The Great Pretender

updated 11/28/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/28/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

He said he owned a castle high in the hinterlands. He displayed stationery emblazoned with a coat of arms. He bragged of being a member of Britain's House of Lords. He was, he proclaimed to friends and neighbors, Christopher Edward, Earl of Buckingham.

Turns out he's not, but just who he is remains a mystery almost a year after "Buckingham" was sent to prison for 21 months for lying to get a passport. Even after he was confronted with his lies, the phony lord refuses to answer the question of who he really is. "I've never come across anything like this before," says Kent Det. Constable Dave Sprigg, lead officer on the case. "I believe he's got some dark secret to hide."

Is he a spy left over from the Cold War, as the British press has speculated? Or is he something far less exotic—a sad, delusional man living in a fantasy world? "The children are still reeling from this," says Jody Doe, 40, a communications manager who was married to him from 1984 to 1997 and is the mother of their daughter, 19, and son, 17. "Everybody wants their father to be a hero, and he's just not a hero. This has uncovered a huge string of lies." Since his arrest she has begged him to come clean for their children's sake, but beyond telling police he has a safety deposit box in Zurich that could solve the mystery of his true identity—a box that British police cannot get into without his consent—he continues to keep his secret. His deception has made him a man without a country, and his children risk having their passports revoked if he continues to conceal his identity. "He knows the trauma he has caused people," says Sprigg, "and still he's sitting there with no remorse."

Police believe he applied for and secured the identifying documents that turned him into Chris Buckingham in 1983, 20 years after an 8-month-old boy by that name died mysteriously on a family holiday. He met Doe when both worked in a hotel cafe in Bavaria in 1984. He told her his parents had died in an aircraft crash but shared little else, despite her constant attempts to get him to open up. Certain things struck her as odd—he carefully locked up his personal computer and obsessively stuck to routines even when shopping. Otherwise, he lived unexceptionally in Northampton, England, working as a computer repairman and then as a technology manager at Reuters. Still, his secretiveness was a problem. "The children were asking him questions, and he was putting them off as well," says Doe. In the mid-'90s the couple split, and during divorce proceedings Doe investigated his past. She discovered he lied about attending Cambridge, but found nothing that challenged his identity.

After they split he upped the ante and began calling himself Lord Buckingham, something he seems to have pulled out of thin air (the original Chris Buckingham was not of noble lineage). He even imprinted the Buckingham coat of arms on stationery. But "to us," says one neighbor, "he was just an ordinary guy. You wouldn't have thought he was a lord or anything." This January, during a routine security check, police stopped him before he boarded a ferry in Calais. A computer search revealed a passport for Chris Buckingham had been revoked two years earlier after it identically matched an existing death record. British police arrested him and discovered he wasn't Buckingham—and that he had a girlfriend in Zurich who they hoped would help solve the mystery. But the woman, Anita Keller, a Swiss-German nurse who has power of attorney for him, refused to cooperate. As for the safe deposit box, he offered to travel to Switzerland with police to unlock it, but since British authorities would have no jurisdiction over what happens there, they turned him down.

And so he went to prison without revealing his identity—something he has said through his lawyer he will never do. Audrey Wing, mother of the real Chris Buckingham, has pleaded with him to confess, and police are also imploring anyone who knew him before 1983 to come forward. In the meantime, those who crossed paths with the Man Who Wasn't Lord Buckingham can only speculate about the man he really is. "The sad realization is that maybe he believes he is a spy," says Doe. "It's like he's a little boy trapped in a place, and as long as he can get away with the lie, he will."

Alex Tresniowki. Sara Hammel in Northampton

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