Phillip Witcomb has attracted attention around the world by claiming that Pablo Escobar was his father. Now friends say he made it up. By Etan Smallman
[Click on image below to view full-size page]
[Click on image below to view video]
It sounded like a Hollywood story too good to be true. A British painter who went to school in Herefordshire had discovered he was the son of the richest drug lord the world has ever known – after being raised by an adoptive father working as an MI6 agent.
Phillip Witcomb’s bestselling book revealing his tale of being the firstborn child of the Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar made headlines across the world when it was released three weeks ago, with articles from Chile to Romania.
Saying his name at birth was Roberto Sendoya Escobar, he repeated his account in interviews with the BBC’s Newsnight and The One Show, as well as The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express and i, and is planning a movie, a TV series and two more books.
But now three childhood friends from both Colombia and the UK, as well as one of Escobar’s children, have come forward to dispute the claims he makes in Son of Escobar, published in the UK by Ad Lib.
Mr Witcomb sent his school friend Malcolm Horsley a link to the first press interview featuring his “son of Escobar claim”, when it was published in the Hereford Times in 2018.
In a WhatsApp conversation seen by i, Mr Horsley was surprised and asked: “Son of Pablo? Poetic license?” Mr Witcomb seemed to imply the claim was the result of a journalist’s exaggeration when he replied: “Can’t always control the press but the article shows me in a positive light.”
Mr Witcomb, who was born in Colombia and educated at UK boarding schools, writes in his book that he was born in 1965, and said yesterday that he stands by his account. But i can reveal that official records at Companies House show his birth year to be 1962, meaning Escobar would have been just 11 or 12 when Mr Witcomb was conceived. It is a criminal offence to provide false information on the company register.
John Orrock, a childhood friend who grew up with Mr Witcomb in Colombia, became suspicious when he saw the revised birth date. Mr Orrock is adamant that Mr Witcomb was the same age as his brother, who was born in 1962. “My father worked with his father [in Bogota] and we socialised with them for years,” said Mr Orrock. “The fact that the life he describes is just so far from the life that we lived tells me it’s not true – and the fact that we just know he’s older than he says.” He added that he believed the story in the book was “fiction”.
Mr Witcomb had also previously stated his birth year as 1962 in an artist’s biography, an ITV documentary about child abuse at his English boarding school and a letter to a TV producer trying to sell his Escobar story.
His book claims the three-year discrepancy is the result of a lie his adoptive parents told on a form when he was a baby to expedite a British temporary passport.
He says that, as a result, he was forced to be in school with children three years older than him and was left wondering why he was “so much smaller than my friends”.
Mr Orrock, 57, from south-east London, said: “His story would have meant he went to prep school ‘aged five’, but really he was two. That’s actually impossible.
“He talks about his father mixing with presidents and heads of state and being a top spy for MI6 and yet when he needs a UK passport, his father has to fake documents and blight the rest of his childhood to get it.”
Mr Witcomb has published only select, redacted pages of a baptism certificate and adoption papers in his book, none of which confirm his account.
Andrew Taylor (inset), 58, a friend from Lucton boarding school in Herefordshire, also dismisses the claims. He said Mr Witcomb would have needed to be “exceptional” in his sporting and academic ability to compete against children three years older than him.
“There was nothing exceptional about him. Everybody that was at the school and was in that year knows his age.”
Fellow Old Luctonian Mr Horsley, 53, said the claim was “complete nonsense”. He said: “Maintaining [a false age] all the way through school is impossible and whilst he wasn’t tall and never has been, I always remember him having huge biceps. You didn’t want to mess with Phillip Witcomb. I was in a dormitory with 10-year-olds. Phillip Witcomb was never a 10-year-old when I knew him.”
Photos of Lucton’s cross-country running club in 1978 and 1979 show Mr Witcomb to be the most muscular of the eight boys, despite his claims to be three years younger than all of them.
Escobar’s son, Juan Pablo Escobar Henao, 43, has ridiculed Mr Witcomb’s story, which he describes as “such huge lies”.
He said in a statement to i, signed “From The Real ‘Son of ‘”: “Can’t you realise that this guy is only looking to be famous, so he can find a customer for his paintings and books?” The publisher, Ad Lib, did not issue a response last night. Mr Witcomb said in a statement that alleged discrepancies in his account are “all made clear in the book”.
Asked if he would provide further details from his baptism certificate and adoption paperwork to provide more clarity, Mr Witcomb said: “I have certain rights under the data protection act as do other individuals named in my various identity documents. I have gone further than is required in the provision of what is published. My legal team have made it clear to me … that I am not able to provide you with any further details.”
- Mr Witcomb told thejournal.ie that English was his second language, yet he claimed to have been adopted before he started talking by parents who spoke to him in English, and was educated at English-speaking schools.
Author’s adoptive father would be ‘horrified’
Phillip Witcomb claims in his book that his adoptive father, Patrick, was an MI6 agent who masterminded the helicopter raid that killed his teenage mother, and later gave his son a code revealing where he had hidden Escobar’s “missing millions”.
But a former colleague of Patrick Witcomb, who was a manager of the secure transport of money for British company De La Rue in Colombia, where he is believed to have adopted his son, has described the story as “preposterous”.
The source, who asked to remain anonymous, told i that far from being a hardened secret service operative, Patrick was “just a nice bloke, he was a bit accidentprone, he wasn’t the greatest manager in the world”.
According to Son of Escobar, Patrick Witcomb was born in Hull in 1927 and died in Surrey in 1993.
He is described as a “suave, debonair, Savile Row-suited, 6ft 4in Englishman… an expert in the dark arts of the espionage game”, whose “double life was at times mesmerisingly complex”.
Phillip writes that he “couldn’t help wondering” if his own adoption had been part of Patrick’s cover story.
Asked what Patrick would have made of the claims in his adopted son’s book, his colleague and golfing partner said they were “excruciating”, adding: “He’d have been absolutely horrified and acutely embarrassed.”
Phillip’s childhood friend John Orrock (inset) said he challenged Mr Witcomb in November 2019 about a photo posted on Facebook which he claimed was of an OBE his father received for risking his life “as an undercover agent”.
Mr Orrock said that after he raised questions about the honour, he was blocked by Mr Witcomb. The post was later deleted but a screenshot has been seen by i. A spokesperson for the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood said: “Having checked both our records and those of the London Gazette, which is the official record of recipients of awards, I can find no record of a Mr Patrick Witcomb being awarded an OBE.”
Jesse Fink, co-author of the forthcoming book Pure Narco about the Colombian drug cartels, queried that MI6 would have been interested in Escobar in the mid to late 1960s, when he was merely a “car thief and all-round hoodlum”.
“Escobar wasn’t really established as a narco until at least 1976,” he said, adding that the story, “replete with shootouts and secret codes, comes across like a clichéd airport novel”.
He also said: “The name ‘Pablo Escobar’ is not uncommon in Latin America. There is no ‘Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria’ on documents that I’ve seen related to Mr Witcomb.”
The book’s claims
In his book Son of Escobar, Phillip Witcomb tells a story of two fathers: his biological padre, Pablo Escobar, and adoptive dad, Patrick Witcomb.
He writes that Mr Witcomb Snr worked for MI6 and led a hillside raid – featuring helicopters and M75 grenade launchers – that resulted in the death of Phillip’s teenage mother. The secret agent would shortly go on to adopt baby Phillip.
“I thought every child had armed bodyguards, a security team and a dad who jetted off regularly to foreign countries,” he writes.
He says he was the victim of at least three terrifying kidnap attempts, each resulting in the would-be attacker being shot dead by his bodyguard. “I suffered flashbacks from the time people broke into the house or tried to snatch me on the street. Had Escobar wanted to kidnap me or murder me? I like to think he wanted me back, but there was no way of knowing.”
He writes that as Patrick Witcomb sought to glean information he could pass back to the secret services, Phillip would be taken to meet “Don Pablo” at fraught New Year’s Eve parties, in an attempt to keep Escobar close. He says of the man he claims is his biological father: “He had a thin moustache and, when he smiled, he revealed a row of yellow teeth”.
Though he did not know his supposed connection to Escobar as a child, he recalls one meeting where the drug lord said: “Goodbye, my son… And always remember little man – you are an Escobar.” And he muses: “It is a terrible burden to bear, knowing your natural father was a mass murderer who peddled misery.”
Who was Pablo Escobar?
The son of a farmer and a teacher, Pablo Escobar’s life of crime – immortalised in the Netflix series Narcos – started with selling fake school diplomas and stealing tombstones to sell on. By the 1980s, his cartel controlled 80 per cent of the world’s cocaine trade.
Escobar appeared in Forbes’ first international billionaires issue in 1987. Two years later, the magazine listed him as the seventh richest man in the world, with an estimated net worth of £7bn.
Escobar was shot dead by police on a Medellín rooftop in 1993.
BEHIND THE STORY: My suspicions were raised after our interview
Witcomb proved evasive over the facts, recalls Etan Smallman
I had not gone into my Zoom interview with Phillip Witcomb with any intention, or any apparent reason, to debunk his memoir. After all, his evidence had already persuaded his publisher, a top London PR agency and news outlets from the Majorca Daily Bulletin to the BBC.
But nor did this feel like a conventional interview.
Early on in our almost-hour long conversation for i’s Big Read on 11 August, I asked how old he had been in the pivotal scene of the book – an MI6 raid that resulted in the death of his mother as he lay in his cot.
“How old was I? You have read the book, haven’t you?” he said.
I was, frankly, mildly irritated. I had read every word and had been perplexed why this key detail had not been included.
He told me he was “a baby”, before concluding: “I wasn’t a year old.”
When I tried to pin him down on another number at the end of the encounter, a routine question about his age, I got a similarly peculiar and spiky answer.
“Fifty-five,” he said. “You can work it out yourself.”
I came away thinking Witcomb was either nervous or perhaps just not very bright. I also left feeling a sense of unease that I couldn’t describe. But feelings aren’t what drive journalism; we deal in facts.
The only thing I could put my finger on was my doubts about how Witcomb, aka Roberto Sendoya Escobar, could have had flashbacks throughout his entire childhood to a raid when he was just two months old – and about which he said he had been given no information until he was 24, when his father, Patrick Witcomb, is said to have revealed his true identity to his adopted son.
I emailed to double-check his date of birth. Witcomb replied to confirm it was as I thought, and signed off the message “Roberto”, a name he had never used before he had signed his book deal.
I thought perhaps he had simply got a little carried away with his reclaimed identity and put my misgivings about the nightmares down to the vagaries of the human memory.
However, after publication, the story was still nagging away at me. In the early hours of a Friday morning, I lay awake then began to scour the internet.
I came across a scathing Amazon review from a childhood friend in Bogota picking apart the claims. I found an artist’s biography in which Witcomb had given his birth year as 1962. I watched an ITV documentary in which he was also identified as being three years older than he was now claiming.
Then I revisited a Facebook page for alumni of Witcomb’s old boarding school, on which I had previously seen a member enquire about the “comedy moustache” he had grown in time for his book promotion.
After further scrolling, I found former friends from the UK raising similar questions about the dramatic narrative. And the story built from there – while Witcomb’s own tale appeared to be unravelling.
After I began writing, I recalled that in our interview Witcomb had himself accurately characterised how tales can get exaggerated out of all proportion.
I had asked him about something he had said in another interview two years earlier – that the currency of the Escobar name meant he had been “contacted in Spain by people from Colombia and asked to help ‘facilitate’ certain things”.
“Oh, I can’t comment on that,” he told me, before gurning at his webcam, then adding: “I wasn’t in Spain, by the way.”
But this was what the Express quoted you as saying, I pointed out – in an article which, he wrote on Twitter, had “the right angle on this story”.
Witcomb laughed. “Sometimes, you know, to sell papers, things get a little bit sort of get flowery around the edges.”
Perhaps that could be said of certain memoirs.