The outlandish double life of an American conman in Scotland

David Rossi was sitting at home in Rhode Island one night in early 2022, his prime having all but passed him by. His days as an Engelbert Humperdinck impersonator, of Florida cruise ships, of $2,000-a-week cash payouts, of hanging out with Tom Jones and meeting Elvis, all the girls, the glamour — he’d left it all behind for a woman and her three children. That decision, he believed, ruined his life.

There were no opportunities for singers like him in New England, and he’d frittered away his money, eventually ending up in a dank, ground floor apartment that reeked of stale tobacco. The woman and her children were long gone. A series of subsequent relationships had also failed. Rossi was alone, save for sporadic visits from an ex-
girlfriend whom he still deeply cared for, as well as her boyfriend, whom he disliked. He suffered from emphysema, insomnia and diabetes. His cheeks were sunken, cadaver-like, and his beard stubbly.

Rossi was puffing on the cheap cigarettes he favours when he looked up at the TV. A picture appeared onscreen of a man with a moon-shaped face, pockmarked skin and short dark hair. He was in a wheelchair. The man had been arrested in Glasgow, and Scottish police claimed that he fled the US two years earlier to avoid prosecution for a myriad of crimes. The man on television denied everything, insisting that he was an Irish-born orphan and a Glasgow university professor named Arthur Knight.

Rossi, slouching deeper into his sofa, almost couldn’t believe what he was watching. Yes, the man had changed since he’d last seen him. He’d put on a great deal of weight, and he was speaking with a foreign accent. But he was the same boy — now grown — whom Rossi, in part, blamed for the unfortunate turn his life had taken years before.

The man was not Arthur Knight, Rossi frothed at the TV, but his stepson, Nicholas Rossi, who he and many others believed died of lymphoma two years before.

In November 2022, I watched as police officers escorted Arthur Knight through the marble hallways of the Sheriff’s Court in Edinburgh. Knight rode in a whining electric wheelchair he claimed was necessary due to complications from Covid-19. He was dressed in a navy pinstripe suit with a long blue tie, chunky cufflinks and polished black shoes. His hair was plastered to the left by a wad of gel. He seemed downcast, his left hand cuffed to a police officer and his legs straining his suit trousers like sausage casings.

By then, I’d been following his story for months. I spoke to dozens of people related to the case, attended court hearings and dug into court and police documents from Essex in England to Orem, Utah. I made the trip to Rhode Island, traipsing up and down the two steep hills that make up the capital of Providence: the leafy and prosperous one, where doctors and professionals live and on which Brown University is located, and the grittier streets on Federal Hill, once the Mafia’s stronghold in New England.

Like all the other journalists crammed into the courtroom, craning their necks over the public gallery, notepads in hand, I was fascinated by the sensationalism: had an American fugitive really faked his death and turned up in a Scottish hospital amid a world-stopping pandemic? Even in a golden era of scammers, from fake German heiresses to fraudulent congressmen, the charges against him seemed extravagant.

Knight addressed the court with the incredulity and conviction of a wronged man. Squinting through tiny, circular spectacles, he told a story that was not necessarily simple, but one he delivered vehemently. It went something like this:

He was an Irish orphan from Dublin. He’d had a difficult life that left him with depression and a case of post-traumatic stress disorder. He’d worked tirelessly with Irish authorities to locate his biological family, a search he would carry on for the rest of his life, if necessary. When he fell into a coma after contracting Covid-19, his life changed again. He woke to learn the entire world was watching him, accusing him of being a convicted criminal. “I have no idea who this Nicholas Rossi is,” he told the court.

“I’m sick. I’m so, so sick,” David Rossi moaned.

It was October 2022, a month before his stepson’s court appearance, and I was sitting across the living room table from him. He wore a sweater, cut-off jean shorts and white trainers, and was smoking heavily. He told me he hadn’t eaten in days. Rossi scrunched up his face like a ball of discarded paper when he spoke about his stepson and his biological father. (Nicholas’s aliases have included Rossi, Alahverdian and Arthur Knight, among others. For clarity, I will refer to him by his first name throughout this article. Nicholas did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

“Jack Alahverdian, Nick’s father, was a psychopath who killed the family dog in front of his young kids,” Rossi recalled. “Beat up every woman who was with him.” Rossi’s verdict was damning, and accurate. According to police records, Nicholas’s biological father had a mile-long criminal record, from forging checks to selling cocaine to incidents of domestic abuse. Jack died in December 2021. Mike Alahverdian, his brother, told me he “had a violent temper”.

© Kristian Hammerstad

By Rossi’s account, Nicholas’s mother worked as a waitress at a local restaurant in Rhode Island to keep the family afloat. When she was younger, her brother had accidentally hanged himself while trying to replicate a stunt he’d seen on The Tonight Show. Her mother and father later sued NBC, the show’s network, for “negligently failing to adequately warn and inform the infant plaintiff . . . of the dangers of this program”, according to court documents. But they lost, leaving the family in despair.

In 1990, she divorced Jack. A few years later, she met Rossi and, in 1996, they married in the gardens of the West Valley Inn, near Providence, according to a local newspaper. Nicholas was a ring bearer. They settled in suburban Rhode Island and Rossi adopted her children, including Nicholas who was around nine years old. Family photographs from that time show a young Nicholas on David’s motorbike, smiling and happy. In another, he is wearing a baggy T-shirt and jean shorts, huddled with his two siblings next to a leathery-looking, real-life Engelbert Humperdinck. “He was a great young man,” Mike Alahverdian, Nicholas’s uncle, told me. “I loved visiting him.”

As Rossi flicked through photos laid out on his stained tablecloth, a smile came to his lips. He reminisced about long summers and three healthy, mischievous children running riot. “Nick was a very smart kid,” he mumbled. “He used to say to me at 10 years old, ‘I’m going to be on the cover of Forbes Magazine.’”

Then Rossi’s smile glitched into a frown, and he began telling the story of Nicholas’s mental health problems, of visits to psychologists and psychiatric wards. Rossi described his stepson as a troubled, out-of-control boy who would sometimes climb out the window naked, forcing Rossi to run after him. Nicholas would spit in his face, scream and fight, leading Rossi to install three locks on the child’s door so that he couldn’t get out.

Nicholas’s mother, who spoke to me on the condition her name not be used, told me that aspects of her son’s early life have been unfairly characterised. She refused to elaborate. Rossi admitted that he, like Nicholas’s biological father, had a temper. “I beat the daylights out of [Nicholas] once. I broke his nose, jaw and teeth,” Rossi told me, referring to an incident that occurred during a family trip to Disney World. “I’m not happy about what I did.”

Shortly afterwards, in 1999, Nicholas became a ward of the state. While family members differ about when and why this happened, Nicholas later told authorities he was around 12 years old when domestic strife drove him into the system. At the time, the state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) relied on a practice known as “night-to-night” placement. Temporary accommodations can be crucial for kids in crisis. But in an underfunded system, they can be over-relied on, leaving children rootless and vulnerable or, as one local news report put it, “homeless in foster care”.

Nicholas’s days began at 5.30am at a DCYF facility, generally in Pawtucket, near Providence, and concluded at one of the state’s shelters. During the day, Nicholas was given fast food and old magazines to pass the time until civil servants could find him accommodation for the next night. “Because who on earth . . . wants to be stuck in that situation for 16 hours a day,” he wrote in the memoir he self-published in 2019, Dreading and Hoping All. “Me? I went to the State House. That was my refuge. I worked . .. ”

No one could deny Nicholas’s desire to make a better life for himself. Instead of moping about the DCYF facility, he went to the State House almost every day. “I dressed nicely. I used words that weren’t monosyllabic. I aspired to go to Harvard or Yale,” he wrote in another volume of his memoirs, Ignoble Inferno. The State House, an early 20th-century building constructed of Georgian marble, looms over central Providence. It boasts the fourth-largest self-
supported marble dome in the world. Nicholas loved it. “It belonged to me as a place I could be safe from maltreatment and suffering,” he later said. He paced its passages and porticos, always looking for someone to speak to, for some way to get involved. His persistence paid off. “Representatives and a family court judge thought it’d be good . . . to get him a job there,” Joanne Giannini, a former Rhode Island politician, told me.

Nicholas began working as a legislative page at the State House when he was 14. A page’s primary responsibilities include delivering mail and legislative materials inside the State House, and they’re usually the children of well-connected families, not foster kids. “Nick would take the bus every morning from wherever he was holed up,” Giannini said. “I don’t know how he did it.” The former representative remembered him being respectful, polite and quick to ask intelligent questions.

By his account and others who knew him, Nicholas was also hardworking: “Whenever one of the reps or senators would see me later in the evening walking the corridors of the State House [and] jokingly ask if I had school the next day, I would say, ‘I wish!’” he wrote in his memoirs. But at times, his impulsivity reminded everyone he didn’t quite belong. He would often break the rules at his group homes too, Giannini told me, and not always in conventional ways. “One time, he had them up all night. He was watching political programmes on CNN and wouldn’t switch it off.”

Around this time, Nicholas got close to Brian Coogan, who served as a Rhode Island state representative from 2000 to 2005. I met him in a converted garage in East Providence, where he was helping manage a mayoral campaign. The space was littered with placards and whiteboards covered in notes about campaign strategies. Coogan’s three phones rang constantly during our interview.

Coogan was tanned, with a spider web tattoo on his right elbow and another depicting a scroll with the names of his five sons. He was a tow truck operator, burly and barrel-shaped, and described himself as a “street guy” who carries at least “2Gs in cash” on him at any time. Coogan felt sorry for the young Nicholas because he, too, had a tough childhood. His parents were alcoholics, and his brother died by suicide when Coogan was a child. Suffering was their bond.

Nicholas began trying to influence local legislators, Coogan said. “It was like he was wallpaper. Everywhere you looked, he was there,” he recalled. “He was like a mini politician.” Nicholas was passionate about overhauling the foster care system, suggesting elected officials consider reforming the night-to-night programme. Then he started sharing stories of abuse that he claimed he was suffering while in foster care. “He’s coming with these bruises, these cuts, these scratches, all this shit, you know?” Coogan said. Some of the representatives began conferring with him.

Nicholas caught the attention of the local press too. In a 2002 interview with the Providence Journal, he described his time in foster care as “boot camp”. “I think it’s all part of a plan that’s been assigned to me for upcoming events,” he said. Here was a teenager with a traumatic upbringing trying to make something positive of his experience. That same year, he resigned as a page and formed an NGO, NexusGovernment, to continue his campaigning.

Then one day, Giannini went to watch Nicholas give a press conference at the State House about the foster care system, only to find an empty stage. “He never turned up,” she said. The charismatic youngster seemed to have disappeared.

Some nine years later, in early 2011, Nicholas was in the Rhode Island State House again, giving a press conference. He was now going by the surname Alahverdian after his biological father. Local TV showed him in front of a white marble balustrade, standing at a lectern speaking into a solitary microphone. The 23-year-old Nicholas was no longer a gawky teenager, but a stocky young man. He wore a dark navy suit and thick glasses. With his black hair short and gelled, he resembled a plump Clark Kent. Though his expression was poised, his voice was high-pitched and his language at times hyperbolic. He compared foster homes to “Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay”, before adding: “That’s probably an understatement.”

Nicholas was back where he’d left off. But now that he was an adult, he finally had autonomy. When he disappeared in 2002, it was because a judge sent him to out-of-state foster care, which came to include stints in Nebraska, Florida and Ohio. In his memoirs, Nicholas wrote that his time in these places was “no cotton candy with swirling teacup rides and exhilarating jaunts down Splash Mountain”, idyllic references to Disney attractions. “You would be met with punches. And kicks. And sexual assault. And fecal matter thrown at you.” 

He claimed that Rhode Island’s power players had “wanted [him] gone”. “I was exiled,” he wrote, “because I was becoming a political and publicity threat.” Family court officials, Nicholas alleged in his memoirs, had instructed a psychiatrist to wrongfully certify that he had a conduct disorder in order to be rid of him.

tabloid headlines

Dan McGowan, a journalist who knew Nicholas as a source during the years after he returned to Providence, told me that Nicholas was engaging and persistent. He showed up at his office one day and asked, “Can we talk?” Nicholas had a lot of big plans, he told McGowan. He was behind three bills that were being considered in the House of Representatives. According to local news reports, the first would restructure DCYF; another would establish a children’s bill of rights; and the third would prohibit Rhode Island from employing out-of-state residential institutions to foster children.

Nicholas had also filed a lawsuit against the DCYF in Rhode Island. Altogether, 18 individuals were named. All of them, Nicholas alleged, had allowed the abuse he said he suffered in foster care to continue. The DCYF declined to comment for this article, but a department representative told local press in 2011 that it had “no documented evidence of substantiated abuse of Mr Alahverdian”.

According to McGowan, Nicholas was “wildly present” with many people on the political scene during those years. He was like “Donald Trump before he was president”, McGowan said, always willing to give a quote on anything at the drop of a hat. Whether because of his tenacity or the media’s laziness, McGowan told me, journalists called him.

Lots of journalists. Nicholas appeared in dozens of articles in the Providence Journal as well as on the local television station, WPRI. He was described as a man who knew the foster system “inside out” and who spoke “articulately and convincingly” about its flaws. Some stories noted that he was now a Harvard student, though he was in fact only enrolled in an extension programme, and that he had appeared posing side by side in pictures with powerful politicians, including Mike Pence.

In August 2013, as Nicholas’s bills were making their way through the relevant State House committees, he won a major victory when the DCYF agreed to settle his lawsuit out of court. The Providence Journal and WPRI reported that the state had waived $206,918 in debts and paid out an undisclosed sum. (Coogan told me it was $70,000.) Although the DCYF said it took no responsibility for Nicholas’s accusations, the settlement was seen by many as vindication of his allegations of abuse. “There must’ve been something substantive there for them to settle,” McGowan said. “They must’ve been worried.”

Nicholas’s ascendant career as a political lobbyist in Rhode Island coincided with some ostentatious behaviour. McGowan remembers that Nicholas started spending money very quickly. “He would go to a Red Sox game and get great seats and post those photos online. He attended the NBA Finals. One night, I saw Nicholas step out of a limousine.”

Coogan told me Nicholas started taking local politicians and friends out to lavish meals at Providence’s most expensive restaurants. His favourite haunt was Fleming’s, a dimly lit restaurant with white tablecloths and waistcoated waiters, near the State House. Nicholas ordered expensive wine, steaks and seafood. “He invited my wife and me there once. He must have spent over $2,000. The food and drink just kept on coming,” Coogan told me. For dessert, Nicholas didn’t just order one portion of chocolate cake; he wanted the entire thing.

By late 2013, Nicholas had won his case against Rhode Island’s foster care system, and his reform bills were being considered. He was nearing the pinnacle he’d always said he dreamt about, of using his experience of abuse to end further abuse. Then he vanished, again.

This time, word of Nicholas’s whereabouts made it back to Providence. He’d moved to Ohio, established a nonprofit to help rebuild the economically depressed city of Dayton and married a local girl. But Nicholas’s new start was shortlived. His marriage collapsed only seven months after it began, and his think-tank folded just as quickly. He returned to Providence in 2016. “I remember the day that Nick showed up in a U-Haul truck,” Coogan told me. Nicholas didn’t want to discuss what had happened.

Nicholas’s ex-wife, who declined to be interviewed for this article, filed for divorce in the summer of 2016. Ohio court records show he owed her $52,000 at the time. According to court documents, Nicholas was “guilty of gross neglect of duty and extreme cruelty” towards his ex.

Back in Providence, Nicholas’s settlement money had run out and his influence at the State House was waning. The politicians who once vouched for him seemed to sour; some were concerned about his erratic behaviour, much as they had been when he was a page. His bills stalled, never making it out of committee. Nicholas’s stories no longer played as they used to, so he began to prepare a new one. As before, the introduction was preceded by a disappearance.

Over the following two years, some people said they had got calls from Nicholas from Ireland and others from Switzerland. Walt Buteau, another local reporter, told me that he had called him claiming to be in Russia. “He said that someone had even threatened him with a gun for his activism,” Buteau said.

The last anyone in Providence heard from Nicholas was in January 2020, when he told news outlets that he was suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and that his condition was terminal. “Unfortunately, this has come much too soon in my life. I’m only 32 years old, and I wish I had the ability to live much longer to accomplish the things that I set about to,” he told radio station WPRO.

One thing Nicholas wanted was to pass the reforms banning the type of out-of-state placements he suffered through as a child. “To this day, the legislation has not been passed, and it’s very unfortunate considering the amount of damage that this does to children and adolescents,” he told a reporter. As a tribute to all of his campaigning, Representative Raymond Hull, a friend of Nicholas, decided to push the legislation again. Once more, it stalled in committee.

Several weeks later, local news reported that Nicholas had died. In the days that followed, Hull gave a short speech on the floor of the State House, telling the gathered representatives that Nicholas had always inspired him and that he would be greatly missed. On March 30 2020, an obituary was published on Nicholas’s official website.

He was described as having been a “fighter in spirit but a peacemaker in practice”. At the time of his death, the statement continued, Nicholas was surrounded by his family and “the room was filled with the sounds of the end credits for the 1997 film Contact by composer Alan Silvestri, a film and score which held special meaning for Mr. Alahverdian”. His last words were: “Fear not and run towards the bliss of the sun.”

Around this time, spring of 2020, Father Healey of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic church in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, received a strange call. He was sitting in his plush office, with its spongy carpets, leather swivel chair and solid oak desk, surrounded by framed diplomas and holiday photos. Healey was speaking to a woman named Louise, who claimed to be Nicholas’s widow. She asked Healey whether they could still hold a funeral service for Nicholas in his absence. His body had already been buried in Switzerland, she said. “It was strange, because the woman sounded like Hyacinth Bucket,” Healey told me, referring to the British sitcom character.

Healey told Louise he didn’t really know Nicholas, though he remembered that he had been a page and a ward of the state. Nevertheless, he said yes and offered to handle the music and readings for the service. “I then started getting emails about setting the times and date for the service, and I recall she became a little obsessive.”

The requests, he said, were voluminous. First, there was the music selection: “Symphony orchestra music, for Mozart or Haydn, or some such”. Louise also expected Healey to convince some local politicians to speak. “Facebook was used to send out invitations to every previous and current Rhode Island elected official,” he said. “And that’s when I got a call from the police.”

Detectives from the Rhode Island State Police told Healey that they thought Nicholas had faked his death and was passing himself off as Louise. “They said he was using some sort of voice distorter over the phone,” Healey said. They told him Nicholas was a fugitive and that “he was wanted by Interpol, the federal government, [and] several other state authorities”.

Father Healey wrote to Louise to postpone the memorial mass.

Brian Coogan was also being asked strange questions by the police around this time. “I had US marshals at my house,” he said. “I’ve had calls from the FBI and the local police, and none of these law enforcement officials believed that Nicholas was dead. The funny thing about all of this,” Coogan told me, swinging back and forth on his chair, “is that I was going to adopt the kid.”

In 2002, when Nicholas was still a lanky teen, and before his first disappearance, Coogan got a call from his young protégé. He was standing outside the family court in Providence, crying. Nicholas informed Coogan he was being sent to an out-of-state foster home. Coogan rushed down to the court. “I decided to see the judge myself,” he said. “Nick was a poor thing, you know?” 

Nicholas waited outside, and Coogan claims he strode into Judge Jeremiah S Jeremiah’s office and demanded: “What is going on?”

“What do you do for a living?” the judge asked.

Coogan told him he was the owner of a tow truck company and that he’d grown up on the streets.

“So you’re a street guy?”

Coogan said he was, yes, the type who could smell bullshit a mile off.

“Well, you’ve let this kid bullshit you,” the judge said. Then he slapped down a thick case file on his desk. “What did he tell you happened to him?” he asked, pointing at the stack of paperwork.

“Well, that he’s been poked, prodded, cut, scratched, banged up, bruised, abused, you name it.” 

The judge shook his head: “You’re so wrong.” 

Coogan told me this story in his offices, the tempo of the retelling growing more rapid as he went on. “You know what the judge told me?” Coogan asked, his face flushed. “He told me that it was Nick doing the abusing in those care homes, not the other way around.” 

Nicholas was dangerous, Jeremiah allegedly said, and under no circumstances should Coogan consider adopting him. “I’m shipping him out to a home in Florida,” he said, ending the interview. Jeremiah died in 2015.

Coogan was shaken. He still felt close to the young man, and he had a hard time believing Nicholas had really taken him for a ride.

Several days after he told me this, I found myself at the Wickenden Pub on Ann Street in the centre of Providence. The place is a gloomy mix of lacquer tables, stooped regulars, spilt beer and takeaway pizza, and it was once Nicholas’s local. He was known here as “three-questions Nick”, because he was so keen on asking follow-ups that regulars imposed a limit. He also ran up a huge tab buying drinks for others, according to Bruce McCrae, a roommate at the time. “It was Nicholas’s way to bribe people.”

Some patrons suspected his death had been a sham. In fact, most of the people I spoke to for this article who knew him told me that, at one time or another, Nicholas had tried to manipulate them or exploit a weakness. They said Nicholas was a shapeshifter; whatever hole a person may have had in their lives, he would change himself in order to plug the gap. If a woman was looking for an artist, Nicholas would become an artist. If a journalist was looking for a story, Nicholas would become a story. And if society needed a victim, Nicholas would be that victim.

In the Wickenden, as elsewhere in Rhode Island, Nicholas had meticulously managed his public story. He’d leveraged small truths to tell big lies about himself, lies he knew would interest and attract powerful figures. Each time he disappeared, he returned with a more polished version of the story. The awkward, impatient teen came back a besuited young adult, and the cycle continued until the big-spending networker came back a dying man.

By then, law enforcement in Ohio and Utah as well as the FBI were certain that Nicholas was not the man he pretended to be. And they knew the reasons he might have to fake his death and flee.

In January 2008, when Nicholas was 21, he messaged an 18-year-old college student named Mary Grebinski on MySpace. Grebinski was in her first semester of studying computer technology at a college in Dayton, Ohio. Nicholas was attending the same school, and he expressed an interest in getting to know her. “He said he was new to the area. He was just looking for something platonic,” she told me over Zoom. Grebinski had no cause to be suspicious. It was a casual, normal get-together, with no romantic pretext. She said, “Yes.”

Nicholas was sociable, intelligent and a good talker, Grebinski said. “We spoke about restaurants in the area . . . He wanted to be a lawyer. He was looking to study at Harvard, all these grand dreams.”

When he asked her if he could accompany her to her next class, she thought little of it. If anything, it seemed chivalrous. “The class was in the basement, and there weren’t many people around,” she told me. Nicholas, who had previously been well-mannered and calm, suddenly became frenzied. They entered an empty stairway, and he pressed her against a wall.

Nicholas started masturbating. “I’m almost done. Don’t be a bitch,” he said, according to a statement Grebinski later gave police. He ejaculated on the wall behind her and crumpled in a heap. By the end of the next day, Grebinski had reported him to the police. Though Nicholas would later claim that Grebinski was the “aggressor”, an Ohio court found him guilty of public indecency and sexual imposition in March 2008. He was ordered to register as a sex offender.

Nicholas simply wouldn’t accept the verdict, and he spent the next several years trying to make Grebinski pay for his crime. First, he pushed for a retrial, filing new evidence in support of his innocence: a MySpace blog post in which Grebinski appeared to admit lying about the assault. According to a forensic expert, the post’s day and date didn’t match. Monday, May 16 2008, was a Friday, not a Monday, as Nicholas’s evidence suggested. His claim was dismissed.

Nicholas then sued Grebinksi and the state of Ohio for defamation and “mental distress”. Both suits were eventually thrown out too. “He just didn’t like the fact that he had to register as a sex offender,” Grebinksi said. In a 2014 essay published in a men’s rights magazine, Nicholas claimed the episode was tantamount “to flying planes into my twin pillars of personal success and service”.

Police reports and first-hand accounts from this era suggest Nicholas was already living an elaborate double life. In one, he was the crusader trying to right the wrongs that led to his mistreatment as a child and adolescent; he was plotting triumphs in the State House in Providence. In the other, he had been investigated in connection with two suspected rapes in Utah, an assault and suspected kidnapping in Rhode Island and another assault in Massachusetts.

On December 13 2021, Police Constable Shannon McGill made her way to Ward 7A at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow. She was there to arrest Arthur Knight, who authorities were now convinced was Nicholas. McGill, who was 24, with dark long hair, had three and a half years of experience as a police officer, and she was the latest in a string of officials, from Salt Lake City to Glasgow, who had worked relentlessly to find Nicholas.

Investigations into his potential crimes had started as far back as 2017, when a rape kit was submitted to the Utah State Crime Lab for testing as part of the Utah Sex Assault Kit Initiative, designed to examine hundreds of backlogged cases submitted by police agencies. The test results were returned in 2018 and matched Nicholas’s DNA, which had been collected from his sexual assault case in Ohio in 2008. Back then, though, the authorities had no idea where he was.

The FBI had also been investigating Nicholas for financial crimes since 2017, after he allegedly defrauded his former foster parents of $200,000. (They declined to be interviewed, but said that “Nick [had] fooled so many people and continues to do so even in court.”) According to an extradition request filed by the Utah district attorney’s office, they spoke to Nicholas in December 2019. He told them he was in Ireland and claimed that he could not be extradited. State investigators in Utah discovered that Nicholas Rossi took American Airlines Flight 290 to Dublin, Ireland, on June 4 2017. There was no record of his return. They found an address in Bristol, England, along with an Irish driver’s licence for a Nicholas Brown, whom they believed to be Rossi.

Utah authorities then sent fingerprints and photographs of the man they were looking for to Interpol, which, with the help of UK authorities, discovered that Nicholas Brown also went by the names Nicholas Arthur, Timothy Knight Brown and Arthur W Knight Brown. They finally tracked him down in Glasgow, living in a flat in the West End. When Scottish police officers visited, they were met by Knight’s wife, Miranda, a tall woman, with broad shoulders, red hair and ruddy cheeks. She spoke with a soft west country lilt and informed the police that Arthur was in the hospital with Covid-19.

Before reaching the suspect’s room, McGill inspected the Interpol alert that her supervisors had sent to her Samsung phone. Nicholas Rossi was the subject of the posting. Images of the man’s face and tattoos, as well as his fingerprints, were attached. And there was a warning: the subject was thought to be suicidal. McGill was to locate Knight and place him under arrest if she thought his appearance matched that of the suspect in the notice. Nurses informed McGill that Knight was in Room 12, but that she’d have to be quick. He had been trying to leave the hospital via private ambulance.

McGill knew it was him the second she walked through the door. As she expected, he precisely resembled the man in the photographs. She informed him that he was being held on suspicion of being a wanted man named Nicholas Rossi and read him his rights. “I’m Arthur Knight,” he protested. “I’ve never even been to the US.”

In the months following his arrest, Arthur Knight became a sensation in the UK press. He attended court in three-piece suits or a maroon dressing gown and Prince of Wales-style slippers. He zoomed about on his electric wheelchair, an oxygen mask and tank always strapped onboard. He spoke with a breathless, posh accent, inconsistently littered with Irish inflections.

Knight had initially been released on bail, then was arrested once again after turning up for a court appointment and placed on remand. He hired and fired teams of lawyers, referring to one as a “mouse in the courtroom”. He attempted to hold a moment of silence for the Queen in court, and shouted at his lawyer, claiming that he was being tortured and mistreated in prison. Whenever the prosecution referred to him as Nicholas Rossi, he protested, moaning, “I’m Arthur Knight” through his mask.

© Kristian Hammerstad

He continued claiming to be from Dublin. He said that he’d travelled to London and lived there for at least a decade. That was where he met his wife, Miranda. The couple married on February 22 2020, at St Mary’s Parish in Bristol. Miranda’s brother would later tell the Scottish press that none of the groom’s family members attended the service.

Knight and his wife moved to Glasgow in June 2021, where Knight was posing as a professor conducting research at the University of Glasgow. According to press reports, Nicholas drank at local bars and dressed flashily. He bemoaned Brexit, talked about highbrow subjects and used fancy words to give the impression to new neighbours and acquaintances that he previously lived a wealthy, sophisticated lifestyle before settling down. People thought of him as charmingly eccentric.

Inconsistencies kept getting in the way of Knight’s story. First, there was the issue of the tattoos. On the Interpol red notice, pictures of the fugitive Nicholas Rossi showed distinctive ink on both arms. There was the crest of Brown University and a unique angel wing. In interviews with UK and US news outlets, Knight refused to show his arms, telling one BBC interviewer, “Honestly, I’m exhausted.”

There was also the matter of the stream of accusations against Knight in the press. Each new one brought his story of being an Irish orphan with an aristocratic accent further into question. Nafsika Antypas, a TV celebrity and businesswoman from Canada, said she hired him to promote her brand in the UK. She’d given him a chance, despite his C$10,000-per-month fee, because, as she told me, he had public relations and TV experience as well as a Harvard degree.

After two months of work, Nicholas had nothing to show her. Antypas said she then withheld payment until he produced something. “Instead of creating my company’s website, he created a fake one about me, using my driver’s licence as a mugshot,” she said. Then Nicholas started ringing Antypas’s parents and hounding them. He also sent her lawyers letters threatening to sue her.

A second accuser, a woman named Michelle who currently lives in Essex, England, said that a man, who went by the name Nicholas Rossi and who resembled the man claiming to be Arthur Knight, raped her in 2017. (She asked the FT not to use her second name.) He had portrayed himself at the time as a “Harvard-educated lobbyist”. He also claimed that he had migrated from the US just to be with her.

As their relationship progressed, she started feeling increasingly awkward in bed. He didn’t care how much discomfort Michelle was in, and he became emotionally manipulative. “I’d tell him something in confidence, and then he’d use it in an argument to get the upper hand,” she said. “He did that well, but not at the beginning. At the beginning, he was still sourcing information — you know, his weapons to use later. Everyone’s got weaknesses, but he exploited them.”

In the summer of 2022, another woman from Salt Lake City, Utah, accused Rossi of having raped her in 2008. The plaintiff, referred to only as MS in state court documents, claimed that she had met Rossi when she was 26 years old. In an affidavit, the victim initially described him as “smart” and “university-educated”. She said that he proposed marriage soon after they started dating and even visited a jewellery store to buy her a wedding ring. She said that Rossi began to get manipulative and both verbally and emotionally abusive, a pattern similar to the one described by his other accusers. He convinced her to loan him money, which he never repaid. One day, after an argument, he locked her in her bedroom. She said that he wouldn’t let her leave and that the couple argued violently about breaking up. That was when she says Rossi assaulted her.

In November 2022, in Edinburgh’s Sheriff Court, I listened as Arthur Knight denied every allegation levelled against him. The court was trying to establish Knight’s true identity to determine whether an extradition hearing should proceed.

Knight insisted he was being framed. When the state prosecutor accused him of being Nicholas Rossi, Knight snapped, “I treat that remark with the contempt it so richly deserves.”

On the stand, he slumped in his electric wheelchair, hands resting on his paunch, a microphone positioned near his mouth. His accent swung back and forth across the Irish Sea, from southern England to Dublin, as he testified. The prosecutor suggested that it was fake. “Your accent is all over the place,” he said. Nicholas explained that a lack of oxygen caused by Covid-19 changed his speech over the past year, which was why it was so inconsistent. He claimed he had experienced “visions of apocalyptic fervour” during his coma and that the whole experience had taken a tremendous emotional toll.

As the hearing went on, the evidence that Knight was indeed Nicholas Rossi became overwhelming. Experts matched his fingerprints with those of Nicholas, and several witnesses from the hospital identified Knight as having the same tattoos as those in the photos from Rhode Island.

Knight had answers for all of it. Before 2022, he claimed, an NHS employee named Patrick had taken the prints and delivered them to US authorities. He also claimed that while in a coma, he had had no control over his body. And that when he awakened, he suddenly had tattoos that had not been there before. The tattoos, he said, had been placed on him to make him resemble Nicholas Rossi. All of it had been done at the behest of the Utah District Attorney’s office, which was trying to frame him in retaliation for critical blog posts he had once written. When the prosecutor asked him to clarify whether he was accusing Utah authorities of lying, Rossi wheezed: “Yes.” (The Utah DA did not respond to requests for comment.)

Knight only suggested calling one witness, a Utah-based attorney and former state employee whom he said could back up parts of his convoluted story. But the man never testified, and both sides rested their cases. Towards the end of the proceedings, Knight seemed to break down, perhaps realising his last chance to be someone else was slipping away. He sobbed into a handkerchief, his back turned to the court.

On November 11 2022, the sheriff in charge, Norman McFadyen, told the court that Rossi’s claims were “scandalous” and “implausible”. He ruled “that Mr Knight is indeed Nicholas Rossi”.

At present, Nicholas is sitting in a cell in His Majesty’s Prison in Edinburgh, awaiting more extradition hearings, currently scheduled through March 2023. If he is sent to the US, he faces potential charges for crimes ranging from sexual offences to wire fraud.

Old acquaintances such as Coogan, Hull and McGowan all believe the man in Scottish prison is Nicholas. But David Rossi is the most emphatic. “I know him so well,” he told me. “The kid is not dead.”

Several days after the verdict, surrounded by ragged piles of court records, police reports and interview transcripts, I started to think about how Nicholas had ended up crying in a courtroom packed with journalists waiting to lap up his every word. His initial story — of turning the chaotic, abusive childhood of Nicholas Rossi into the purpose-driven life of Nicholas Alahverdian, survivor — had a demonstrable basis in fact. It was also what the people around him wanted to believe, what the newspapers had printed and what politicians had seized on for their own benefit. When exactly his telling and retelling became cynical, or criminal, is hard to know. What seems certain is that he later used the American appetite for reinvention to launder serious crimes.

There was another constant: each of Nicholas’s characters was a victim of society. There was Nicholas Rossi the hard-done-by foster kid, Nicholas Alahverdian the horrifically abused lobbyist, Arthur Knight the Irish orphan. Each of them called back to the small boy smiling in the grainy photographs I had seen in Rossi’s house. The little boy wearing jean shorts, glasses and a T-shirt. The boy whose father had killed a dog in front of him. The boy whose stepfather broke his nose at the happiest place on Earth.

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