The Unravelling of an Expert on Serial Killers

Bourgoin’s story wasn’t so much a house of cards as a total teardown. Some of his lies hardly made sense except in fulfilling his seemingly irresistible desire to become a character in dramas that didn’t concern him. At a talk that he gave to high-school students in 2015, he showed a clip of the interview he had done with the killer Donald Harvey, who was accompanied by his longtime attorney, William Whalen. Bourgoin called Whalen “a very close friend of mine.” He told the students, “Whenever he came to Europe, he stayed at my place in Paris. Unfortunately, last year he committed suicide, and in his suicide note he said that he was ultimately never able to live with the fact that he’d defended a killer like Donald Harvey.” Whalen, Bourgoin concluded, was a “new victim” of Harvey’s. Whalen’s family told me that they had never heard of Bourgoin, that Whalen had never travelled outside North America, and that Whalen was, to the end, a strong believer in the American judicial system and “very proud of defending Donald Harvey.”

The 4ème Œil even composed a psychological sketch similar to the serial-killer profiles with which Bourgoin had titillated the public: “The typical mythomaniac is fragile, subject to a strong dependence on others, and his faculties of imagination are increased tenfold. Whatever his profile, he is often the first victim of his imaginary stories, which he struggles to distinguish from reality.” The collective described Bourgoin as a “voleur de vie”—a stealer of life. “We’re by no means accusing Stéphane Bourgoin of being an assassin,” the group wrote. “By voleur de vie we mean that he helps himself to pieces of other people’s lives.”

Most cons become harder to keep up the longer they go on, but Bourgoin’s was cleverly self-sustaining. His lies enabled him to gain the very experience that he lacked, and every jailhouse interview doubled as a master class in manipulation. Blagging his way into prisons and police academies, Bourgoin, in pretending to be a serial-killer expert, at some point actually became one.

The 4ème Œil has extended the right of reply to Bourgoin on several occasions, but he has never responded to the group directly. The closest he came was when he hired a legal adviser who, citing copyright and privacy violations, got the group’s videos removed from YouTube. In February of 2020, Bourgoin announced that he was closing his public Facebook page and migrating to a private group. (It has nearly three thousand members, but its administrators blocked me as I was reporting this story.) He was going to be less active on social media, he said, but only because he needed to save all his time and energy for “the most important project of my life,” whose parameters he didn’t specify. Almost airily, he mentioned that he had been the victim of a “campaign of cyberbullying and hate on social media” and was being targeted by “bitter and jealous” individuals. Their acts, he declared, were akin to those of people who snitched on their neighbors during the collaborationist regime of Marshal Pétain.

Three months later, with pressure on Bourgoin mounting in the French press, he spoke to Émilie Lanez, of Paris Match.STéPHANE BOURGOIN, SERIAL LIAR?” the headline read. “HE CONFESSES IN MATCH.” The article was empathetic, attesting to Bourgoin’s “phenomenal knowledge” and the respect that he commanded in the law-enforcement community, and presenting his lies as an unfortunate sideshow to a largely legitimate career. Bourgoin seemed erratic, toggling between tears and offhandedness, lamenting the weight of his lies but then dismissing them as “bullshit” or “jokes.”

Even as he unburdened himself, Bourgoin was sowing fresh confusion. The article explained, for instance, that Eileen was actually Susan Bickrest, who was murdered by a serial killer near Daytona Beach in 1975. The article described Bickrest as a barmaid and an aspiring cosmetologist who supplemented her income with sex work. Before her death, she and Bourgoin had seen each other “four or five times,” and he had transformed her into his wife because he “didn’t want people to know that he’d been helping her out financially.” The dates of Bickrest’s murder and her killer’s arrest didn’t align with the Eileen story, however, and even a cursory glance at photographs of the two women revealed that, except for both having blond hair, they didn’t look much alike.

“Day after day, we patiently untangled the threads, trying to distinguish true from false in the jumble of his statements,” Lanez wrote. Engaging with Bourgoin’s lies, I found, could have a strange generative power, inspiring in those who tried to decipher them the same kind of slippery speculation that they were attempting to resist. Étienne Jallieu, people pointed out, was nearly an anagram for “J’ai tué Eileen”—“I killed Eileen,” in French. (A more likely derivation is the town of Bourgoin-Jallieu, near Lyon.) A bio of Bourgoin at the end of an old, undated interview claimed that he had sometimes used the alias John Walsh in his adult-film days. John Walsh is a common enough name, but it also happens to be the name of the man who hosted “America’s Most Wanted” for many years. Walsh’s six-year-old son was murdered in Florida in 1981, and in 2008 Ottis Toole, the Florida drifter with whom Bourgoin joked about barbecue sauce, was posthumously recognized as the child’s murderer. Might Bourgoin have refashioned himself as the family member of a victim in imitation of Walsh? Or was his desire for proximity to mass killing born of his work on the films of John Holmes, who was later tried for and acquitted of the so-called Wonderland murders of 1981?

Just when I thought I was gaining some traction on Bourgoin’s story, a tiny crack would open up, sending me down a new rabbit hole. The Paris Match article, for instance, made the unusually specific claim that Bourgoin, in the seventies, lived on the eleventh floor of an apartment building on 155th Street in New York. I remembered that Bourgoin had once given a similar address in a Facebook post, claiming that he’d “lived in New York at the moment of the Son of Sam’s crimes.” That address turned out to be slightly different: 155 East Fifty-fifth Street. Curious, I typed it into a database. One of the first hits was a Times article from 1976—the year of Son of Sam—describing an apartment at the address as a “midtown house of prostitution.”

Xaviera Hollander, a former sex worker who now runs a bed-and-breakfast in Amsterdam, confirmed that 155 East Fifty-fifth Street was “the famous, or should I say infamous, apartment building where I started off as the happy hooker,” in the early seventies, but she had no memory of Bourgoin. Hollander added that the building used to be called the “horizontal whorehouse,” where “every floor had one or two hookers.” Eventually, I found the owner of apartment 11-H, where Bourgoin supposedly lived, and he told me that a man named Beau Buchanan had rented it in 1976. A director and producer of porn movies, Buchanan died in 2020. He easily could have known Bourgoin—but did Bourgoin take Buchanan’s address and make it his own, or had he really lived there?

It seemed a reasonable guess, given the period fashions and the professional composition, that the photograph of Bourgoin and the woman he had identified as Eileen had been taken on one of the movie sets he worked on in the seventies. The 4ème Œil felt reasonably sure that Eileen was Dominique Saint Claire, a well-known adult-film actress of the era. A porn expert I contacted suggested, independently, that Eileen might be Saint Claire, but, looking at the pictures of Saint Claire that were available online, I wasn’t convinced. (My attempts to contact Saint Claire were unsuccessful.)

I watched a head-spinning selection of films from the era and called a number of former actors—one was a maker of traditional and erotic chocolates—searching for some hint of Eileen. The movies that Bourgoin wrote are almost impossible to get ahold of, but Jill C. Nelson, a biographer of John Holmes, agreed to mail me a DVD of “Extreme Close-Up” from her personal collection. It’s a love-triangle story in which, as the DVD’s jacket copy notes, an American writer “is led into a world of European sexual delights where fantasy merges with reality.” I watched the movie attentively—at one point pausing an open-mouthed-orgasm scene to search for a snaggletooth—but none of the women resembled the one in Bourgoin’s photograph.

In early March, I called Bourgoin from a street corner in a rural village on France’s southwest coast, near where he now lives. I wasn’t expecting him to answer; I had tried to contact him before, without much luck. But, to my surprise, he picked up and quickly furnished his address. Several miles down the road, I found him standing in funky green shoes outside a modest house with an orange tiled roof and voile curtains with teapot appliqués and gingham trim.

Bourgoin invited me inside. I noticed, as he made coffee, that his knife rack was shaped like a human body, stuck through with blades at various points: forehead, heart, groin. Eventually, we sat down at a small table in the sunroom. He seemed unruffled by my unannounced visit, almost as though he’d been waiting for someone to show up.

A person who was once close to Bourgoin told me that he was an “excellent actor” and “extremely convincing, because, when he lies, he believes it very strongly, and so you believe it, too.” At the table, though, Bourgoin was diffident. He didn’t seem to be putting much effort into making me—or, possibly, himself—believe what he said. Or maybe he believed it so deeply that the delivery was no longer relevant. When I asked how many killers he had actually interviewed, he replied, in English, “It depends. Each time I was going to a jail, I asked to meet serial killers other than the ones I was authorized to film or interview. So sometimes at Florida State Prison I met in the courtyard during the promenade—I don’t know, two? five?—other serial killers.” He was just as evasive on other subjects. I asked him about the prank that he played on Dahina Sy. “It was a fake spider,” he said, as though that explained everything. (He later claimed that he was unaware of Sy’s arachnophobia.) When I brought up the rings that Alice, his father’s former wife, had given him, he said that he had called to thank her the next time he was in New York.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/04/11/the-unravelling-of-an-expert-on-serial-killers

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