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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. (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.

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

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.

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."

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."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, host: Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Our book today is a story so riveting it's hard to believe it's nonfiction. For 30 years, a man who was born in Germany as Christian Gerhartsreiter claimed to be someone else in cities across America. He posed as a British aristocrat, a Las Vegas cardiologist, a Hollywood producer, a New York bond broker, and finally, as a member of the famous Rockefeller family.

His ruse came to an end in 2008 when the man then known as Clark Rockefeller was charged with kidnapping his daughter. He was convicted. And this past week, he pleaded not guilty to another crime, committing murder in Los Angeles two decades ago.

Mark Seal, a write for Vanity Fair, writes about Gerhartsreiter in his new book, "The Man in the Rockefeller Suit." And the story begins in the late 1970s when the 17-year-old Gerhartsreiter decided to leave his small town in Bavaria and head to the U.S., specifically to another small town in Connecticut.

MARK SEAL: And it was here that he began his journey. He was obsessed with American television, especially, I hope you remember, "Gilligan's Island..."

RAZ: Yes.

SEAL: ...and the eccentric East Coast millionaire Thurston Howell III.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GILLIGAN'S ISLAND")

JIM BACKUS: (as Thurston Howell III) I'll appeal. I'll take it to the Supreme Court. I'll go even higher, Rules Committee of the Newport Country Club.

RAZ: He wanted to be like Thurston Howell III.

SEAL: That's right. Even in Germany, as a student in Germany, he would call the motor vehicle department and act like he was a millionaire wanting to register a Rolls Royce when in actuality he was a middle-class kid in the middle of this tiny village in Bavaria.

So he always wanted to be someone else according to the records and the people that I interviewed. And pretty soon, he had left his family in Connecticut, and he was on his way to college in Wisconsin. And he told his roommate there he was from Boston, that his father was an industrialist. And to prove that he was from Boston, he would eat a Boston cream pie every day.

RAZ: He soon takes on the name of Christopher Mountbatten Chichester and eventually ends up in San Marino in Southern California...

SEAL: Yes.

RAZ: ...very wealthy suburb of Los Angeles and ingratiates himself into the kind of the high society there. How does he do it, and who is funding him?

SEAL: Well, the police say that he had various little scams going on along the way. He had money from his parents, but he had no occupation or no real job at this point. But he was welcomed in San Marino. Now, you have to picture this place. It's only 12 miles out of Los Angeles. And it's like...

RAZ: And by the way, we're talking about the mid-'80s, 1980s here.

SEAL: That's right. So when this young man came, they welcomed him. And when his claims became grandiose, they thought: Well, he's eccentric. He's a Mountbatten. He's a Chichester. He claimed to be related to Sir Francis Chichester who sailed around the world.

RAZ: He eventually moved in with somebody in San Marino. Her name was Ruth "Didi" Sohus. How did he get connected with her?

SEAL: He was connected to the church. That's what he would always do. And in San Marino, it was a church called the Church of Our Savior. And he became an usher, and he would always be at the social hour. And he met some people there who told him about this apartment and a woman named Didi Sohus' house. And that's when the almost Alfred Hitchcock part of the book began.

RAZ: Which involves, of course, murder.

SEAL: Possibly. It involved a missing person's case. What happened was is that Didi had a son, a young son named John Sohus who was a low-level computer operator. And Christian Chichester was living rent-free in the garage apartment when John and his fiancee, Linda, moved into the main house with John's mother. And then suddenly, this couple disappears under extremely mysterious circumstances.

And years later, the house was sold and the new owners were putting in a swimming pool and the crew dug up the bones of what is believed to have been John Sohus.

RAZ: Wow. After that incident, he leaves. He moved to Greenwich in Connecticut.

SEAL: That's right. Yeah.

RAZ: And he takes on a whole new persona.

SEAL: That's right. And the police were wanting to question him. He was a person of interest in this missing person's case after the bones were discovered. But they couldn't find him because he was under a new name, Christopher Crowe.

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. He begins working at esteemed financial institutions on the East Coast.

RAZ: I'm speaking with the author Mark Seal about his new book. It's called "The Man in the Rockefeller Suit." It's the story of Clark Rockefeller, a man who conned high society from California to Connecticut for more than 30 years.

Now, he had a lot of weird habits, right? I mean, he would...

SEAL: Yes.

RAZ: ...you write about how he would initial his - he had his initials embroidered on his clothing. At one point, he would eat very peculiar and specific foods as well.

SEAL: Yes. When he became Clark Rockefeller, he became eccentric in a way that people chalked up to being a Rockefeller. Just a few of the eccentricities, he never carry 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 he was indeed a member of several. He only ate white foods, white turkey on white Pepperidge Farm bread, and - except in some cases when he would order Oysters Rockefeller. And he would be at a private club, and he would tell his companion, do you know why they call them Oysters Rockefeller? And they would say, no. He goes, because they're green, you know, the color of money.

He told people that he was worth exactly $400 million. I mean, lie after lie after lie after lie. And his crowning achievement, Clark Rockefeller of New York.

RAZ: Christian Gerhartsreiter, this kid from Germany becomes a part of the American aristocracy. He meets a woman in New York and they end up getting married.

SEAL: Yeah. She was a Harvard MBA, or studying to get her MBA, a bright, intelligent, attractive career woman who felt that he was the smartest man she had ever met.

RAZ: Her name is Sandra Boss. And they get married, they have a child. They eventually end up in Beacon Hill in a $2.5 million house on Beacon Hill in Boston, not too far from the home of Senator John Kerry and other wealthy Bostonites. Even there, people just assumed that this is a Rockefeller.

SEAL: Yes. And by then he had what he claimed to be a billion dollars worth of modern art on his walls, which of course turned out, like everything else, to be a fake. Then his facade began to fall apart.

RAZ: How did that happen?

SEAL: What happened was is that he fell in love with this little girl, Snooks he called her, the daughter...

RAZ: His daughter, right.

SEAL: ...that he and Sandra had together. And as a police investigator told me in the book, 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 on how to get her back, creating this incredibly intricate plan to kidnap his daughter off a Boston street and take her to Baltimore, where he had set up yet another identity as Chip Smith, a high-seas ship captain.

He had bought a house on an appropriately named street, Ploy Street. And he kidnapped the daughter, and he had a succession of people waiting to ferry him from one place to another, and then he disappeared off the map. And for about four or five, six days nobody knew where he was. But they put out a wanted poster, and people called in and said: hey, I knew him as Christopher Chichester in San Marino, California.

RAZ: Wow.

SEAL: People in Greenwich say: I knew him as Christopher Crowe. People in Baltimore, I knew him as Chip Smith. And it blew the lid off a 30-year con, this kidnapping.

RAZ: He was caught. He was put on trial. He was convicted of kidnapping his daughter. But at least publicly, he never denied being Clark Rockefeller, right? He still insisted that that's who he was.

SEAL: That's right. In the kidnapping trial, he went under the name of Clark Rockefeller. He did not testify. He pled insanity. But so many other people in his life did testify: his first wife, who he had married for the green card, his second wife, people that he knew on Beacon Hill.

So the court was - I mean, it was really interesting. But, you know, I sat in that courtroom, and I thought I knew the story, but it was really only the beginning. I knew that 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.

RAZ: Wow. That's Mark Seal. He's a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and author of the new book, "The Man in the Rockefeller Suit." It's about Clark Rockefeller. Mark Seal, thank you so much.

SEAL: Thank you, Guy. It's great to be here. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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