good deal. Not only has he forfeited the Haganses' love and esteem, he is separated from Emma Gimmel, his high school sweetheart from Mexico whom he married last summer. Claiming to be fearful of members of the baby-selling ring, he has now gone back to Guadalajara.

The activity at the Haganses' modest three-bedroom home in Tallahassee has died down. The phone calls have stopped. But Marjean is still crying. "I sometimes wish to God David had never come into our lives," she says. "But, then, I think, just maybe he did know my son. Maybe, as stupid as it sounds, he's telling the truth now. I want to bury my Jonathan if he's dead. If he's not, he's out there somewhere." On such wrenching faith, David Bonnabel built his case.

—William Plummer, Maria Wilhelm in Tallahassee, Buffalo and Zamora, Mexico

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