In 2011 a young man wandered into a German police station and told office workers, "I'm all alone in the world, I don't know who I am. Please help me." He claimed he had amnesia and had been living alone in the forest for at least five years.
According to an MSNBC story, "The boy, who authorities say is in good health and calls himself Ray, showed up in Berlin on Sept. 5 carrying a backpack and sleeping bag ... He said he was 17 and told officials he and his dad were living in tents and huts until his father died recently. He has no identity card, no papers, no passport, nothing."
Ray, who spoke fluent English and a few words of German, said he remembered nothing else about his family or early life except that his mother died in a car accident. He buried his father in the forest two weeks before setting off, under his late father's instructions, to seek help in Berlin.
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Ray became world-famous as the mysterious "forest boy," though authorities grew suspicious of his story as weeks and months passed with no new leads to support his story. For example Ray was unable to lead investigators to the forest where he claimed to have lived for five years, despite, apparently, having walked to Berlin from those woods just weeks earlier.
His clothing, possessions, and tent were in unusually good condition for having been in continuous use for years. Ray also was reluctant to publicize his photograph, and refused to help police find members of his extended family, claiming that it would be pointless because they had all died.
After nearly a year of searches by both German and international police the truth was finally revealed. According to The Local, Ray "was actually 21-year-old Robin van Helsum from Hengelo in the Netherlands, who was bored with his internship at a telecom company and reportedly confused about the direction his life was taking ... people in Holland recognized a picture of him circulated by the German police. Soon after that he was charged with fraud, with Berlin authorities saying they had spent €30,000 (over $40,000) looking after him."
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Van Helsum, who was described by a former roommate as a shy man who liked to play computer games, smoke marijuana, and watch "Family Guy," avoided jail time by pleading guilty and was sentenced to complete 150 hours of community service.
Brazen attempts to adopt a new identity are unusual but not unheard of. In 1997 a young Frenchman named Frederic Bourdin, through a combination of skill, charisma, and luck, managed to convince an American family that he was their son who had been missing since he was a teenager.
Amazingly, Bourdin managed to pass as the missing boy despite being seven years older and speaking with a French accent. The story was turned into a 2012 documentary film called "The Imposter."
Now that the identity of "the Dutch Pinocchio" has been established, the biggest remaining question is why he would pull such a strange hoax. So far Van Helsum has been silent on the subject. Perhaps the public needs to wait for his story to be dramatized as a movie to get answers.
Photo: Berlin Police Department