30-Year Con: From German Kid To Rockefeller Scion

Christian Gerhartsreiter moved to America at 17 and spent the next 30 years of his life assuming false identities. His deception culminated in a 12-year marriage to a woman who believed he was a Rockefeller.

Christian Gerhartsreiter moved to America at 17 and spent the next 30 years of his life assuming false identities. His deception culminated in a 12-year marriage to a woman who believed he was a Rockefeller. Lisa Poole/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Lisa Poole/AP

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.

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal
The Man In The Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor
By Mark Seal
Hardcover, 336 pages
Viking Adult
List Price: $26.95

Read An Excerpt

Mark Seal has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years. He is currently a contributing author at Vanity Fair. i i

Mark Seal has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years. He is currently a contributing author at Vanity Fair. Mark Schafer/ hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Schafer/
Mark Seal has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years. He is currently a contributing author at Vanity Fair.

Mark Seal has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years. He is currently a contributing author at Vanity Fair.

Mark Schafer/

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.

Clark Rockefeller

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."

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, who masqueraded as a member of the famous Rockefeller family, appears July 8, 2011, in an Alhambra, Calif., court to face charges that he murdered the son of his landlord more than a quarter-century ago. Gerhartsreiter pleaded not guilty. i i

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, who masqueraded as a member of the famous Rockefeller family, appears July 8, 2011, in an Alhambra, Calif., court to face charges that he murdered the son of his landlord more than a quarter-century ago. Gerhartsreiter pleaded not guilty. Sarah Reingewirtz/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Sarah Reingewirtz/AP
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, who masqueraded as a member of the famous Rockefeller family, appears July 8, 2011, in an Alhambra, Calif., court to face charges that he murdered the son of his landlord more than a quarter-century ago. Gerhartsreiter pleaded not guilty.

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, who masqueraded as a member of the famous Rockefeller family, appears July 8, 2011, in an Alhambra, Calif., court to face charges that he murdered the son of his landlord more than a quarter-century ago. Gerhartsreiter pleaded not guilty.

Sarah Reingewirtz/AP

Downfall

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."

Excerpt: 'The Man In The Rockefeller Suit'

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal.
The Man In The Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor
By Mark Seal
Hardcover, 336 pages
Viking Adult
List Price: $26.95

Prologue

The plan was foolproof, the route rehearsed, the cast of characters in place, the itinerary perfectly organized. Outwardly calm but with his heart racing, he was at last ready to accomplish what he had been so meticulously planning for months.

He had come a long way to land in this privileged place, a fifth-floor room in Boston's Algonquin Club, a venerable bastion of the most blue-blooded city in America, a preferred meeting place since 1886 for U.S. presidents, heads of state, and local and national aristocrats. He belonged here; he was a member of the board and a familiar presence in the club's impossibly grand rooms, with their tall ceilings, museum-quality paintings, and uniformed staff, all of whom he had come to know and rely upon. His name was James Frederick Mills Clark Rockefeller — Clark to his friends but Mr. Rockefeller to everyone else.

"Good day, Mr. Rockefeller," the waiters would say as he sat for breakfast or lunch in the dining room, with its four fireplaces and a magnificent view of Commonwealth Avenue. Or "Good evening, Mr. Rockefeller," as they fetched him his evening sherry in the book-lined library, surrounded by the portraits of past members, whose ranks included President Calvin Coolidge and a Who's Who of American dignitaries. At forty-seven, he was well entrenched as a link in the country's most fabled family, which traced its lineage back to John D. Rockefeller, who founded Standard Oil and created a dynasty of philanthropists.

Lately, a cloud had darkened Clark Rockefeller's usually sunny façade. This explained why he was living, instead of merely lunching, in the Algonquin, which served its members as a haven not only from the unruliness of the outside world but also from temporarily painful and unfortunate events such as marital separation and, as in Rockefeller's case, divorce. Today, however, he had reason to rejoice. He was going to spend it with his adorable little daughter, Reigh, a precious, precocious seven-year-old he called Snooks.

It was a bright Sunday morning, and he put on his customary uniform: well-worn khakis, a sky blue Lacoste shirt with the crocodile embroidered over the heart, Top-Sider boat shoes (as always, without socks), and a red baseball cap emblazoned with the word yale. He adjusted his heavy black-framed glasses, which some people thought brought Nelson Rockefeller to mind, and proceeded from his room down the wide wooden stairway. After passing through the club's hallway, redolent of polish and leather, he entered the imposing front lobby, where Snooks was waiting for him, along with the clinical social worker who was to chaperone their eight-hour visit. Even though Rockefeller's ex-wife, Sandra, was just a few blocks away, she had followed a court order to ferry the child through the social worker.

"Hi, Daddy!" Snooks exclaimed, rushing over to hug him. She was small for seven, with a blond pageboy haircut and a crooked smile, wearing a sundress. Around noon, Rockefeller hoisted her on his shoulders and started walking toward Boston Common, where they had talked about riding the swan boats in the Public Garden. "Good morning, Mr. Rockefeller," people said as he passed, for he was well known in this Beacon Hill neighborhood, having lived here for years in a four-story, ivy-covered $2.7 million town house on one of the best streets in the city. That was before Sandra dragged him through a painful and humiliating divorce, taking not only the Beacon Hill house but also their second home, in New Hampshire. She had also won custody of Snooks and moved her all the way to London, where she now worked, leaving him with only three court-supervised eight-hour visits per year. Today was the first, and his daughter had to be accompanied by Howard Yaffe, the social worker who was tagging behind them like a creaky third wheel.

But Clark Rockefeller still had his name, his intelligence, an extraordinary art collection valued at close to a billion dollars, good friends in high places, and cherished private club memberships along the eastern seaboard, where he could avoid bourgeois hotels and restaurants. Although he'd lost Snooks, he'd gotten $800,000 in the divorce settlement, and today he had his adored daughter back with him.

He turned the corner onto Marlborough Street, the tree-lined avenue where Teddy Kennedy once kept a residence. A black SUV was parked at the curb far down the block. Behind the wheel was Darryl Hopkins, a down-on-his-luck limo driver who had had the good fortune to pick up a Rockefeller in the rain one day. He had been driving through downtown Boston the previous summer when he spotted the dignified gent — soaking wet, dressed as if he had just been sailing — attempting to flag down a cab. Hopkins screeched to a stop and offered him a lift. Since then, Hopkins and his distinguished passenger had become something of a team. Rockefeller didn't have a driver's license but always seemed to have somewhere he needed to go, and Hopkins was more than happy to provide wheels for him.

Mr. Rockefeller had the kind of peculiarities that the driver expected from very rich people. He spoke in a heavy East Coast rich boy's lockjaw and dressed exclusively in the uniform of the Wasp aristocracy: blue blazers and rep ties or ascots, when he wasn't wearing khakis and a polo shirt. Before Rockefeller's wife and little daughter had decamped for London, Hopkins used to drop off Snooks at Southfield, the exclusive private girls' school in Brookline, and pick her up.

Today was a bit unusual. Rockefeller had told Hopkins that he and Snooks had a sailing date in Newport with the son of Lincoln Chafee, the former Rhode Island senator who was known to be a "Rockefeller Republican." But he said he had a problem — a clingy family friend he would have to ditch before they got in the limousine. He offered $2,500 for Hopkins's help.

Shortly after noon, Hopkins was parked on Marlborough Street when he saw them strolling toward the limo, a short three-person parade — Rockefeller with Snooks on his shoulders, trailed by a compact middle-aged man wearing jeans and a bright yellow polo shirt.

As they approached the vehicle, Rockefeller put Snooks down and stopped to point out one of the street's particularly stunning historic homes. When Yaffe turned to look at the building, the scion of the famous family tackled him with a body block that slammed the social worker to the ground.

Hopkins had already started the engine when Rockefeller snatched open the back door, yelled, "Get in!" to his daughter as he shoved her onto the seat — with such force that the doll she had been carrying flew out of her hands — and leaped in after her.

Excerpted from The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor by Mark Seal. Copyright 2011 by Mark Seal. Reprinted with permission of Viking Adult.

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