The Unravelling of an Expert on Serial Killers (2024)

A brother and a sister are standing on the balcony of a sixth-floor apartment in Monte Carlo. It’s the nineteen-seventies, in May, the afternoon of the Grand Prix. The sun is glinting off the dinghies in the turquoise shallows of the harbor. The trees are so lush they’re almost black.

The brother, Stéphane Bourgoin, is in his twenties. He’s come from Paris to visit his sister Claude-Marie Dugué. Race cars circle the city, careening onto the straightaway on Boulevard Albert 1er, which Dugué’s apartment overlooks. Over the thrum, Bourgoin leans in and tells her something shocking: in America, where he’d recently been living, he had a girlfriend who was murdered and “cut up into pieces.” Her name was Hélène.

Bourgoin’s revelation was one of those moments when you “remember exactly what you were doing that day at that precise moment, the news is so striking and indelible,” Dugué recalled recently. “It was stupefaction and shudders, amid the revving engines of Formula 1.” Dugué and Bourgoin shared a father but had different mothers. They had got to know each other not long before, and Dugué didn’t feel that she could probe for details about a girlfriend she hadn’t met, or even heard of until that day. “I found the whole situation disturbing,” she said. She simply told Bourgoin how sorry she was.

At the time, Bourgoin had a career in the realm of B movies, reviewing fantasy and horror films for fanzines and dabbling in adult film. Later, he started writing his own books, which became hugely popular and helped establish him as a prominent expert on serial killers in France. His best-known work, “Serial Killers,” a thousand-page compendium of depravity, was released in five editions by the prestigious publisher Grasset. Travelling around the country to book festivals, Bourgoin built up a particularly devoted following within the already zealous subculture of true crime. One fan, Bourgoin said, sent him annotated copies of his own books, with items such as scissors, razors, and pubic hairs glued to the pages, corresponding to words in the text.

Bourgoin also had admirers in law and law enforcement. “He was one of the first people in France to say that serial killers weren’t only in America,” Jacques Dallest, the general prosecutor of the Grenoble appeals court, told me. Dallest was so impressed with Bourgoin that he invited him to speak at the École Nationale de la Magistrature, France’s national academy for judges and prosecutors. Bourgoin also gave talks at the Centre National de Formation à la Police Judiciaire, a training center for one of France’s main law-enforcement bodies, for which he claimed to have created the country’s first unit of serial-killer profilers.

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An energetic self-promoter, Bourgoin appeared frequently in the press and on television. “I counted, I did eighty-four TV shows in one month,” he once said. “I get up at 4:45 A.M. to be on the morning shows and go home at midnight to have a bite to eat.” He cultivated a flamboyantly geeky look, with equal shades of Sherlock Holmes (ascot, horn-rimmed glasses) and Ace Ventura (cerulean blazer, silky skull-print shirt). A quirky-shoes enthusiast, he sometimes wore a pair of white brogues made to look as though they were spattered with blood. On Facebook, he claimed to possess the remains of Gerard Schaefer, a serial killer from Florida. “To each person who buys my book, I will offer a small bag containing a little piece of Schaefer—fingernails, hair, ear, kneecap, skin, bones, etc.,” he wrote, in 2015. Female fans, he added, would be given priority.

Bourgoin was most famous for his jailhouse interviews with murderers. In the course of more than forty years, he had conducted seventy-seven of them, he said, “in the four corners of the planet.” He riveted audiences with tales of his encounters with the “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz (“David, I come here, you agreed to meet me, but I hope you’re not going to tell me the same bullsh*t that you told at your trial”), with the homicidal hospital orderly Donald Harvey (“He confesses seventeen additional crimes to me that he hadn’t even been suspected of”), with the “Killer Clown” John Wayne Gacy (who, Bourgoin said, grabbed his buttocks during the encounter). “Confronting these individuals can be dangerous from a mental point of view,” Bourgoin wrote, in “Mes Conversations avec les Tueurs” (“My Conversations with Killers”), a 2012 book. “To make them talk, you have to let down your guard, open yourself completely to a psychopath, who manipulates, lies, and is devoid of any scruple.”

If you dedicate your life to serial killers, the first question anyone asks is “Why?” Bourgoin’s answer was that Hélène’s death made him want to confront the worst that humanity had to offer, as “a form of catharsis” or even as “a personal exorcism.” At some point, he started pronouncing her name “Eileen,” the American way. He said that he’d met her in the mid-seventies, when he was living in Los Angeles, working on B movies; that, in 1976, he went on a trip out of town; that when he returned to the home they shared he discovered her dead body, “mutilated, raped, and practically decapitated.” The killer was apprehended two years later, and eventually confessed to almost a dozen other murders. He was now awaiting execution on death row.

When an interviewer asked for an image of Eileen, Bourgoin would produce a black-and-white photograph of the young couple. It was beautifully composed, almost professional-looking. In it, the two of them are pictured in closeup, facing each other. Eileen has feathered hair and rainbow-shaped brows. Bourgoin’s hair is long, and he appears to be wearing a leather jacket with a big shearling collar. He is turned toward her in a protective stance. She looks up at him with a snaggletoothed smile. They’re so close that their noses are almost touching.

“Eileen was his hook,” Hervé Weill, who co-runs a crime-fiction festival at which Bourgoin often appeared, told me. The story of her death stirred the public’s emotions, adding a sheen of moral righteousness to Bourgoin’s vocation. “I knew of Stéphane Bourgoin well before this program having seen almost all his interviews with prisoners, but I’m only here learning that he was the partner of a victim,” a YouTube user wrote, after watching one of Bourgoin’s television appearances. “Incredible man.”

In his public appearances, Bourgoin delivered even the most gruesome anecdotes with weary didacticism, as if he had seen it all and emerged omniscient, emotion transmogrified into expertise. He spoke in data points: seventeen crimes, seventy-seven serial killers, “hundreds of thousands” of case files that he claimed to have stored in his cellar. “For nearly fifteen years, I accumulated files that I synthesized into more than five thousand tables, four of which are reproduced in the book,” he said at one point, announcing that he had, in all likelihood, solved the long-standing mystery of the murder of Elizabeth Short, known as the Black Dahlia.

Bourgoin could seem a little off at times, more like an admirer than a dispassionate observer of the killers he studied. But it was easy enough to interpret this macabre streak as a consequence of his trauma. His social-media feeds featured an uncomfortable mixture of cat pictures (he named a cat Bundy), promotional brags (“once again a packed house, for the seventeenth time in a row”), morbid memes (“BEING CREMATED IS MY LAST HOPE FOR A SMOKING HOT BODY”), and crime-related kitsch (barricade-tape toilet paper; gloves and a jacket designed to look as if they were made from human skin). He spoke of his opposition, on moral grounds, to the death penalty, but he’d pose for a photograph in a fake electric chair, captioning it “Today, I’m lacking a little juice.” What might normally have seemed in bad taste could feel like defiance coming from a bereaved partner. He showed up for interviews in a Jeffrey Dahmer T-shirt and signed books “With My Bloodiest Regards.”

In 1991, Bourgoin travelled to the Florida State Prison to meet Ottis Toole, sometimes called the Jacksonville Cannibal, for a French-television documentary. Toole claimed to have eaten some of his victims and allegedly issued a recipe for barbecue sauce calling for, among other ingredients, two cloves of garlic and a cup of blood.

“Let the war of succession begin!”

Cartoon by Zachary Kanin

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Bourgoin opened the interview brightly, saying that someone had sent him the recipe for the sauce. “And I must tell you that I tried it,” he said.

“Was it any good?” Toole asked.

“Yeah, it was very good,” Bourgoin answered, his voice quickening. “Although I didn’t try it on the same kind of meat that you did!”

Despite Bourgoin’s inclination toward facts and figures, his own memories could be indistinct. Sometimes he said that he’d been introduced to serial killers, in the late seventies, by a police officer he got to know from Eileen’s case; at other times, he said that he’d met some sympathetic cops at meals hosted by Robert Bloch, the author of “Psycho.” Bourgoin refused to identify Eileen’s killer, or to give her last name, saying that he was preserving her anonymity out of respect for her parents. Whether because of decency, laziness, or esteem for his reputation, Bourgoin’s interlocutors tended not to press him very hard. “I seem to have been prepared to put down his evasions to professional caution or eccentric obsession,” Tony Allen-Mills, a British journalist who interviewed Bourgoin in 2000, told me. “He was accepted as an expert, and that’s how I treated him.”

Bourgoin knew the power of fandom, having spent decades stoking the public’s emotional investment in true crime. But he underestimated the intelligence of the audience. After years of watching TV specials, attending talks, reading books, and replaying DVD boxed sets about necrophilia, satanism, bestial*ty, torture, infanticide, matricide, patricide, and the like, followers of the genre had learned not to count on anybody’s better angels, or to underestimate humankind’s capacity for deceit. They were connoisseurs of the self-valorizing lie, having been trained by authors like the “master of noir” himself.

One group of true-crime fans, disturbed by inconsistencies in Bourgoin’s stories, launched their own investigation, which would unravel his career. “Can you imagine yourself in a long hallway?” a member of the group told me. “Each time you open a door, behind it there’s another door. That’s how many lies there were.”

One seemingly grandiose element of Bourgoin’s life story is true: his father, Lucien Joseph Jean Bourgoin, was a great man of history. Jean, as he was known, was born in 1897, in Papeete, Tahiti. He joined the French military at the age of seventeen, fighting with distinction in the First World War before studying at the élite engineering school École Polytechnique. During the Second World War, he made a bold escape from French-colonial Indochina after being put under surveillance for his support of the Free French, and was personally summoned by Charles de Gaulle to join the government-in-exile in London.

As a civilian, Jean travelled the world building roads, tunnels, railroads, irrigation systems, and electrical networks. Later, he became a Commander of the Legion of Honor, and took part in UNESCO’s effort to relocate the ancient Egyptian temples of Abu Simbel. His twenty-two-page dossier in the National Archives of France chronicles countless missions, decorations, and “special services rendered to Colonization” in roughly twenty countries. “I’ve heard that there was much more to the story, that he was also a high-level intelligence officer,” Julien Cuny, his grandson, told me.

Bourgoin’s mother, Franziska Glöckner, was as mysterious and daring as her husband. Born in Germany in 1910, she moved to France in the thirties after marrying her second husband, a French diplomat. In 1940, with her husband at war, she took a job as an interpreter with the German command at Saint-Malo, on the coast of Brittany. “Intelligent, courtesan-like, and calculating,” according to one writer, she spent the war years facilitating fishing permits, attending co*cktail parties, and consorting with the Grand Duke of the Romanovs, who was living in exile at a nearby villa. A French official recalled that she eventually acquired “such an influence that she was known to all as ‘Commandante du Port.’” A newspaper article later dubbed her the “Mata Hari of Saint-Malo.”

Toward the end of the war, Franziska was arrested on charges of treason and was accused of acting as an informant. At her trial, ten local witnesses, including the former mayor of Saint-Malo, testified in her defense. “It was thanks to her exceptional situation with the high German command that the docks of Saint-Malo, where ninety-six mineshafts had been set, were not exploded,” a newspaper article reported. She was ultimately acquitted.

Jean and Franziska married in Saigon in 1951. He was fifty-three and she was forty. Two years later, their only child, Stéphane, was born in Paris. The family lived in a Haussman-style apartment in the Seventeenth Arrondissem*nt, not far from the Arc de Triomphe. Stéphane spoke French, German, and English, and attended the venerable Lycée Carnot. He seems to have been an awkward child. “The second the bell rang, three minutes later I was outside with twenty people, but he was rather isolated,” Jean-Louis Repelski, a classmate, recalled.

An unremarkable student, Bourgoin left high school without a diploma. He was obsessed with cinema, sometimes seeing five movies in a day. “He was a walking dictionary,” Claude-Marie Dugué told me. “He knew all the directors and films by heart, and inundated me with references and anecdotes.” At some point, Bourgoin parlayed this interest into a series of jobs in adult film. He is credited as the screenwriter of “Extreme Close-Up,” “La Bête et la Belle,” and “Johnny Does Paris,” a series of late-seventies and early-eighties productions starring John Holmes, the prolific American p*rn actor.

Bourgoin has said that his career in movies got started in the U.S., but, despite featuring some American actors, the three films were shot in France. Bourgoin did go to America at least once in his youth, as I learned from the papers of his father’s former wife, Alice Gilbert Smith Bourgoin. Alice was a New England patrician, with a degree from Smith College, who appears to have had an ardent but melancholic relationship with Jean, exacerbated by the turbulence of their era. Toward the end of her life, she wrote an affectionate letter to Jean offering to return “two handsome and valuable rings you gave me—a solitaire diamond and a beautiful dark blue sapphire.”

Alice’s letter arrived in Paris on June7, 1977, but Stéphane was the one to receive it. Jean had died, of a heart attack, three days earlier, at a ceremony hosted by his alma mater. Jean’s death must have been a shock, but Stéphane replied to Alice, in a letter dated the same day. “You do not know me, but I am Jean’s son, Stéphane, born in 1953, and, by the way, the only child of his last mariage [sic],” he wrote, in English. “Perhaps you want to know a little bit more about me.”

He told her that he had recently spent almost a year in America, but the letter made no mention of a murdered lover, or of a serial killer. “I love very much the USA and the kindness of the Americans,” he wrote. He added that he was engaged to an American girl who was living in France, a love story just like Alice and his father’s. “Right now, I am keeping aside every penny I earn to be able to make another trip to the States.” He concluded by giving Alice his telephone number and his address.

In the bottom left-hand corner of the second page of the letter, there is a handwritten note, made at a later date by a nephew of Alice’s:

Stéphane subsequently came to the USA and visited ASB, at her expense, when she handed over the rings. He never wrote to express any appreciation and was not heard from again before she died.

As a young man, Bourgoin resembled a character out of a potboiler. In the late seventies, he began working at Au Troisième Œil, a secondhand crime bookstore in Paris’s Ninth Arrondissem*nt, which he later took over. Customers could find him there, presiding “like a spider in his web,” according to a longtime client. The shop was a narrow room bursting with first editions, forgotten genre novels, and rare crime fanzines, stacked double on shelves that ran from floor to ceiling. “It was a lair stuffed with literary treasures, and you could spend ages there talking about le roman noir,” the writer Didier Daeninckx recalled.

The cultivated seediness of the place and its proprietor was irresistible to the writers who frequented the shop. Daeninckx put Bourgoin into one of his books, as a bookstore manager who deduces that a key character has cribbed his tale of suicide by piano from the plot of an obscure novel. Bourgoin also seems to have inspired the character of Étienne Jallieu, a “self-taught erudite shopkeeper” who outwits professional sleuths, in Jean-Hugues Oppel’s thriller “Six-Pack.” Bourgoin spun the myth out further, co-writing several especially grisly true-crime books (one focussed on infanticides) under the pseudonym Étienne Jallieu.

Bourgoin got an early taste of public attention in 1991, as a writer on “100 Years of X,” a cable documentary about p*rn. This was also the year of Bourgoin’s first filmed meeting with a murderer. Serial killers were having a cultural moment, following the success of Thomas Harris’s novel “The Silence of the Lambs.” On the eve of the book’s publication in French, Bourgoin wrote an article for a small crime-literature review about “a new type of criminal: the serial killer.” He seems to have sensed that a phenomenon was in the air, one that would only gain momentum with the release of a film version of “The Silence of the Lambs,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster. One night in Paris, Bourgoin regaled guests at a dinner party with tales of these new American murderers and the profilers who spent their days tracking them. “We were utterly captivated,” Carol Kehringer, a documentary producer who attended the dinner, told Scott Sayare, writing in the Guardian. “I started asking him all sorts of questions,” she added. “The more he spoke, the more I thought to myself, We’ve got to do a film!”

Kehringer and Bourgoin were acquaintances and had worked together before, so she asked him to conduct the interviews for the documentary. In the fall of 1991, Bourgoin and a crew flew to the United States to shoot the film for the French television channel FR3. At Quantico, they met with John Douglas, the pioneering F.B.I. criminal profiler who would later gain fame through his book “Mindhunter.” They travelled to Florida and California for meetings with murderers, arranged by the production crew.

The film, sold as “An Investigation Into Deviance,” was Bourgoin’s first public foray into the world of serial killers, but, by the time it was finished, Bourgoin and Kehringer were no longer speaking. “When he had the killers in front of him, it was as if he was sitting across from his idols,” she told the Guardian. Still, other producers continued working with him, and he soon published his first book on serial killers, a study of Jack the Ripper. He followed it with a flurry of spinoff volumes and, in 1993, with the first edition of his masterwork, the “Serial Killers” almanac.

Eileen doesn’t figure in Bourgoin’s work from this time. He seems to have introduced her into his professional repertoire sometime around 2000, even though, according to his sister, he had been telling the story privately for decades. “I had doubts when he said his girlfriend had been murdered, simply because I had known him for years and he had never spoken about it before,” François Guérif, a well-known French crime-fiction editor and Bourgoin’s former boss at the bookshop, recalled. Bourgoin was clearly conscious of a need to add emotional punch to his work. “He could cry on command,” Barbara Necek, who co-directed documentaries featuring Bourgoin, told me. Some of Bourgoin’s peers considered him a hack who presented himself as a globe-trotting criminologist when he was merely a jobbing presenter. “Neither I nor any of our mutual friends at the time had heard the story of his murdered girlfriend, nor of his so-called F.B.I. training,” a colleague and friend of Bourgoin’s from the eighties told me. “It triggered rounds of knowing laughter among us, because we all knew it was absolutely bogus.”

But elsewhere Bourgoin was taken seriously. As his career progressed, he came into contact with family members of the victims of killers. They saw him as a kindred survivor, someone who could be trusted to treat them with integrity, because of his personal experience. Conversely, proximity to them was valuable to Bourgoin as a form of reputational currency. “Each month, two or three people contact me,” he boasted, of his relationship with victims’ families, in 2012. Through his association with a victims-advocacy group called Victimes en Série, Bourgoin got to know Dahina Sy. She had been kidnapped and raped at the age of fourteen by Michel Fourniret, who later murdered seven young women.

One evening, Sy went to a dinner at Bourgoin’s house. The atmosphere there was peculiar—a “museum of horrors,” according to a journalist who once visited, filled with slasher-film posters, F.B.I. memorabilia, porcelain cherubs in satin masks, and case files of uncertain provenance. Sy told me, “He said, ‘Come here, I want to show you something.’” Bourgoin began pulling crime-scene photographs out of a folder. “Puddles of blood,” Sy said. “It was absolutely abject.” Sy had suffered from post-traumatic stress for years after her abduction. One of its manifestations was extreme arachnophobia. At the dinner table, Bourgoin put a plastic spider on her shoulder. “I was paralyzed, and he was laughing,” Sy recalled. “I think it gave him pleasure to mess with my mind.”

In 2018, Bourgoin began collaborating with the publishing house Glénat on a branded series of graphic novels (“Stéphane Bourgoin Presents the Serial Killers”). The second installment, about Fourniret, came out in March of 2020. Alerted by an acquaintance to the book’s existence, Sy was shocked to encounter her adolescent image rendered “flesh and bone” in a cartoon strip, with Fourniret threatening her (“I will be forced ​​to disfigure you if you don’t do exactly as I say”), his words suspended in dialogue bubbles. Sy says that neither Bourgoin nor the publisher had notified her about the book, or about the fact that it reprinted the entirety of an interview that she’d given in a different context years earlier. She hired a lawyer to send a letter of complaint to the book’s publisher, which withdrew it from the market. “It was like being defiled a second time,” she told me.

“Don’t be sad, Bud. These decisions are so political.”

Cartoon by Lars Kenseth

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Bourgoin never interrogated Fourniret, but, oddly, the book’s writer inserted a character inspired by Bourgoin throughout the text, a revered criminologist who goes by Bourgoin’s old pseudonym Étienne Jallieu.

“I admit that I’m having trouble understanding the dynamics of your relationship with your wife,” Jallieu tells Fourniret, facing him across a table in an alfresco interrogation room set up on a prison basketball court. “Probably because none of you tell the exact truth.”

“What is the truth for you, Monsieur Jallieu?” Fourniret asks.

“What you’ve spent your entire life trying to hide, Monsieur Fourniret,” Jallieu replies.

In 2019, a man who goes by the pseudonym Valak—inspired by a demon in the film “The Conjuring2”—picked up a Bourgoin book that happened to be at hand. Valak, who is forty-five, lives in a port city in the South of France and works in a field unrelated to serial killers. When we spoke one day, over Zoom, he sat in a small room in front of a red velvet curtain. He wore a black baseball cap, a black polo, and a black mask, an outfit that was intended to protect his identity but also gave off a whiff of stagecraft. Valak told me that he had always been interested in human psychology, particularly at its extremes. He had enjoyed Bourgoin’s work as a teen-ager, but, revisiting it as an adult, he was struck by its sloppiness.

“There were things that didn’t seem coherent,” Valak told me. “I told myself, ‘O.K., it must be me that’s paranoid, that’s looking for a nit to pick.’ And then I discovered Facebook.”

One day, in a large Facebook group of true-crime enthusiasts, someone posted a link to an article about Bourgoin. Valak commented, expressing his unease about the work. He recalled, “There were a bunch of people who responded after that, saying, ‘Bah, oui, I agree.’”

The skeptics—about thirty of them—formed a chat group to discuss their doubts about Bourgoin. That group eventually splintered into a smaller cohort, composed of Valak and seven others, living in France, Belgium, and Canada. (One member left the group after a falling out.) They called themselves the 4ème Œil Corporation (the Fourth Eye Corporation)—a play on Au Troisième Œil (At the Third Eye), the name of the bookstore that Bourgoin once ran.

At first, the group members saw their task as largely literary. They set to work combing through Bourgoin’s dozens of books, expecting to find instances of plagiarism. Bourgoin had, in fact, lifted passages from English-language works that hadn’t been translated into French. In some cases, he had even pilfered other people’s life experiences. He claimed, for instance, that, while visiting a crime scene in South Africa with the profiler Micki Pistorius, he was splattered by maggots and decomposing body parts that had been churned up by police helicopters. (Pistorius did experience a similar incident, but Bourgoin was not there.)

The members of the collective weren’t professional researchers, but they were assiduous. “As soon as we started looking,” Valak recalled, “we found more and more inconsistencies.” They decided to expand the scope of their investigation. Soon, they were devoting as much time to Bourgoin as they were to their day jobs. They contacted Bourgoin’s purported former colleagues, sent letters to prisons across the U.S., and scoured YouTube for clips of obscure speaking engagements and television appearances, like music lovers searching for concert bootlegs. They were completists, even interviewing a representative of the clerk of court in St. Lucie County, Florida, about Bourgoin’s claim that he possessed most of the case evidence related to Gerard Schaefer, who was sentenced there in 1973. (Bourgoin had neither the evidence nor the remains that he had bragged about.) This was the inverse of fandom: a passionate connection driven by disappointment rather than by admiration. One man became so consumed by the work that his relationship nearly ended.

In January of 2020, after months of research, the collective began posting a series of damning videos on YouTube. They contended that Bourgoin, a “serial mythomaniac,” had fabricated numerous aspects of his life and career. Eileen, for example, was not Bourgoin’s first wife, as he sometimes claimed (alternatively, he called her his “partner,” “girlfriend,” or “very close friend”): French public records obtained by the group established that his first wife was a Frenchwoman, and that they divorced in 1995. The collective showed that Bourgoin had also given wildly conflicting accounts of the timing, the place, and even the manner of Eileen’s death. Her supposed killer, furthermore, was nowhere to be found. The 4ème Œil had gone through a list of prisoners awaiting execution in California, and there wasn’t a single one who had killed the correct number of people in the time period that Bourgoin had laid out. Nor did they find evidence of a victim who fit the description that Bourgoin had given of Eileen.

Bourgoin’s professional résumé was as dubious as his personal history. By the collective’s reckoning, he had not interviewed seventy-seven serial killers but, rather, more likely only eight or nine. An interview with Charles Manson? Nobody in Manson’s camp had ever heard of it. In setting out his credentials, Bourgoin often claimed that the F.B.I. had invited him to complete two six-month training courses at Quantico with Douglas’s team of profilers. The 4ème Œil contacted Douglas, who, according to the group, replied, “Bourgoin is delusional and an imposter.”

Bourgoin’s lies ran the spectrum from pointless little fictions to brazen fabulation. In some cases, he tried to make himself sound more important than he was—he really did give talks at the Centre National de Formation à la Police Judiciaire, even if he had nothing to do with creating the law-enforcement body’s profiling unit. He really did know the writer James Ellroy, but a picture of the two of them that he had tweeted wasn’t taken “on vacation”; it was from a crime-fiction and film festival. Bourgoin also often took risks that didn’t comport with their potential payoff, as when he claimed that he had played professional soccer for seven years with the Red Star Football Club before moving to America. Bourgoin was born in 1953, and by 1976, the year in which Eileen was allegedly murdered, he was supposed to have been living in the U.S. “If his career had lasted for 7 years,” the 4ème Œil deduced, “he would have been pro at 16.” (Red Star: “No trace of him.”)

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 “bullsh*t” 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 whor*house,” 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 p*rn 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 p*rn 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 JillC. 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-org*sm 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.

Cartoon by Roz Chast

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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.

His instinct, in tense moments, was to show me his collections: piles of dusty tabloids, stacks of pulp fiction, an attic full of DVDs, desks and dressers and wardrobes containing boxes of old notebooks in which he had dutifully listed and rated, in a prim, upright hand, every film he’d seen. When I asked about the apartment at 155 East Fifty-fifth Street, he produced three large envelopes, postmarked in the early fall of 1975 and sent to “Stéphane Bourgoin, A.R.T. Films” at that address. A.R.T., he said, was a distribution company that had belonged to a friend of his, Beau Buchanan. The envelopes didn’t shed much light on Bourgoin’s doings in seventies New York, but for him such objects seemed almost equivalent to experiences.

In an article called “How I Was Bamboozled by Stéphane Bourgoin,” the Swiss journalist Anna Lietti examined her decision to write a mostly positive article about Bourgoin, despite her discomfort with his “overly smooth” presentation. “I was disappointed by the superficiality of my interlocutor and the lack of depth of his remarks,” Lietti, describing him as a sort of human reference book, wrote. “He lined up facts, dates, details, without offering a perspective, an original key to understanding these monsters to which he devoted his life.” In his countryside house, Bourgoin seemed a sad figure—a collector of trivia and paraphernalia, a man who just as easily could have spent decades amassing esoteric toys or obsessing over cryptocurrency, rather than living off the misfortunes of others. It was as though he thought that gathering enough props would make him a protagonist.

“I’m sorry that I lied and exaggerated things,” Bourgoin told me, at one point. “But I never raped or killed anybody.”

I asked what lies he was apologizing for.

“All the lies,” he said. But, he added, “there was mostly one important lie that I would do again.”

Bourgoin was referring to the Eileen story—the foundational lie upon which he had constructed his career. He admitted that he had invented her name, and the location of the murder. But, he insisted, he had really had a girlfriend who was murdered by a serial killer. “It was just a young girl that I met three times that I had sex with,” he said. Later, he was more explicit: “I invented that story because I was afraid that people would think that... I paid for a prostitute.”

Bourgoin didn’t want to give the woman’s name, even if I promised not to publish it. I asked if he could at least give me the identity of the woman in the photograph, but he claimed not to remember. “I think she was Spanish!” he added later.

The only time Bourgoin truly came alive was when he talked about the anonymous collective that had brought him down. We stood in his office, surrounded by fright masks and first editions, and he said that he was “quite happy it came out, but not the way that the 4ème Œil did it.” He asked me if I’d looked into the group’s membership. “You must have done some research on the people who accused me,” he said, suggesting that I get to work on a counter-investigation of his investigators.

Claude-Marie Dugué found out that her brother had been lying to her for half a century when the Paris Match article came out. She had never suspected it, but the news didn’t shock her. “Nothing surprises me in my family,” she said. Nor was she offended, on a personal level, by the breach of trust. “He didn’t really deceive me,” she said. “He let me into his world.”

Dugué’s son, Julien Cuny, told me that one quote from the article jumped out at him. “Parfois, je me fais des films dans ma tête. J’ai toujours voulu qu’on m’aime,” it read. “Sometimes I make films in my head. I’ve always wanted to be loved.” Cuny is an accomplished tech executive in Montreal, but he has always been daunted by his family’s distinction. To him, Bourgoin’s words were an almost inevitable response to an overwhelming mythology, “a phantasmagoric picture of distant family members (you almost never meet) who are always on an adventure somewhere.”

The first time Dugué and I exchanged e-mails, she told me something that I wasn’t expecting: she was the product of an extramarital relationship between Jean Bourgoin and her mother, Béatrice Pourchasse, as was her sister, who was born thirteenmonths before her. The girls lived with their mother in the Fourth Arrondissem*nt. Jean Bourgoin lived with his family—Franziska and Stéphane—across town. Jean organized his parallel lives strictly, keeping them “watertight,” Dugué recalled, but she always felt loved by her father, who “followed and protected his liaison with my mother until the end,” providing money for the family, keeping track of the girls’ studies, and seeing them regularly. Even if he didn’t live with them, Dugué said, she felt immense pride “to be the daughter of such a man.”

One day, Dugué decided that she wanted to meet her younger brother. She was in her early twenties, and had known about him her entire life. He was maybe sixteen, a high schooler, and had no idea that she existed. “I posted myself discreetly inside the building where he lived, waiting for his return from the Lycée Carnot,” Dugué recalled. When he came home, she introduced herself: his secret sister. “He hardly believed me,” Dugué remembered. Nonetheless, they immediately got along. She remembered Bourgoin as a shy and serious boy with round glasses, adrift in a world of extravagantly accomplished adults. “How must Stéphane have perceived himself next to these two exceptional parents, crushed by so much strength and power?” she said. “He was happy to discover all at once that he had two sisters, and we started to communicate amongst ourselves.” They sent long letters between their father’s two households, written in violet ink.

The incident may have been Bourgoin’s initiation into the power of secret lives. “Back to my childhood I felt I didn’t do enough compared to my parents,” Bourgoin told me. “So I had always an inferiority complex.” Cuny echoed the sentiment. “I decided very early on that having a normal life means boring, and that would be the most horrible thing that could happen to me,” he told me. “My bet is Stéphane would prefer this outcome to being a local accountant who never left town.”

In “My Conversations with Killers,” Bourgoin wrote, “The immense majority of serial killers are inveterate liars from a very young age. Isolated, marginalized in their lives, they take refuge in the imaginary to construct a personality, far from the mediocre reality of their existence.” “Parfois, je me fais des films dans ma tête. J’ai toujours voulu qu’on m’aime,” Bourgoin said, as though he were performing a voice-over for his own life. “Sometimes I make films in my head. I’ve always wanted to be loved.”♦

The Unravelling of an Expert on Serial Killers (2024)
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