'Blood Will Out' Reveals Secrets Of A Murderous Master Manipulator
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Imagine you meet a Rockefeller - Clark Rockefeller - and suddenly, you have this personal connection to a world of wealth and privilege - until you find out he's an imposter, and not just an imposter but a murderer. That's what happened to Walter Kirn. And Kirn's a really smart guy. He's a journalist and the author of two novels that have been adapted into films - "Up In The Air" and "Thumbsucker."
How he was deceived and the consequences of that deception are the subjects of Kirn's memoir "Blood Will Out," now out in paperback. Here's some backstory. Clark Rockefeller was just one of several identities assumed by Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a German national. He murdered his landlady's son in 1985 but wasn't charged until 2011. He was convicted last August and is now serving a 27-year prison term. Kirn met the man he thought was Clark Rockefeller in 1998, and they remained friends until he was unmasked. Terry spoke with Kirn in 2014.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Walter Kirn, welcome back to FRESH AIR. What a really (laughter) – what a really interesting book, and what a really bizarre position you were in. I want you to start by doing a reading from the book, and this is a reading that takes place during the trial. So you can set it up for us or just start the reading.
WALTER KIRN: Well, I think I'll just start it because I think it explains itself.
GROSS: 'Cause it's about how you were feeling?
KIRN: Yeah, it's about how I was feeling at Gerhartsreiter's murder trial, as I sat there looking at my old friend being tried for a horrible murder.
(Reading) That Clark was guilty, I had little doubt. Twenty-eight years ago, here in California, he'd killed his landlady's adopted son, and his life ever since had been a masquerade. The trial would permit the prosecution to color in and substantiate this story, but I already knew it in outline and found it credible. What I didn't find credible anymore was me. When I'd learned that Clark might be a murderer and instinctively found the notion plausible, the effect on me was Galilean. It humbled me. It reoriented everything. It revealed to me the size and power of my ignorance and vanity. About two hours into jury selection, while scrutinizing another would-be juror, Clark glanced to the side and saw me sitting there. I nodded at him. I thought he might nod back. I was, after all, a face from better days. He sneered at me instead, arching his eyebrows, wrinkling his nose and twisting up his lips into a horrible, prissy little knot. The look was vicious and contemptuous and indicated that he viewed my presence as a betrayal of our relationship, as conduct unbecoming in a gentleman. I viewed things differently, of course. To me, our relationship was the betrayal. Nor did I care anymore to be a gentleman. For the rest of the trial, until we met again, he pretended that I wasn't there.
GROSS: That's Walter Kirn reading from his new book, "Blood Will Out." This is not a novel. This is the true story of someone who was his friend, who turned out to be an imposter and a murderer. Would you describe the murder?
KIRN: Yeah. In 1985, February - I'm going to call him Clark. Clark was living next door to an old lady who had a big, sort of mansion-like house in San Marino, Calif. And he was living in the guesthouse. And she had a son in his 20s named John Sohus, who had just gotten married to a wife, Linda Sohus, and they were living in the main house.
Well, somehow, in a way that's never really been made clear, because the investigation has big holes in it, Clark murdered John Sohus. We've never found Linda. Her body has never turned up. He cut him up, perhaps using a chainsaw that he'd borrowed from a neighbor - there was testimony about a chainsaw being borrowed - wrapped him in some kind of plastic wrap, cut him into three pieces with his clothes on, then put the body parts into plastic book bags and grocery bags and buried them in the yard between the guesthouse and the mother's house.
He then covered the grave. And in a couple of months' time, sometime after the murder, he held a card party - a Trivial Pursuit game, actually, next to the grave, outdoors, served iced tea. One of the guests looked down, saw the dirt on the ground and said, you know, what's all that? And he told him, well, there have been plumbing problems in the yard.
That body wasn't found for nine years, until that yard was excavated for a swimming pool. And when it was, the body was found. The man who had been living in that guesthouse had disappeared. He’d called himself Christopher Chichester at the time of the murder, a British baronet, but what no one knew was that he was now living in New York City as Clark Rockefeller.
GROSS: A member of the Rockefeller family, he said.
KIRN: Well, you know, what other Rockefellers are there? You know, when I met him, of course, he was living under this guise, and I didn't think to ask which Rockefellers, you know?
GROSS: Oh, you just assumed?
KIRN: I just assumed. I assumed so much, and he knew I would assume it, you know? He knew I'd assume the best. I'd assume that he was powerful, wealthy. He did a lot to persuade me that he was. And he knew that people would want to get close to him, and he was right about me.
GROSS: And you never Googled him (laughter).
KIRN: Well, let's put this - let's put it this way, Terry.
GROSS: I hate to point out the obvious (laughter).
KIRN: You know - OK, let's look at it this way. In 1998, Google hadn't been invented.
GROSS: OK, all right.
KIRN: There were search engines. There was no Google.
GROSS: Right, OK.
KIRN: Later, by - you know, by mid-2000s, when I might have Googled him, I did just to see which Rockefeller branch he came from, and it was all very murky. There were - Clark was a name associated with the Rockefellers. There was a Mary Clark Rockefeller, and so on and so on. There was no Clark Rockefeller specifically, but I thought anybody this rich and powerful will have obscured their identity on the Internet, you know? So it didn't bother me much.
GROSS: Great. So you kind of fill in the blanks for him, in a way?
KIRN: Clark - you know, here is the secret of a master manipulator and liar. They leave lots of blanks for you to fill in. For example, when he was living in San Marino and pretending to be a British aristocrat - and this came out at the trial, he told one young woman, oh, you know, I have an aunt in England. Her name's Elizabeth.
Then at another point he said, I have to go visit my family in Windsor. And this person thought oh, my lord, he's related to the queen. The queen's named Elizabeth, and she lives in Windsor. He was always doing that. He was always dropping breadcrumbs because he knew that if you put the story together in your own mind, you'd be more convinced by it than if he told you the whole story.
GROSS: And you'd feel smart for having done it.
KIRN: Yes, you'd feel smart. And so much of what Clark's power over other people consisted of was the ability to make them feel clever. He'd lay little mysteries and let you figure them out, and when you had, he'd go, oh, aren't you clever, or something like that.
GROSS: So let's talk about how you became involved with him in the first place.
GROSS: And it was through a dog whose spine had been broken in an accident, and the dog had been put up for adoption on a dog website. And Clark Rockefeller, as he was calling himself then, wanted to adopt it. So explain how that kind of came around to involving you.
KIRN: I'm living in Montana. My wife is the head of the local Humane Society in Livingston, Mont. They get in a dog that has been run over by a car and is in a wheelchair, back legs don't work. They put it up for adoption on the Internet, and then somebody named Clark Rockefeller from New York City contacts them and says he'd love to take care of the dog. It's a Gordon setter, his favorite breed. He wants to adopt it. He has another Gordon setter. Just one problem - how do we get the dog to him? Because he doesn't drive. He has no driver's license. And his private plane's off with his wife in China that summer.
The Humane Society comes to me, knowing that I've lived in New York and gone to Princeton, you know, Mr. Fancy Ivy League. Maybe you can talk to this Rockefeller character, they ask me. So I get on the phone with him, and once I was on the phone with him for half an hour, I basically had to meet him in person.
And he was just so eccentric, so strange. And I drove this dog from Montana, in a pickup truck, to New York City. Actually, I didn't get all the way. I got to Minneapolis, and I flew the rest of the way because driving a crippled dog in 90-degree heat across the Plains in the summer was enough to give me a nervous breakdown, and I had to fly the last part of the way.
GROSS: So you meet him. What were your first impressions of the man who called himself Clark Rockefeller?
KIRN: He told me that I'd know what he was like when I met him in the airport. I could pick him out of the crowd because he resembled the character of Niles on the TV sitcom "Frasier," the actor David Hyde Pierce. He said, I'm a dead ringer for him, Walter. You know, I'm doing his voice now. And I came down into the airport - LaGuardia - and I looked around for David Hyde Pierce, didn't see him. But I did see this really kind of twee little character in a, you know, canvas hat and maybe, like, pink pants, or something like that. And I went, that's got to be Clark. He's dressed the way he sounds.
When I first met him, he took me out to a very fancy dinner atop a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan. You know, we looked down on Rockefeller Center at one point during dinner. He said, you know, let's go take a private tour of it. I have the key in my pocket. Well, there's a key to Rockefeller Center? He says, oh, yes, the master key. The next day, he invited me to his apartment near Central Park.
GROSS: How come you didn't say yes to the tour?
KIRN: How come I didn't say yes? You know, I think I did. I think I said, oh, oh, sure, you know. But it was sort of - how can I put it? He said it in a way that - you know how some people say you must come and stay at my house for a week, and you say I'd love to, but you don't ever take them up on it?
KIRN: I thought, you know, how - he's making a social gesture here, but do I really want to go through the sub-basements of Rockefeller Center with this character at 10 o'clock at night? You know? Yeah, he made a lot of offers that he knew you wouldn't accept. The guy was a master of the social contract. He knew just those things that, you know, people do that give them credentials and give them the aura of importance, but that they'll never be called on.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Walter Kirn, who, among other things, wrote the novel "Up In The Air" that the movie is based on. His new book is a memoir. It's called "Blood Will Out: The True Story Of A Murder, A Mystery, And A Masquerade." And it's about somebody who befriended him, who called himself Clark Rockefeller, who was an imposter and, it turned out, a murderer. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Walter Kirn. He's a novelist best-known, perhaps, for "Thumbsucker," which was made into a film, as was his novel "Up In The Air." His new book is a memoir called "Blood Will Out: The True Story Of A Murder, A Mystery, And A Masquerade." And it's about how he befriended somebody who said his name was Clark Rockefeller, but he turned out to be a murderer. And Clark Rockefeller was one of the many identities he took on over the years.
So I love this, you ask him what line of work he's in, and he tells you he's a freelance central banker. A freelance central banker? Like, the head of the Fed is a central banker. I'm not sure there are freelance central bankers. He tells - you ask like what country, and he tells you Thailand.
KIRN: (Laughter) Well, OK, so here's an example. My book is about how one is conned. I really want to go into the psychology of how you get tricked. So here's what went on in my head when I heard these words. First of all, I'd never heard those three words together, like you say, freelance central banker? And I said, well, what's that?
And he said to me, well, Walter, think of a country's money supply as the water in a reservoir, and think of a banker as the dam that lets the water over into the countryside to water the crops and so on. And, you know, I thought, well, that is kind of what a central banker does. And he said he had a model on his computer that allowed him to set the money supply and interest rates for these Third World countries because they couldn't afford their own central - they couldn't afford their own Alan Greenspans, you know?
And it didn't make sense, but then again, I didn't have time to go into it. He had another stunner, you know, already in the chamber, you know? I think the next one that he told me was that he could sing the - put the words of "Gilligan's Island" to any tune that I could mention. Then he told me he'd never eaten in a restaurant. Then he told me that, you know, he'd gone to Yale at 14. So the minute I was trying to figure out one riddle, another one was presented. It stops the mind after a while.
GROSS: So he's offering you, like, one outlandish lie after another. And every step of the way, there's a reason to kind of buy into it. But also you must have been hoping to get something from him, outside of, like, colorful stories.
KIRN: There's the explanation, really. You know, besides the fact that he was playing on my vanity and my social insecurity and my desire, you know, to be friends with this fancy Rockefeller character, he was plucking my strings as a writer. You know, when I first drove that dog out there, I had an ulterior motive, I'll admit it right here. I thought this is going to make a great story. You know, driving a crippled dog to a Rockefeller - gosh.
Well, once I met him and got to know him, I thought I can't write that story. He's a real human being. I can't break his privacy. But I was thinking of exploiting our association as a writer in some way from the beginning. But that's how writers look at the world. You know, we don't - we go into the bank and talk to the bank teller and think I'm going to base a character on him, you know? So imagine my delight in meeting somebody as crazy as this.
GROSS: The first time you found out that he had done something terribly wrong was before anybody knew about the murder. But he had - it turned out - kidnapped his daughter. You had met - when you first met him, he was married. He had a young daughter. You'd met the daughter. Tell us about the kidnapping.
KIRN: In 2008, Clark abducted his daughter on the street in Boston after a custody hearing. He disappeared with her and the nationwide Amber Alert was issued.
GROSS: This is 10 years after you first met him?
KIRN: Ten years after I first met him. In the year before the kidnapping, I'd been talking to him on the phone a lot. We were both divorced. We both didn't see our kids as much as we wanted to. He wasn't seeing his daughter almost at all. And I'd really let him cry on my shoulder for about a year about his grief over his child. So I turn on the radio or TV or Internet - I can't remember which - in 2008, and see that there's a nationwide manhunt on for Clark Rockefeller. He's taken his daughter. And I thought, oh, my Lord, he's snapped. You know, his heart broke and he snapped, and he took her. Well, by the time he was caught, the Rockefeller family was saying he's not a Rockefeller. We don't know who he is. And I thought they were lying. I thought they were disavowing somebody who'd sort of besmirched their name, you know, maybe a bastard child of the family or something.
You know, then within a few weeks, it was clear he was a suspect in this gruesome, horrible murder from 1985. And by that time, my denial was breaking. But when I heard the details of the murder, something about them made me think back on our relationship and what I knew of him and convinced me suddenly, in one fell swoop, that he was guilty and that I had been completely fooled.
GROSS: What made you think that, thinking back on your relationship?
KIRN: Thinking back on our relationship, he - OK, so the circumstances of the murder were these. He was living in this guesthouse and passing himself off as a British aristocrat and so on. At one point when I knew him, he had asked if he could come live at my ranch in Montana. And he said, you know, I can stay with you, right? And I said, we don't have any room. And he said, do you have a garage or a little guesthouse? And I said, yeah. He said, well, I used to live in one of those and I've never been happier in all my life. Well, when I heard the murder story on the radio, it was clear that the murderer had lived in this little guesthouse. And his suggestion that he come live in mine lined up with that detail, and it was like a thunderclap.
GROSS: Right. OK, so you find out he not only kidnapped his daughter, but he's now at this point in the story alleged to have murdered a young man and dismembered - and then dismembered him and buried the parts.
GROSS: So thinking about how gruesome that is, thinking about what a terrifying character this man really was, how did it - just like how did it physically feel to know that you had been a friend of his - and you'd been, you know, alone in a room with him? I mean, I don't know if you're thinking maybe he could've killed you?
KIRN: You know, what it felt like to realize that I had been in the presence of, you know, a kind of almost Dahmer - Jeffrey Dahmer-like character, was to suddenly realize that we're all in danger a lot of the time. I sort of got post-traumatic stress, or some version of it, immediately. You know, people on the street dressed as policemen, we assume are policemen. Bankers in the bank, we assume are bankers, not criminals posing as them. When I suddenly realized that I’d had it so wrong, I started not trusting my judgment about pretty much anyone and anything, and that became mind-bending. It was like a drug trip almost.
DAVIES: Walter Kirn’s book, “Blood Will Out,” is out in paperback. After a break, we’ll hear about Clark’s trial and what happened when Kirn confronted him in his prison cell. I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry’s interview recorded last year with writer Walter Kirn, whose memoir is about his long friendship with a man who presented himself as Clark Rockefeller of the famous Rockefeller family. It turned out the man was an imposter, one who years before had murdered, dismembered and buried a young man. He was charged with that crime in 2011. Kirn’s book, "Blood Will Out," is out in paperback.
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GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the trial.
GROSS: You decide to go to the trial, which was in Los Angeles. You live in Montana.
KIRN: Yeah. A year ago, the trial began.
GROSS: What was it like the first time you made eye contact? Did he look like the same person now that he was no longer pretending to be Clark Rockefeller? Did something change about his face and demeanor?
KIRN: Well, here's the deal. I sit down in that courtroom a year ago in Los Angeles - a courtroom that's out of, like, the show "Dragnet" or some sort of film noir, very, you know, very austere and hard-boiled. And in walks in shackles and - you know, or handcuffs my old friend Clark Rockefeller. He looked like hell. He had dyed his hair during the time I knew him, a kind of reddish blonde. The dye was out. His hair was gray. His skin looked ashen. I couldn't tell if he gained weight or lost weight. The weight had all redistributed itself.
And he sits down, and here's the guy who I last, you know, saw in a mansion in New Hampshire, in a private club in Manhattan. And he looked like - I don't know, some kind of left out in the rain, sad, broken spirit. But he had a fierce look in his face, like a feral kind of wild animal look as he sat there. And I thought, you know, wow, how the mighty have fallen, you know? You don't get that kind of revenge too often, you know, somebody who's fooled you, you get to go to their murder trial? I mean...
GROSS: Right. You mentioned you met him at a mansion, at a private club. How did he get access to those things if he wasn't really Clark Rockefeller, and if he didn't really have money?
KIRN: Terry, this book is a meditation to a large degree on the social contract and how so much of what people appear to be is based on what they say they are - or what other people say they are. He'd go to a party at a yacht club, say, in Connecticut - this is how it worked. Somehow he'd get to the party. No one would, you know, bar him at the door. He'd be dressed right. He'd tell people he was a Rockefeller. He'd make friends with them. He'd get in that club and then he'd get reciprocity at other clubs because other clubs trusted that clubs like them had good members. And basically, you know, through this series of references, he would expand his circle larger and larger and soon have access to everything. He was on the board of directors of one of the most exclusive private clubs in Boston. You know, his name was on the wall. He walked into Kidder, Peabody, the bond firm in downtown New York City and got a job selling bonds off the street. You know, an accent sounding sort of like Katharine Hepburn's cousin - that's what I say in the book…
KIRN: …You know, a monogrammed shirt and the right shoes will get you everywhere, apparently.
GROSS: So you're in court. He's exposed now. You know, he's in prison. He's on trial for murder. And you're hearing all these pieces of the story that you couldn't possibly have known about before.
GROSS: And suddenly, you know, you're making sense of things. Give us an example of something that you learned through the trial where you said, uh-huh, now I get it.
KIRN: Well, I'll give you a very personal example. Somebody who had been his neighbor up in Cornish, N.H., testified that he used to tell them about his ranch in Montana and describe it to him. And I realized that the only ranch in Montana Clark ever knew about was the one that I owned and talked to him about. And I realized that what Clark did was he took examples, stories from his friends and then he'd carry them across and tell them to his other friends as though they were his own story. So in other words, he'd pump me for information about what it was like to have a ranch in Montana, and then he'd go to somebody who he knew separately from me and talk about his ranch in Montana. And I saw exactly the method that he used to make himself credible. He borrowed everybody's clothes and wore them in front of others as though they were his own.
GROSS: So when you found out, you know, that he had kidnapped his daughter and then later you found out he was a murderer and it was a gruesome murder, were you angry with him, you know, for having duped you? Because it's not - you know, like, if a friend betrays you, you're angry. It's your friend. They betrayed you. He was not really your friend. He was crazy. I mean, he was an impostor. He was not real.
GROSS: And so it's - in that sense it's, like, not about you. It's nothing personal. It's, like, he has a disturbed mind.
GROSS: So where did - what did anger and betrayal come in in this for you?
KIRN: I was angry on behalf of, first of all, his victims. I looked at this little - I'm going to be angry now on the air - this little twerp in his glasses, looking at slides of the remains of John Sohus' body as though he was an archeologist, going, do I recognize those bones?
You know, of course I got angry. I sat and looked at a guy who had taken another life, maybe other lives, who had fooled and stolen from everybody. And here he was sitting here still pretending to be Clark Rockefeller. You know, in court he asked the judge - his attorneys asked the judge if they would address him as Mr. Rockefeller, and the judge said, no, your name's Gerhartsreiter. I mean, he was still putting on his act in that damn courtroom. You know, he came - it's funny. Before the jury came, he would come in prisoners' clothes. But once the jury came in, he was allowed to dress as he wanted. So he dressed as Clark Rockefeller in his blue blazer and loafers and no socks. There he was putting on this act in front of all of us.
GROSS: So you, in addition to going to his murder trial, you went to prison to see him, and you talked to him in prison.
GROSS: What did you want to know?
KIRN: Wow. First of all, I wanted to know if he'd committed the murder. You know, that was obviously the first question I asked him. See, I didn't think I'd be able to talk to him again. The lawyers had had him sequestered for years after the kidnapping and during the murder trial. And it was literally the day of the verdict that another journalist said, you know, you should go talk to him.
And I said, what do you mean? He said, well, he's fired his lawyers. He's in the jail in downtown L.A. a mile from here. He'll want visitors. So a week later, there I am sitting, looking at him through a glass panel. And I said, Clark, did you commit the murders? And he's, like, oh, that, of course not. You know, he basically told me it was a frame job. And I asked him, well, then, why did you leave California so suddenly after the murders? And he said, well, Walter, as you know, I wanted to be a screenwriter, and I showed my screenplays to a famous director, Robert Wise. And he told me, Clark, you have industry but no talent.
And so I got in my car, which happened to be the victim's truck, and drove away from Los Angeles, like so many aspirants before me. You know, that - he had that story right at hand. The other weird thing he told me was that if I doubted the story about why he'd left Los Angeles, I could ask Charlton Heston, he said, because I was in a screening with Charlton Heston the next day, and I told him about the meeting with Weis. I said, Charlton Heston's dead, Clark. And he said, oh, darn.
GROSS: So one of the questions you asked him was how did he manipulate so many people.
KIRN: Yeah, I said, if you're not going to confess to murder, can you at least explain to me how you manipulated so many people? And he said, the answer is easy, three words - vanity, vanity, vanity. And then he explained that what he did was he took your sort of ideal conception of yourself, and he played it back to you. You know, he removed your feelings of self-doubt and insecurity by accepting you as the person you wished you were. And, wow, that was the truth. That was the one time he told me the truth.
GROSS: And how does that apply to you?
KIRN: Well, I mean, I grew up in a little town in Minnesota - 500 people. I went out to Princeton, and I wasn't very well-accepted out there by the fancy folks of Princeton University, I felt. I came away bruised and feeling rejected. You know, later on in life, when this Rockefeller comes along and wants to be my friend, that kind of felt like a nice feeling after the bad feeling.
He knew that I had insecurities, like every human being. He knew I wouldn't mind having a drink in a fancy private club and so on. So he played on my own lack of self-esteem, as it were.
GROSS: So now that the book is done, you don't have to, like, relive the whole experience as you did when you were writing the book. How do you feel now, knowing that you were friends with this guy who is a killer?
KIRN: During his trial, I prayed every day that he would be convicted. I did not want him getting out. I did not want him free. He was convicted. I finished the book in October last year. The night I sent it off to the publisher, I went to bed. And I woke up in the middle of the night in a sweat from a nightmare in which I'd been driving in a car with him, and he'd gotten out, saying, you know, he had to go to the bathroom on a country road in the darkness.
And I had this traumatic sense that I had been with a real murderer and a real demon this whole time, and I'd been in danger, and I had come through. And that sounds melodramatic, but that's how it happened. And I feel like I dodged a bullet, you know, first of all in never being harmed by him and second of all of him being put away for murder because I wouldn't want to deal with him anymore.
GROSS: Walter Kirn, it's been terrific to talk with you - eerie but wonderful to talk.
KIRN: Oh, thanks a lot, Terry. I really appreciate it.
DAVIES: Walter Kirn speaking with Terry Gross last year. His book, "Blood Will Out," is out in paperback. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Ricki And The Flash," starring Meryl Streep. This is FRESH AIR.
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