The wealthy Greek shipping heiress sat next to the big-time art dealer, who was seated near the daughter of a Sony CEO, who could practically rub elbows with the most fascinating guest of all: Christopher Rockefeller—yes, of those Rockefellers—a free-spending, fast-living art collector in whose honor Ginés Serrán-Pagán had opened his home in tony Southampton, N.Y., that glittering evening last July. It was a truly Gatsbyesque scene, except for a couple of things: The Sony CEO's daughter was really a photographer; the art dealer was an electrician; and the shipping heiress was a PEOPLE magazine bureau chief. And Rockefeller? "He was a man pretending to be something he wasn't," says Serrán-Pagán, 51, an artist who had already figured Rockefeller for a fraud and so asked his friends to assume fake identities and help con the con man for fun. "I just wanted us to join the movie that he was living. But I didn't know he had conned quite so many people."

In fact, Serrán-Pagán was toying with a canny and ruthless predator who had fleeced victims around the world and may have swindled nearly $1 million this summer alone. Christophe Rocancourt—the real name of this 33-year-old son of a French housepainter—was arrested four days after that July 29 soiree for running out on $19,000 in bills from two East Hampton bed-and-break-fasts; two days later, he skipped bail and hasn't been spotted since. "He's one of the best," says George Mueller, the supervising investigator for the Los Angeles District Attorney's office who has been trying to catch Rocancourt since 1997. "He gives the appearance that he's a mover and shaker, and people buy into it. The guy is incredible."

What makes his ruse even more remarkable is that Rocancourt resembles Rocky Balboa far more than he does a Rockefeller. He has several tattoos, a coarse street manner and an irrepressible French accent, yet he still managed to convince people he was friends with the likes of Bill Clinton. "He took people out, bought them champagne all night and gained their confidence," says Margaret Dunn, the East Hampton detective who arrested Rocancourt on Aug. 2. "Some of his victims were wealthy; a lot of them weren't. Some of them had their whole life savings wiped out." In just four months in the Hamptons, Rocancourt scammed at least $800,000 from 12 people, many with cons that were fairly crude. Authorities say he promised to loan Manhattan stockbroker Tom Gregory $500,000 if Gregory would first give him $50,000 as collateral. The loan never came. He also allegedly convinced a struggling actor to fork over his $10,000 trust fund to invest in stocks, then simply took the money and ran. "He knows the weak point of these people is being impressed by names," says Serrán-Pagán. "He took people into his trap and did whatever he wanted."

Rocancourt has also been tied to a diamond-smuggling ring in Zaire, a violent jewel heist in Geneva and a bizarre traffic shooting in West Hollywood, where he pretended to be the son of Italian movie producer Dino De Laurentiis. But even so, Rocancourt sees himself more as a benign philosopher than an ordinary felon. "I would not consider myself a criminal—I steal with my mind," he told two New York Times reporters in a telephone interview from an undisclosed English-speaking country on Nov. 4. Far from feeling remorse, Rocancourt says his victims got what they deserved. "I feel sorry for their greed," he said. "I am not laughing. There is nothing funny about stupidity."

Born in Honfleur, a small fishing village on the Normandy coast, Rocancourt claims he is a devout Catholic who studied philosophy at a French university. By the time he was 20, though, he was already under investigation by authorities in Paris for counterfeiting and writing fraudulent checks (the results of those investigations are sealed under French law). In 1991 he was part of a gang that attempted an armed robbery of a jewelry store in Geneva. Two years later the FBI picked him up in Las Vegas on an international warrant, and he was extradited to Switzerland to face trial for the robbery.

But authorities there, unable to prove his involvement in the heist, could only banish him from the country until 2016. Rocancourt's next stop was Beverly Hills, where he met Ali Amghar, a restaurant worker whom he later hired as a bodyguard. Amghar says that Rocancourt impressed him with his talk of plans to buy a mansion in Beverly Hills and his flashy lifestyle. "Rolls Royces, Cadillacs, Ferraris, you name it; the guy showed off so much," says Amghar, 41. "He offered lots of gifts and spent lots and lots of money."

By then, Rocancourt was married to Pia Reyes, a former Playboy Playmate, and living with her in Suite 1090 at the ritzy Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. But while Reyes was pregnant with their only son, Zeus, now 3, Rocancourt was secretly involved with Rhonda Rydell, an aspiring actress and model. "He treated me like a china doll in a glass house," says Rydell, 30. "He bought me a rosary blessed by the Pope and bought one for himself. He was so romantic." Rydell didn't know that he was married, but even after she found out she remained in his thrall. "He just has a very powerful spirit," she says. "His lifestyle is crazy, but he also really believes in family. He has tremendous values."

Calling himself Christopher De Laurentiis, Rocancourt partied in Los Angeles's hippest nightclubs and apparently befriended Mickey Rourke. At the same time, though, police were investigating him on suspicion of running a ring that smuggled stolen diamonds out of Zaire (no charges were ever filed). Rocancourt was also charged with trafficking in fake passports and, according to his bodyguard, Amghar, kept a stash of handguns and grenades in an apartment in Beverly Hills. Amghar says that when he discovered the weapons, he decided he'd had enough. "I said, 'I'm just going to leave you, you don't have to worry about nothing,' " Amghar recalls. To this promise not to go to the authorities, Amghar says, Rocancourt responded, "Nobody leaves me."

Fearful for his life, Amghar told police about the diamond-smuggling ring. But once again an investigation did not produce enough evidence to pin any crime on Rocancourt. Then, in March 1998, he was involved in a shooting while driving his Humvee along Santa Monica Boulevard. Rocancourt told police he was shot at by a man he had argued with at a club the night before. "The problem," says investigator Mueller, who looked into the incident, "is that all the bullet holes in the car were exit holes." Rocancourt, who fled into a police station after the shooting, eventually admitted he fired the shots and was charged with carrying a loaded weapon. "The trial was set to begin," says Mueller. "We were getting ready to pick a jury." Then Rocancourt, free on $175,000 bail, disappeared.

When he surfaced again this summer, in New York's highbrow Hamptons, he had rechristened himself Christopher Rockefeller. With an entourage that included his wife, Pia, as well as his comely companion Laurent Gauvin, he frequented Hamptons hot spots such as NV Tsunami. "He was a good customer, but something was fishy," says the club's general manager, Shamin Abas, who recalls Rocancourt spending about $2,000 a night. "He talked too much about his money. Rich people don't do that."

Introduced to the Spanish painter Ginés Serrán-Pagán by a friend, Rocancourt billed himself as an art connoisseur. "He came here and started picking out paintings, saying, 'I want this, I want that,' " recalls Serrán-Pagán. "He decided to buy five or six paintings worth about half a million dollars." At that first meeting, Serrán-Pagán ran out of good wine and served Rocancourt some inexpensive red. "I was embarrassed giving cheap wine to a Rockefeller," says Serrán-Pagán. "But he starts sniffing it and says, 'It smells like a great Bordeaux.' That's when I got suspicious."

Rocancourt's boasting about his wealth—and the fact that the supposed Rockefeller heir had a French accent—convinced Serrán-Pagán he was dealing with a fraud. When Rocancourt asked the artist for his bank account number—ostensibly to deposit money for the paintings but surely to clean the account out—Serrán-Pagán declined. Yet he found Rocancourt entertaining and continued to socialize with him. The July 29 dinner at Serrán-Pagán's 10,000-sq.-ft. home—attended by his pals Maria Eftimiades, PEOPLE's New York City bureau chief, and photojournalist Natsuko Utsumi—was intended "not to ridicule Christopher but to let him have his dream," says Serrán-Pagán. "He wanted to be among the wealthy." Later, Rocancourt denied he ever believed he was dining with bigwigs. "No shipping heiress or magnate offers a one-course meal of pasta in a cheap bowl in the middle of the table," he told The New York Times Nov. 4. "I've had better meals in prison."

The dinner, however, marked the end of Rocancourt's wild ride through the Hamptons. Alerted to his scams by stockbroker Tom Gregory, East Hampton police arrested Rocancourt as he walked into a supermarket on Aug. 2. He was charged with theft of services for not paying $19,000 in bills at two B&Bs, and held at Suffolk County Jail. "He didn't seem nervous when I met him there," says his lawyer Bruce Cutler, also an attorney for former Mob boss John Gotti. "I didn't get the impression he was going to run." But run he did, right after making his $45,000 bail (his wife and son had earlier left for Paris). "He's just disappeared," says Rhonda Rydell, who hasn't spoken with him for months. "I think he is staying distant from anyone he is close to, to protect us."

Yet it seems doubtful that the flashy, con-loving Rocancourt can keep himself under wraps for too long. "He's very arrogant and cocky," says Mueller, who adds that he once received a cell-phone call from Rocancourt in which the fugitive made a threatening remark about the investigator's children. "I mean, a Rockefeller with a French accent? He's starting to get a little sloppy." Which, says his former bodyguard, will only make him that much more dangerous. "He doesn't even know who he is himself," says Amghar. "He has no conscience. He is just a black soul."

Alex Tresniowski
Leslie Berestein and Karen Brailsford in Los Angeles, Bob Meadows in East Hampton and Cathy Nolan and Dietlind Lerner in Paris

  • Contributors:
  • Leslie Berestein,
  • Karen Brailsford,
  • Bob Meadows,
  • East Hampton,
  • Cathy Nolan,
  • Dietlind Lerner.