Strange Stories Of Adults Who Passed Themselves Off As Children

There are two kinds of people: For one, high school represents the glory years of popularity, football games, and the adulation of peers. Others? Can't wait to get the heck out. The oft-repeated idea that high school is the best years of your life can be downright terrifying, because if that's the best, what's the worst?

In 1999, Drew Barrymore starred in "Never Been Kissed," a rather idealistic rom-com that allowed her to go back and experience high school with the theoretical wisdom of an adult. The story goes that she's enrolling because she's going undercover as a reporter, and so on, and so on. Played as a comedy, it's a little weird in hindsight with the focus on student-teacher relationships that cross a very important line. 

That story is obviously fiction, but here's the thing: There are plenty of stories of real-life adults pretending to be children, and it's not always as innocent as a reporter going undercover. Sometimes, a desire to return to a younger age is a heartbreaking attempt at finding a family denied in true childhood, but sometimes the motivations are incredibly dark. 

The following article includes allegations of child abuse and sexual assault.

The woman looking to escape her past

In 1997, 16-year-old Brianna Stewart started attending classes at Evergreen High School in Vancouver, Washington. Known for her quiet smile and braided pigtails, she already had quite the tale to tell: She was a native of Mobile, Alabama, who fled to the northwest after the murder of her mother. She was looking for her biological father and had spent time living in youth shelters as she drifted. School counselor Greg Merrill recalled (via Texas Monthly) her saying: "I've never had a normal life. That's all I want — to be a normal teenager like everyone else."

Stewart soon struck up a relationship with sophomore Ken Dunn, confessing to him that she had witnessed her stepfather kill her mother. Dunn later confessed his love to her at the school's Sadie Hawkins dance, and in spite of angry outbursts that were a bit more than the typical teenage drama, she graduated in 2000, petitioned for a new birth certificate and Social Security number, and then was arrested.

She was actually 31-year-old Treva Throneberry, who had disappeared from her hometown of Electra, Texas in the mid-1980s. After accusing her father of sexual assault (a crime that her sisters say had been perpetrated by her uncle) and spending time in a psychiatric ward, she floated from city to city. Eventually, it would be discovered that she had used 18 different aliases across the country, and she was found guilty of felony theft and perjury. According to ABC News, she was released in 2003, still saying she was Brianna Stewart.

The ex-police officer who wanted Instagram followers

Everyone has those things that drive them, and for Audrey Francisquini, that thing was apparently getting followers on Instagram.

According to The Washington Post, it was a Monday morning in 2021 when Francisquini walked onto the campus of the American Senior High School and started handing out flyers advertising her Instagram handle. She was approached repeatedly by school officials and security, and every time, she claimed she was a student. After a few run-ins with other adults, she realized that she had well overstayed her welcome, and although she managed to evade school administrators, it was super easy for police to track her down. She had, after all, handed out scores of flyers identifying her.

It wasn't the first time she'd been in trouble, either: The then 28-year-old Francisquini was also a former DeKalb County police officer. Four years prior to the incident at the school, WSB TV reported that she had been fired and arrested for allegedly hacking a coworker's social media accounts and posting nude pictures of that officer. For her day as a teenage student, she was ultimately charged with trespassing, resisting arrest, and interfering with a school, and her foray into the school prompted a statement from Miami-Dade County Public Schools to issue a statement saying they were investigating the incident and would "continue to work tirelessly to protect the safety and well-being of our students and employees."

The man hoping to restart life in America

Artur Samarin had a problem: After leaving Ukraine and moving to the U.S. in 2012 on a work-study program, he quickly found that his plans to apply for and work his way through college weren't going to pan out. College was unthinkably expensive and his job at Red Robin didn't pay that much.

GQ says that's about the time he sat down with Stephayne McClure-Potts and Michael Potts to plan not only his adoption, but an adjustment to his birthday that would make him not 19, but 14. He changed his name to Asher Potts, explained away his accent by claiming he'd been raised in a Russian-Jewish neighborhood, and worked his way through Pennsylvania's Harrisburg High. He was pretty good at it, too, getting good grades, joining the Navy JROTC, teaching swim classes, and even getting so much positive attention when he started attending programs at Penn State, he became a student representative on the board. Harrisburg loved him, even proclaiming one day in October to be Asher Potts Day.

Four years went by, and Potts/Samarin was arrested in 2016. Even as he claimed he had been all but a hostage of the couple who had adopted him, they turned around and said they'd been nothing but nice ... until the threats started. When it came out that he'd had a relationship with a 15-year-old student, he was found guilty of charges including statutory sexual assault. After serving his time, he was sent back to Ukraine.

The woman who broke her daughter's school security system

It's no secret that it's a terrifying time to be raising a child. Stories about school shootings seem to be in the headlines every other week, and in 2021, Casey Garcia decided to see for herself what kind of security there was at her daughter's school. So, she took her 13-year-old daughter's ID, put on a hoodie, and strolled into the building.

Garcia started filming once she was inside, and it's surprising stuff. She says hello to the principal and teachers, talks to students, and eats lunch in the cafeteria. At one point, she shares that she was the only student physically in class; while the others attended online, the teacher still didn't recognize the person in their class was actually an adult woman. It wasn't until the last period of the day that a teacher realized she wasn't a student, and it led to her being pulled out of class and later arrested on charges of tampering with government records and trespassing (via ABC News).

She later posted a YouTube video explaining exactly what had happened and why she did what she did. She said (in part): "I didn't do this to be mean or malicious, or to rattle anybody's cages, I did this to prove a point. ... We need better security at our schools. This is what I tried to prove. And I don't mean to be curt, but I kind of feel like I proved it." Representatives of the school told The Washington Post that "our security measures are being reviewed and evaluated."

The asylum-seeker arrested for murder

In 2023, The Guardian reported on a shocking series of events that started when an asylum-seeker from Afghanistan was able to convince British authorities that he was a 14-year-old child — not, as it were, a man who had already been refused asylum by Norwegian authorities, and convicted of murder after using an assault rifle to kill two people in Serbia.

Abdulrahimazi was believed to be about 20 years old when he went on trial in the UK. It wasn't for lying about his age, instead, he was on trial for the stabbing death of 21-year-old Thomas Roberts. Roberts had stepped in between his friend and Abdulrahimazi when the two started to argue, and in just 24 seconds, Roberts was dead. Perhaps even more shocking than Abdulrahimazi's posing as a child to get into the country was the fact that he had been reported to authorities no less than seven times for suspected possession of a knife, which is illegal in Britain. 

Abdulrahimazi had been living in the foster care system and attending secondary school when he was first reported to authorities. He was found guilty and sentenced to at least 29 years in prison. According to the BBC, his minimum of 2 years behind bars may end with deportation, to take place at the immediate end of his sentence.

The man who posed as a missing child

Brian Michael Rini was 23 years old when he tried to pass himself off as a 14-year-old. It wasn't just any 14-year-old, either: NBC News says that Rini made headlines when he came forward in 2019 and said he was Timmothy Pitzen. Pitzen had been missing for eight years at that point; the Illinois boy had vanished from Wisconsin, disappearing at the same time his mother died by apparent suicide.

A shocking April 4 announcement that Pitzen may have been found was followed up by more news just a day later. As Pitzen, Rini claimed he had been abducted and held captive. When he provided a DNA sample, it was quickly discovered that he wasn't Pitzen at all, but a man who had already come to the attention of authorities after claiming — on two separate prior incidents — that he was a teenager who had been kidnapped into a sex trafficking operation.

Rini had reportedly gotten the idea after seeing Pitzen's story on TV, telling authorities, "he wished he had a father like Timmothy's because if he went missing, his father would just keep drinking." Rini was arrested and faced charges of aggravated identity theft; after being found guilty, he was sentenced to two years in jail (via WTTW). His brother, Jonathan, issued a statement: "I'd tell the family that I'm sorry for what he's done, but for him, I wouldn't even speak to him."

The would-be basketball star

When ESPN did a deep dive into the story of Guerdwich Montimere, they found there were more uncertainties than facts. What they did find was that Montimere had moved from his native Haiti to Florida when he was 5, along with his mother and twin brother. Both brothers had their struggles, and one thing was clear: All he ever wanted was a family.

He got that in 2009, several years after his high school basketball career fizzled. That's when a supposedly 16-year-old Jerry Joseph showed up at Texas's Permian High, wanting to enroll. He was an orphan, he said, with nowhere to go. So, the school's coach Danny Wright welcomed him into his home — as he often did with students who had nowhere else to go — and it wasn't long before Joseph was a part of the family. Wright and his wife even sang him "Happy Birthday," and he cried when they gave him Christmas presents.

Joseph was recognized as Montimere in April of 2010, when old acquaintances from Florida happened to be in town. Wright's wife found the old identification that he had kept with him, and fingerprints confirmed that the teenage basketball wiz was, in fact, a 22-year-old man. When he plead guilty to the charges filed against him, it wasn't just tampering with government records — it was also for sexual assault of a child, namely, a 15-year-old girl he had been seeing. According to the Broward Palm Beach New Times, he was sentenced to three years in jail.

The woman who wanted to date a teen girl

In 2010, 31-year-old Patricia Dye was sentenced to six months in jail after pleading guilty to several misdemeanors, including sexual imposition and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. According to CBS News, she had been arrested after she and her girlfriend fled authorities: Her girlfriend was 16 years old, and she was pretending to be a 14-year-old boy named Matt Abrams.

Dye's parents defended her to the Springfield News-Sun, saying that the entire time she was growing up in the '90s, she was accused of pretending to be a boy: "She always wears slacks. There's nothing wrong with that," her mother said. Dye's father also added to the statement, saying that the teenage girl Dye was dating "knew that she was a girl," and both parents insisted that nothing inappropriate had ever happened.

At Dye's trial, though, the Dayton Daily News recorded the unnamed victim as stating, "I'm even scared to walk my dog. I used to trust people. Now, I don't." Dye was sentenced to six months in jail and a mental health evaluation and would be required to register as a sex offender (via The San Diego Union-Tribune). The Columbus Dispatch says that she was released in December 2010.

The man with dozens of underage identities

Frederic Bourdin's first alias was Jimmy Sale. He was 16 years old at the time, a teen from a broken home who made the mistake of claiming to be British when he didn't speak much English at all. He learned from his mistake, though, and by the time The Guardian sat down to talk to him in 2008, he had created dozens of personas over nearly three decades. His most recent arrest had happened just a few years prior, when he was exposed during an impersonation of a 15-year-old orphan. Bourdin was, at the time, 30 years old.

The most shocking impersonation came in 1997, when Bourdin realized that European authorities were onto him. Knowing his fingerprints were on file with Interpol, he successfully reinvented himself as a missing Texas teen named Nicholas Barclay. Not only did he convince Barclay's family that he was their missing boy, but he was taken to the U.S. and lived with them for months. It was only when a private investigator started asking questions that authorities realized there was something fishy going on, and Bourdin was unmasked.

Bourdin's impersonations tended to end with him either running away or with authorities who had no idea what to do with him. Sometimes he was arrested, and sometimes he moved on to do it again, but those who knew (and prosecuted) him say there was no ill will or desire for financial gain that motivated him, and he explained what he was looking for in an interview: "A home and a school. That's all."

The 34-year-old who pretended to be a teen

Tamica Lincoln met Charity Stevens at a McDonald's, and when she learned that she was homeless after being orphaned and then kicked out by her sister, Lincoln welcomed her into her home. It didn't come out for months that she wasn't 15-year-old Charity Stevens after all — she was actually 34-year-old Charity Johnson.

"She acted like a kid. She did her homework. She got good report cards. ... I allowed her to come into my house. I was just trying to be nice and kindhearted and get her out of the situation she was in," Lincoln explained to ABC News. Johnson ended up going to classes at the New Life Christian school in Longview, Texas for seven months before a background check exposed her true age, and after she left, many of the students she befriended weren't bitter about the deception. School principal Stuart Newlin explained, "One of the girls just yesterday said, 'I miss Charity.' They've had three months to think about how she was much older than she said she was, and they still said that."

Newlin had tried to get in touch with her — she'd already been released from jail — but she had apparently disappeared again. More and more stories came out about Johnson, who had approached others posing as a teenager in need, bringing up the question of why? Dr. Lolita McDavid of the Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland says that while it's not common, it's not unheard of, either: "She's trying to live a life she didn't [get to] live before."

The man who wanted to play football

In 2011, NBC News ran a strange story. In it, they reported that police weren't entirely sure what was going on with Taylor Markeith Smith, but they did know that the 22-year-old had approached at least 13 Texas high schools. Not only did he want to enroll but more importantly, he wanted to play football.

Berkner High School football coach Jim Ledford said that he claimed to be 16 years old when he attempted to play in 2008. After school authorities raised questions about the legitimacy of his birth certificate, he moved on. Other schools had similar stories, saying that sometimes he showed up with an alleged social worker, sometimes he used different names, and sometimes, they let him suit up and take the field. Inevitably, though, he was always moved on.

When reporters from The Dallas Morning News tried to track him down, they found an LSU professor who said he was Smith's cousin. Attempts to set up a meeting fell through, but Smith did get on the phone to explain himself. He said, in part: "I was there to find a second chance. ... I have some issues. I have a lot of things on my chest, a lot of stress. I believe the only way off is football." The investigation turned up several more social media profiles linked to Smith, but no concrete information about why he continued to try to get put on high school football teams.

The woman who craved the safety of high school

When the news breaks that a 29-year-old woman was able to enroll in a New Jersey high school, attend classes, mingle with students, and even meet with counselors, the question of, "How?" is a completely legitimate one — especially in 2023. There is a partial answer for that: According to The New York Times, New Jersey law says that each and every child needs to be enrolled, and they have a 30-day grace period to provide their documentation.

Hyejeong Shin reportedly gave officials a falsified birth certificate before being enrolled in New Brunswick High School, and shortly after her arrest, her attorneys came forward to paint a heartbreaking picture of her. The recently-divorced South Korea native was, they claimed, only hoping to return to a happier, safer time in her life and experience again what it felt like to be a student. "This entire case is more about my client's desire to return to a place of safety and welcoming in an environment that she looks back on with fondness — nothing more," explained attorney Darren M. Gelber.

After entering a not-guilty plea, further court appearances were scheduled. Meanwhile, school district officials said that they were reevaluating admission policies.

The woman sued by the family who adopted her

Legally, Natalia Barnett was 33 years old in 2019, when she appeared on "Dr. Phil." Biologically? That's a little less clear, because she was at the center of a bizarre case that started with her 2010 adoption. At the time she was adopted by Michael and Kristine Barnett, she was legally just 6 years old. That was according to her Ukrainian records, but what unfolded was nothing short of shocking.

The case dominated headlines: The Barnetts insisted that Natalia had been an adult when she was adopted, and used her youthful appearance — coupled with her dwarfism — to pretend to be a child. The courts ultimately agreed, and a judge signed off on all the paperwork that was necessary to change her age in 2013. That's important, as it was the year that the Barnetts rented her an apartment and then left her there as they moved to Canada. Was she really an adult? Did she really try to kill them? She says no, in spite of the court order to change her birthday.

In 2022, Michael Barnett was found not guilty of neglect, but details of the case remain scarce. According to the Journal & Courier, a 2019 gag order wasn't lifted with the outcome of that trial, and since then, Barnett has gone on to live with another family who insists that she is, in fact, a child.