30-Year Con: From German Kid To Rockefeller Scion
For three decades, the man born as Christian Gerhartsreiter claimed to be someone else. He posed as a British baronet, a cardiologist in Las Vegas, a Hollywood producer, a bond broker in New York and, finally, as a member of the famous Rockefeller family.
It all came apart in 2007, when the man known as Clark Rockefeller was arrested and charged with kidnapping his young daughter. He was convicted a year later, and this past week he was moved to Southern California to face a new charge: murder, in the death of a former landlord more than 20 years ago. He pleaded not guilty on Friday.
Mark Seal, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, just released a new book about the con man, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor.
I Want To Be A Millionaire
Gerhartsreiter grew up in a small West German town, and Seal says that from early on, he was obsessed with making it to America. At age 17, he saw his opportunity.
"He met a young man who was hitchhiking on a train, and he said to Christian Gerhartsreiter ... 'If you're ever in Connecticut, come stop by and maybe you can spend the night with us,' " Seal tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.
A few weeks later, Christian Gerhartsreiter arrived at the young man's house in Connecticut and ended up staying there for months.
Soon, Gerhartsreiter cemented his place in America by finding a woman in Wisconsin who would marry him. And then he headed to San Marino, a wealthy Los Angeles suburb.
Christopher Mountbatten Chichester
When he arrived in San Marino, he called himself "Christopher Mountbatten Chichester," which he pronounced "chee-chess-tuh."
"When this young man came, they welcomed him, just like they would have welcomed anybody," Seal says. "And when his claims became grandiose, they thought, 'Well he's eccentric, he's a Mountbatten, he's a Chichester.' "
In San Marino, he moved into the guest house of a woman named Ruth "Didi" Sohus.
"And that's when what you could describe as the Alfred Hitchcock part of the [story] began," Seal says.
Shortly after "Chichester" moved in, Didi's son John and his wife, Linda, disappeared. Years later, when the house was sold and the new owners were digging up the backyard, they unearthed bones that are believed to be those of John Sohus.
For more than two decades, no one was convicted in the killing of John Sohus. It was a cold case, but this past week, Gerhartsreiter was arraigned and pleaded not guilty to murder.
Faking it On The East Coast
"Christopher Chichester" disappeared from San Marino the same year John and Linda Sohus went missing. When he finally reappeared three months later, it was under the name Christopher Crowe in the ultimate city of WASPy wealth: Greenwich, Conn.
"By now, he says he's a producer and director of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which was indeed a television series at the time with a director named Christopher Crowe — only not him."
Gerhartsreiter, who would don suits embroidered with his fake initials, CCC, convinced people he was from the upper echelons of society and began to work at East Coast financial institutions. He rose through the ranks before making his next transformation.
Of all the identities Gerhartsreiter took on, Clark Rockefeller was the most audacious. When he arrived in New York City, Gerhartsreiter convinced people he was a member of the Rockefeller family and married a Harvard-educated financial lawyer named Sandra Boss. At first, Seal says, she thought Rockefeller was "the most intelligent man she had ever met."
They stayed married for more than a decade and had a child together.
"Everything in this man's life was a lie. The only real thing in his life was his love of his daughter. And when he lost his daughter in a bitter divorce, he began plotting how to get her back."
Almost a decade after Sandra Boss married the man she thought was Clark Rockefeller, she filed for divorce and moved to London with their daughter, Reigh (whom Gerhartsreiter calls "Snooks"). He was only allowed a few supervised visits a year with his daughter. During one of those visits, in July 2008, Clark Rockefeller became one of the most wanted men in America.
"He kidnapped the daughter, and he had a succession of people waiting to ferry him from one place to another," Seal says. "And then he disappeared off the map."
For almost a week, no one knew where he was. But after the police put out a wanted poster, calls flooded in from people across the country who had met Gerhartsreiter under various names.
The kidnapping, Seal says, "blew the lid off a 30-year con."
After Gerhartsreiter was caught living in Baltimore under the name Chip Smith, he was put on trial and convicted of kidnapping his daughter. He pleaded insanity, but was sentenced to prison.
Seal says the man who eventually became Clark Rockefeller was clearly a very talented and intelligent man; but he also points out Gerhartsrieter's peculiar habits.
"He never carried money, he was paranoid about security and privacy to the point where he would carry a radio device that he said was connected to the Rockefeller offices. He would never eat in restaurants because he said you can't trust the kitchen. He would only eat in private clubs, of which indeed he was a member of several. He only ate white foods, white turkey on white Pepperidge Farm bread, except in some cases when he would order oysters Rockefeller."
And Seal says the tale just keeps getting stranger.
"I sat in that courtroom, and I thought I knew the story," Seal says. "But I knew I had to go back to his beginnings in Germany and trace him step by step along the way to really try to understand this man who did not exist."
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