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Looking for Mike (CBC, 9 p.m. on Firsthand) is a mystery story, but one that is solved.
Looking for Mike (CBC, 9 p.m. on Firsthand) is a mystery story, but one that is solved.

John Doyle: Looking for Mike reminds us that the best mysteries are true tales Add to ...

It’s a local but universal story, this one. A mystery story.

Most of us accept our friends for what they are. We are close friends with some people because of shared experience or background. Or we have similar temperaments. Friendship is acceptance.

But what if we discover that a friend is not who they say they are? What if the shared experience or background is false? And, worse, what if we discover this after the friend has died?

That’s the gist of the remarkable story told in Looking for Mike (CBC, 9 p.m. on Firsthand). It’s a mystery story but one that is solved. However, there is still a mystery at the end – the question, “Why?” This is a strange and highly recommended program.

Dylan Reibling was a young man working at a startup tech firm in Toronto (it was around the corner from where The Globe and Mail building sits) in the early 2000s. He became good friends with colleague Michael De Bourcier. They had a similar small-town upbringing and similar interests. They hung out a lot. Even when the firm failed and they took other jobs, they remained friends.

Dylan thought nothing of the request from Mike that he use his name as a reference on a passport renewal form. Some time later, his name on the form led police to contact him and pass on the bad news that Mike had died suddenly of a heart attack. Dylan was shocked, as Mike was only 33 years old. Then came another shock. Michael De Bourcier didn’t exist. Every qualification or diploma he had was fake.

“We’ve got a dead body and don’t know who it is,” a police officer told Dylan. And there, right there, began a 12-year investigation by Dylan. What made him truly, deeply intrigued was a strange fact uncovered by the police – “Michael De Bourcier” had prepaid for his funeral a week before he died.

Not being next of kin, Dylan wasn’t able to access much official information about Mike’s death, but he started digging and researching. There’s an interesting scene in a Toronto bar, where Dylan gathers colleagues of Mike and asks them what they remember. (The bar is one I visit regularly and I could have passed Dylan or “Mike” there many times.) It’s fascinating because nobody’s memory is clear. Pinning down details about the man is difficult because memory fades, and impressions differ.

Dylan eventually hired a private investigator, a retired Toronto homicide cop, who followed standard procedure but found few clues. “In 37 years, I’ve never seen a case like this,” he says.

Eventually, mind you, a predictable twist occurs. It turns out that Michael De Bourcier was the name of a young man who died in a horrible accident in British Columbia in 1973. This “Mike” mystery was a stolen-identity case.

However, while this kind of twist might be the stuff of crime thrillers, very real and vulnerable people are involved in this story. The family of the young man in British Columbia really don’t want to know about their son’s identity being stolen.

Dylan looks into the autopsy that followed his friend’s death. There were no fingerprints taken because the body had decomposed. DNA could only be matched to someone else and that someone is, of course, unknown. So Dylan had little choice but to pore through photos of hundreds of missing-person files. Eventually, he sees a familiar face.

The name is given as James Walton, who left his home in Goderich, Ont. in 1992, heading for Syracuse, N.Y., where he had attended college. His car was later found in Buffalo, but he was never seen again.

He lived another life. But why? The reasons seem out of proportion. And the pain caused to his family was extreme. When Dylan and the private investigator meet James Walton’s mother and sister – the climax to the story – there is a formidable air of sadness. A mystery is solved but for all the bizarre twists in the story, there is something brutally ordinary about the genesis of it.

Plainly and crisply told, Looking for Mike is a mystery without thrills but plenty of chilling sorrow.

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Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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