“THE MAN IN THE ROCKEFELLER SUIT: THE ASTONISHING RISE AND SPECTACULAR FALL OF A SERIAL IMPOSTOR” Mark Seal. Viking, 323 pages. $26.95 Hardcover. 2011
In late July 2008 Massachusetts State Police issued an Amber Alert for 7-year-old Reigh “Snooks” Rockefeller who had been kidnapped by her father during a parental visitation. By the time Clark Rockefeller was discovered and arrested a few days later and his daughter safely returned to his ex-wife, the bigger question was exactly WHO was this man who purported to be distantly related to the famous American oil family?
As facts of the custody and kidnapping case came out, it became apparent that the woman who was married to Rockefeller for over twelve years had also been duped by the smooth talking chameleon who liked to live the high life. In fact, “Clark Rockefeller” was actually Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a native of Germany who came to the United States as a 17-year-old student in 1978. Over the ensuing thirty years he wove many stories and personas as he worked his way across the United States from Connecticut to Wisconsin to California and back to the East Coast.
It’s an unbelievable but true story that author Seal recreates as he takes the reader from Gerhartsreiter’s childhood in Germany and explains how the eventual con man made initial contacts with unsuspecting American travelers he met there.
It’s amazing to see how many people were deceived by the man who went by a variety of names: as a college student he was Chris Crowe; as the San Marino, California tv show producer he was Christopher Chichester; as man-about-town he was Christopher Mountbatten; and finally, as wealthy philanthropist-businessman, he was Clark Rockefeller.
Seal literally follows in Gerhartsreiter’s footsteps as the writer travels to the locales Christian lived and interviews many of those who knew and interacted with him at the time.
This makes this book very unique in its detail; the only distractions are a couple of glaring misspellings and a questionable date on a timeline. (Seal has Gerhartsreiter serving his eventual prison sentence starting on June 14, 2008-it is actually a year later.)
Sixteen pages of black and white photos of the elusive man are a nice visual touch to see how he changes over thirty years.
As Clark, he tells one woman he just met about his life: “His parents had been killed in a car crash when he was very young, leaving him with a sizable trust.
He was forty (he was actually 47 at the time), a graduate of Yale, and a single father-his seven-year-old daughter had been produced by a surrogate.
He worked as a nuclear physicist and was about to leave for China on a business trip.”
How could numerous conceivably intelligent people fall for his stories? Seal believes that once people heard the Rockefeller name, then it seemed that whatever else he concocted could be believable. (This was before the time of instantly googling someone, as well.)
Gerhartsreiter also had a pattern of attending the community churches and appealing to the generosity of fellow parishioners. He was able to finagle his way into certain circles.
In fact, in Seal’s dossier of records, he discovered this fact about the con man’s time in Greenwich, Conn.: “During a G.O.P. meeting Crowe (had) his picture taken with members of the G.O.P., including Prescott Bush [brother of President George H. W. Bush].”
Former San Marino police investigator Tricia Gough described him like this: “He is one of those people who will say whatever you want to hear to fit in. Like, ‘You like books? Oh, I do, too!’ You don’t have to have read a book in your life. You can get the other person to talk. Like a chameleon, a changeling, he becomes what he needs to become to fit in.”
Gough was the first officer on the scene on May 5, 1994 when a bobcat operator helping dig up a backyard for a swimming pool discovered human remains, later identified as John Sohus, son of the previous owner of the property. Sohus and his wife Linda, both in their mid-to-late 20’s, had disappeared nine years earlier, in February1985. They were living with Sohus’s alcoholic mother, Didi, who was also renting out her guesthouse to one Christopher Chichester (a Gerhartsreiter alias) during this same time. Didi told people then that the young couple was on a “secret mission” in Paris, France and she had a “source” that had told her this.
Later she revealed the “source” that had been feeding her this information was none other than her tenant, Chichester. But by then, he, too, was gone-having driven John and Linda’s new Nissan truck cross country in June 1985 to start a new chapter of his life on the East Coast.
Gerhartsreiter was serving time in Massachusetts (to be released in 2013) on the kidnapping charge when it was announced in March of 2011 that he was being charged with the murder of John Sohus.
So the ongoing story of “the man in the Rockefeller suit” continues.
Robin Edmunds works at Lee Elementary Schoolat USD No. 383.