Drooling over a fake

Published May 12, 2006

CLEARWATER - The mystery behind Charles Stopford and why he created an alter-ego as an English lord is rapidly becoming legend.

British documentary filmmakers arrived in Clearwater this week to interview his family and try to understand what drove him to disappear from Florida, steal the identity of a dead baby and, for the past 20 years, assume the title Earl of Buckingham.

"It's a classic mystery uncovering," said Mark Ogle, with the U.K. company RedBack, whose previous TV documentaries include The Baby Mind-Reader and Curse of the Mermaid Baby . "This is a really big story for us."

The tale has registered only a blip in Stopford's native Florida compared to the media frenzy it has stirred in England for the past year. Reporters there speculated that Stopford was everything from a Navy intelligence officer to a spy left over from East Germany before his true identity was learned last week.

"The British press does seem to have something of an obsession about this kind of mystery," said Aidan McGurran, who has written about the case for The Daily Mirror , a London tabloid. "This one was particularly interesting because it involved a guy who lived a lie to his wife and children - throughout their life together."

Stopford, who lived in Clearwater and Orlando, left for Europe in 1983. He called three years later to tell family he was married, expecting a daughter and had taken the name Christopher Buckingham, relatives said. He never called or wrote again.

Over the next 20 years, he had a second child and divorced, but maintained the guise of an English nobleman.

Then in January 2005, police checked his passport as he tried to enter Dover, England, from Calais, France, and discovered that the person with his name was supposed to be dead.

London's tabloids later dubbed him "The Real Jackal," an allusion to the film The Day of the Jackal , in which an assassin steals a dead child's identity from a tombstone to obtain fake identification.

Stopford served a nine-month sentence over the passport incident but remained in custody, however, because police could not determine his identity.

The breakthrough came last week when relatives in Florida, who were searching the Internet for clues of his whereabouts, found a news article with Stopford's photograph. Relatives say Stopford may be deported to the United States, raising the possibility of a reunion after two decades without communication.

Ogle, the RedBack spokesman, said the company is also thinking of arranging a reunion between Stopford's family in Florida and his former wife and two children in Europe. Until last week, neither group knew of the other.

Members of both sides have signed agreements with RedBack to cooperate with the production, Ogle said.

No deadline has been scheduled to comple the project.

It is unknown if Stopford himself will participate in the project.

"We're going to piece together as much as possible and try to find out why he did what he did," he said.

Rebecca Davis, 34 of Tampa, one of Stopford's eight siblings, said relatives were no longer answering questions about Stopford, partly because of their agreement with RedBack.

"We are not talking to any more press until we find out what the next move will be," Davis said an in E-mail to the St. Petersburg Times . "Our hopes are high."

Why has Stopford's case received so much news coverage?

Having been given a moniker like "The Real Jackal" doesn't hurt, reporters say.

"The British press just doesn't seem able to get to grips with this type of story unless we can label the main character with a suitably catchy nickname," McGurran said. "I think our love of nicknames is only rivalled by the mob in the U.S. and soccer players in Brazil."

Anthony Smith, a former BBC producer who has written several books about media, said issues of identity, mistaken or false, have long been fertile ground for writers and journalists.

"The popular press has always since its inception - indeed, right back into the early 18th century - fed upon mysteries of identity, the thrill of reading about people who turned out to be somebody else," he said. "It feeds readers' fantasies of being such a person and not being lost in the crowd."

That Stopford styled himself as nobility only added intrigue for readers, Smith said.

"In England people do fantasize about being aristocrats just as Americans like to be celebrities," he said. "Self-identification is an important ingredient in a good read."