By Cynthia Sanz
January 21, 1991 12:00 PM

The story was dramatic—and pathetic—enough to get anyone’s attention. KISS STAR HITS THE SKIDS trumpeted the headline in the mass-circulation tabloid the Star, followed by the wrenching details of how Peter Criss, a former drummer for the once wildly popular glam-rock band, had become a homeless alcoholic, panhandling for nickels and sleeping on the floor of the men’s room at the Santa Monica Pier.

The reaction in the shocked showbiz community was swift. Tom Arnold, Roseanne Barr’s comedian-husband and a recovering substance abuser himself, enlisted former Crosby, Stills & Nash drummer Dallas Taylor and a third friend and headed to Santa Monica in search of the fallen star. A trio of Kiss fans from Ontario, Calif., immediately offered shelter to the onetime performer, and Cheryl Anne Thompson, a 28-year-old aspiring actress-model, who says she had dated the drummer in the early 1980s, bought him a first-class plane ticket to Boston.

The person most startled by the tale, however, was Peter Criss, who in fact was living comfortably at his Redondo Beach, Calif., home with Debra, his wife of 11 years, and their 8-year-old daughter, Jenilee. Criss first learned of the story on New Year’s Day after flying to New York City to visit his dying mother. At the airport he was met by his brother who “was freaked out and asked me if I had seen the paper,” says Criss, 44. “I told him no, and he said, “Well, we all have—Morn and the family and everyone.’ Then he showed me, and I hit the ceiling.”

Instead of the former rock star, the derelict who had been photographed and interviewed by the tabloid was actually Christopher Dickinson, 39, a homeless Evanston, Ill., native who had been passing himself off as the Kiss drummer for years. Dickinson had used Criss’s name at area hospitals, and “it just got to be well-known around Santa Monica that that’s who I was,” he says. “I had gotten my real ID stolen. Why I said it, I don’t really know…. I was just very confused, very mixed up from alcohol.”

Dickinson’s familiarity with Kiss and his interest in drumming helped him convince even Arnold and Taylor when they finally found him on the streets. “I wouldn’t have known Peter Criss from Joe Blow,” says Taylor, who underwent a liver transplant last year as the result of his own past alcohol and drug problems. “But he was a drummer. I was moved because his story was mine. I’d been sleeping in the streets. I’d been a hopeless alcoholic and junkie.”

Of course, “knowing how the tabloids work, we always had a doubt in our minds that perhaps he wasn’t the real Peter Criss,” says Roseanne Barr. Nonetheless, says her husband, “I cared for the same reason everybody cares. He was someone who really needed help.”

Dickinson’s ruse began unraveling when he accepted Cheryl Anne Thompson’s offer to come to suburban Boston. Thompson, whom the real Criss denies knowing, says she realized the minute Dickinson stepped off the plane that he was an imposter. “I really almost threw up,” she says. “I wanted to run out of there as fast as I could.” But she didn’t; after considering the situation, Thompson decided to help anyway, moved by the fact that “anyone who’d come that far knowing that I was going to find out had to be desperate.”

For Criss, however, the hoax would soon become especially painful: His mother died of cancer while the story was still on the newsstands, and the family was hounded by friends and fans curious about the story. “In the midst of the funeral and the burial, people would come up and ask if it was true that I was a bum,” he says. “And I couldn’t do anything about this because my first concern was my mother. It was a frigging nightmare.”

In the end, the episode may prove even more of a problem for the tab. Criss, who is writing an autobiography and trying to rebuild his music career, has hired an attorney who says that, for starters, he will demand a public retraction from the paper. “A hundred reporters called Peter’s house after the story broke,” says lawyer Bob McMurry. “So how come the Star couldn’t call? It seems to us they didn’t make a reasonable effort to verify the story.” Contacted by PEOPLE last week, Star editor Richard Kaplan responded, “We have no comment until we complete our investigation.”

Despite Arnold and Taylor’s mistake, Criss calls them “terrific people” for offering him their aid. “I want to thank them. I hope they keep helping this poor guy, whoever he may be.” For her part, Thompson has invited Dickinson to stay with her and her mother until he gets back on his feet, and Arnold says his offer of help still stands despite the deception. “I told him not to be ashamed, he needed help, and he should get it,” says Arnold, “I was resentful we were made fools of, but fraud or no fraud, the guy is a very sick man who deserves a chance,” adds Taylor.

Dickinson now says he wants to enter a rehab program and adds, “I’m trying to get healthy; being around normal people is doing wonders for me.” As for the tabloid that bought his story and brought him fame, there are no hard feelings at all. “They gave me $500, and it came in real handy,” he says. “I’m just happy to be off the streets.”

—Cynthia Sanz, Peter Castro and Todd Gold in L.A. and Stephen Sawicki in Waltham, Mass.