Who Is Clark Rockefeller—and What Has He Done?
updated 09/01/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 09/01/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT
In a screech of tires Rockefeller got away, fleeing the scene of what may have been only his latest crime. As Hopkins later learned, the "stalker" was actually a social worker supervising one of the divorced Rockefeller's three annual visits with his daughter. And Rockefeller himself was not a Rockefeller—he is, say police, a German-born con man named Christian Gerhartsreiter, 47, who affected an accent one acquaintance says made him sound "like Niles on Frasier"—and just may have committed a double murder. The alleged kidnapping, and Gerhartsreiter's capture on Aug. 2, laid bare three decades of deception, lots of bizarre antics and at least one unlikely truth—that Gerhartsreiter was, oddly enough, a doting father to Reigh, nicknamed Snooks. "He was very loving toward that girl," says John Sears, a former politician who lived near him in Boston's Beacon Hill. "One neighbor referred to him as Mr. Mom."
Is Gerhartsreiter a sympathetic figure who, as his lawyer Stephen Hrones puts it, "did what any father who loves his child would do"? Or is he, as Boston Police Deputy Superintendent Thomas Lee says, a grifter "we believe is related to a California homicide"? (See box.) Raised in Bergen, Germany, near the Austrian border, his father was a landscape painter, his mother a seamstress. He came to the U.S. as an exchange student in 1978 and, using the name Christian Gerharts Reiter, lived with the Savio family in Berlin, Conn. "He was just a spoiled brat," recalls his host Gwen Savio. "If he didn't get his way, he'd pout." From 1982 to 1985 he called himself Christopher Mountbatten Chichester and lived in San Marino, Calif., renting the guesthouse of Didi Sohus—the mother of the man he is suspected of killing. "He had no visible income but a wealth of words and an elegant wardrobe," says Wray Cornwell, a longtime San Marino resident. "I thought he was a phony."
Under a different alias, Christopher Crowe, Gerhartsreiter spent time in Greenwich, Conn., mingling with members of a yacht club and passing himself off as a former TV producer. He leveraged his connections to get a job at a securities firm in Manhattan. Along the way he told wild stories about himself. "He claimed he graduated from Yale at 17 and worked for the government's space program," says Don MacLeay, who in recent years lived near Gerhartsreiter—by then calling himself Rockefeller—in Cornish, N.H. "He was pompous, and he rubbed people the wrong way."
Yet Gerhartsreiter was able to convince many people he was related to the monied Rockefellers—and even fooled wealthy businesswoman Sandra Boss, who became his wife. He first dated Boss's identical twin sister, Julie, whom he met in Manhattan; when she married someone else, he turned his attention to Sandra, a Stanford and Harvard Business School graduate. They wed in Nantucket in 1995, lived in a $2.9 million Boston brownstone and bought an estate in New Hampshire. In 2001, they had Reigh. Boss, the breadwinner, was away at work or out of town most of the time, while the eccentric Gerharts-reiter—"he'd wear salmon-colored pants and bow ties and buzz around town on a Segway," remembers Keith Jones, a Cornish local—stayed home to raise his precocious daughter. (She once drew the periodic table of elements on a sidewalk with chalk while Gerhartsreiter proudly watched.)
Things changed in 2007, when Boss, 41, filed for divorce—in part, apparently, because of Gerhartsreiter's deceptions about his identity. He accepted $1 million in exchange for giving up custody of Snooks and agreeing to only three visits a year. But that arrangement seemed to trouble Gerhartsreiter, who by all accounts shared an extremely close bond with his child. "She was saying, 'I love you too much, Daddy,'" Aileen Ang, who was paid $500 to drive them from Boston to New York after Gerhartsreiter took his daughter, told a reporter. "And he would respond, 'I love you even more.'"
Finally, a Realtor who had just sold Gerhartsreiter a carriage house in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood recognized him from TV reports and called the police. FBI agents arrested Gerhartsreiter on Aug. 2 and returned Snooks safely to her mother. Still, piecing together the full story of a man one official called "a ghost" won't be easy; police say Gerhartsreiter has no U.S. driver's license, social security number or official date of birth. Charged with felony kidnapping and assault, he is locked up in Boston. His lawyer plans to challenge the legality of the custody agreement. "He told me to try to tell his daughter that he loves her," says Hrones. "All he wanted was to set up a new life with her."
But what about all his old lives? How does Clark Rockefeller explain Christopher Chichester, and Christopher Crowe, and Christian Gerhartsreiter? "He says he doesn't remember" his days in Germany, says Hrones. "He's got a memory block. It could be him, but he can't remember. He still believes he's a Rockefeller."