Just before eight o'clock on his first day at Mingus Springs Charter School in Chino Valley, Arizona, last January, Casey Price stood on the asphalt around the flagpole, lined up with the rest of the 180 students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and paused for a moment of silence. The school sits on a high vista surrounded by sprawl metastasizing over ranch land. He took in the panoramic alpine view, from the San Francisco Peaks to Mingus Mountain. It would be Casey's last tranquil moment. By the time he filed into his homeroom to sit with four other seventh-graders at a metal table in front of Ms. Morgan's half-moon desk, the school was already erupting with chatter. Something about that new kid was a little . . . off.

Casey seemed eerily reticent. He kept his head low, hidden behind oval glasses and a baseball cap. Later that morning, staffers pulled him out of class for the standard hearing and vision tests. Stephanie Nichols, a school aide, held a string against Casey's chin to gauge his distance from the eye chart. When she took her hand back, she noticed a smudge of makeup on her fingers.

Across campus, school counselor Julie Bradshaw was in the front office, sifting through Casey's paperwork. Things weren't making sense there either. She'd found two birth dates, a German birth certificate that listed the boy's weight in pounds, and custody papers from Riverside, California, assigning guardianship to Casey's grandfather and listing the attorney general of Oklahoma as attorney.

Bradshaw phoned Sacramento and Oklahoma City. "My mind went to, maybe his parents got killed in Iraq, and there was something special going on, and that was why the attorney general was involved," she says. "I expected them to say this is very hush-hush, and to just take care of him and go on." But after she faxed the documents, the Oklahoma attorney general's office called: They were forgeries. Bradshaw called the police.

At lunchtime, Casey met a lanky 12-year-old named Tiresha at the end of their lunch table. "We were just staying away from him because we were all suspicious," she says. "He looked older than the others. He was talking about coke."

By the time someone in a silver Dodge Neon picked Casey up that afternoon, the Mingus Springs staff were convinced they had an abduction victim on their hands and that Casey was a teenager in trouble. Casey didn't show up for class the next morning. Instead, a detective from the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office ambled into the school's front office, shaking his head, to face the edgy faculty. As the principal, Dawn Gonzales, remembers it: "He walked in, introduced himself, and said, 'You are not going to believe the story I have to tell you.'"

When the patrol cars rolled into the gravel driveway of Casey's little blue-and-white prefabricated home in Chino Valley the previous evening, officials were so certain of a kidnapping that they'd already notified Child Protection Services. Their priorities were to put the boy in protective custody, arrest his abductors, and investigate the fraudulent paperwork.