Clark Rockefeller came into the national consciousness in 2008, when he was the subject of a manhunt after kidnapping his daughter during a court supervised visit during his pending divorce. After he was caught by the FBI, it was revealed that Clark Rockefeller was not a distant descendent of John D. Rockefeller, but really Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German national who came to the United States in 1978 on a student visa and, after obtaining a green card through marriage in 1981, had disappeared. Mark Seal’s book, The Man In The Rockefeller Suit does a workman-like job of untangling Gerhartsreiter’s web and the majority of the information herein is sourced from it.
The saga of Clark Rockefeller is a saga of the greatest con artist since that Catch Me If You Can guy. Of course, as far as I know that dude never murdered anyone, whereas Gerhartsreiter is scheduled to go to trial on March 11, 2013 for the murder of John Sohus and Linda Mayfield 30 years ago.
Christian Gerhartsreiter was born in 1961 in the small town of Bergen in Bavaria, a part of Germany full of picturesque mountain villages seemingly made up of gingerbread houses. By the time he was a teenager, he wanted out. Arnold Schwarzenegger, another product of a sleepy alpine childhood, voiced a discontent that mirrored Gerhartsreiter’s: “I’d look out my parents’ window and see people talking over a cup of coffee for two hours or more, and I knew it wasn’t for me.”
Typical Bavarian village. Gerhartsreiter’s childhood home is on the far left
In the summer of 1978, the teenage Gerhartsreiter began hitchhiking and traveling around Bavaria. On one of his excursions, he met an older Californian couple who he charmed. He invited them back to spend the night at his parent’s house and in the morning exchanged contact information in the standard half-hearted manner of travelers worldwide. On a train trip the same summer, he met a young American backpacker from Connecticut named Peter Roccapriore who casually mentioned that Gerhartsreiter could stay with him if he was ever in Connecticut. Within a few weeks, Gerhartsreiter had obtained a student visa listing the Californians as his sponsor and had showed up in Connecticut knocking on Roccapriore’s door. Soon after, he placed a small ad in the local paper and found more permanent housing with the family of school librarian Gwen Savio. It is at the Savio’s house that one of the key parts of the “Clark Rockefeller” persona was born: the ridiculous accent. According to Gwen’s son Edward, Gerhartsreiter’s favorite show was Gilligan’s Island, and he loved to imitate the accent and behavior of Thurston Howell III.
This certainly makes a lot of sense, because if you hear Clark Rockefeller talk, he doesn’t sound anything like a real Boston Brahmin or East Coast Prep.
Listen from about 1:45 in, where he says “muntz” instead of “months” and adds a deep Germanic pronunciation to the word “clue.” Now compare that to the more nasal and refined accent of a real upper crust Bostonian below:
Reading Seal’s book, people seem divided as to whether his accent was convincing or not. Naturally, each person commenting on it must justify their own aristocratic bona fides (“I grew up in Newport”). I don’t doubt the blue blood credentials of the people who believed Rockefeller’s accent, I just doubt their ear. Rockefeller sounds like a German who has spent a long time in America. I guess when you meet someone named Clark Rockefeller wearing a blue blazer with gold buttons, your ear wants to give him the benefit of the doubt.
People may have been divided on his accent, but there is one thing everyone seemed to notice about Rockefeller: he never wore socks. Person after person remark on it, with perhaps the funniest mention being a former playmate of Rockefeller’s daughter who says, “I remember that Uncle Clark never wore socks.”
Tiring of Connecticut, Gerhartsreiter (soon to be shortened to “Gerhart”) traveled west, stopping in Milwaukee long enough to arrange a green card marriage to a young University of Wisconsin undergrad in 1981. He then continued westward, settling in the upscale Los Angeles suburb of San Marino. There he told people he was Christopher Chichester, that he was from England and a nephew of Lord Mountbatten.
He obtained a job producing a local color show for the town’s cable channel and busied himself by getting involved in various churches and clubs in town. Although, Chichester was known all over town (going as far as to consider running for city council), no one seemed to know where he lived, until in 1983 he moved into the guest house of a 60something divorcee named Didi Sohus. Sohus was a lonely old woman who drank too much and was probably suffering from dementia. Chichester, ensconced in the guest house, no doubt had his eyes on the sizable main house and the money it represented. However, soon after Chichester moved in, Sohus’s only child John and his new bride, Linda Mayfield, moved back home.
Chichester saw them as the only roadblock in his path to Didi’s money. So, he applied his con man’s charm on them, somehow convincing them that he could get John Sohus, a computer programmer, a high level job with the government on the East Coast. Naturally, it was classified, so he couldn’t tell them too much, and they certainly couldn’t pass on any details to their friends. Not long after, John Sohus and Linda Mayfield apparently left town, and were never seen in San Marino again.
It nows seems as though they were murdered by Chichester, who could then use their disappearance as a way to show Didi Sohus that his son had abandoned her. It worked. After their disappearance, Didi changed her will stating that she disinherited her son. Chichester then introduced Didi to a couple named Don and Linda Wetherbee, who lived in a trailer park about 15 miles from San Marino. Soon, Didi had sold her house and moved into the trailer park. The Wetherbees became Didi’s only contact with the outside world. Shortly after, Chichester left town, telling people he had to settle a relative’s estate in England. What had really happened was that he had obtained $40,000 from the Wetherbees as payment for introducing them to Sohus. Chichester than drove east (in Linda Mayfield’s pick up!) with a 40,000 dollar nut to start a new life in the WASP haven of Greenwich, Connecticut as Christopher Crowe.
After pulling off a scheme that devious, intricate, and evil, you could see that Gerhartsreiter would have had utter confidence in his abilities of manipulation (Incidentally, the plot played out as planned, with the Wetherbees being the sole beneficiaries of Sohus’s will, to the tune of 180,000 dollars). In Greenwich, as Christopher Crowe, he somehow talked his way into a high level Wall Street job he had no qualifications for, being named head of the corporate bond department at Nikkos Securities, complete with his own office in the World Financial Center.
Linda Mayfield’s pickup would prove to be his undoing. A local man mentioned he needed a truck, so Gerhartsreiter agreed to sell it to him, but said the title was in California. Once the man wrote for the title, there was a paper trail tying the truck to Greenwich, Connecticut. Soon after, a missing persons case was opened about John Sohus and Linda Mayfield by Linda’s best friend, and the Greenwich police were looking to question “Chris Gerhartsreiter / AKA Chichester,” who was seen as a person of interest. The police soon figured out that Chris Chichester was Christopher Crowe, who coincidentally had possession of Mayfield’s truck. Since a missing persons report from the other side of the country ranks fairly low on a policeman’s urgency level, Gerhartsreiter was able to delay them long enough to leave town and abandon his Crowe persona.
From 1988 to 1992, there are no sightings or any paper trail for Gerhartsreiter. It turns out he was hiding out in New York City, living with a girlfriend. When he emerged, he was now Clark Rockefeller and apparently had a collection of Mondrians, Rothkos and Motherwells. The art was all fake, but it even fooled a few art dealers, and served as a useful credential that he was who he claimed to be. He soon found a rich businesswoman, Sandra Boss, to marry and spent the next fifteen years or so living off her. They moved from New York City to Cornish, New Hampshire, the town best known as the home of reclusive writer J.D. Salinger. In 2001, they had a daughter, who they named Reigh, but Rockefeller called Snooks. At Boss’s behest, they moved to Boston, settling in Beacon Hill in 2006. Soon after, Boss finally began to wake up and smell the coffee in regards to her con man fraud of a husband and initiated divorce proceedings. This led to Rockefeller’s running off with their child, eventually being caught by the F.B.I. in Baltimore in August of 2008. In 2009, Rockefeller was convicted of parental kidnapping and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and sentenced to four to five years in prison.
So, for a con man, Rockefeller had a good run. He lived in some of the richest towns in America and had people convinced he was a blue blooded aristocrat, born and raised in Sutton Place, when he was a really a German kid from a bumpkin mountain village. To be fair, he did his homework. To be a con man, in addition to having a sociopathic desire to manipulate people, you also need some knowledge to back up your bullshit. And by most accounts, Rockefeller did. He knew a little bit about everything, enough to fake his way through a conversation with anyone. If anything, his pending murder trial helps put the rest of his life in context and gives a little bit of insight into the mentality of a world class conman. Other people are seen only as a means to an end, and for what they can get you.
It’s also amazing to note that Rockefeller’s wife, Sandra Boss, was a successful business consultant. From a middle class family in Seattle, she was a Harvard School of Business grad who was making over a million dollars a year by her early 30’s. Yet, she couldn’t see through Rockefeller’s lies. As Boss herself said on the witness stand in Rockefeller’s kidnapping trial, “One can be brilliant and amazing in one area of one’s life and really stupid in another.”
According to Jacqueline Olds, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, “A really good sociopath can dupe anyone.” I don’t believe that. That makes being a sociopath sound like being a magician, that you just wave a wand and charm people into doing your bidding. I imagine the opposite is actually true, that even a really good sociopath can’t fool most people. For every wide-eyed believer, there is a close- minded skeptic. But, being a conman is a percentage business: if you’re going to try to sell the Eiffel Tower, you only need one person to believe in you enough to buy it (although two wouldn’t hurt).
I think that in order for a con to work, you have to be receptive to it. Boss was most likely a woman who wanted to marry up. As a friend of hers states in Seal’s book, “Everyone knew she was married to a Rockefeller, and she could be all modest about it, like she didn’t care. But she cared.” Incidentally, some “friend”… I think Sandra Boss wanted to believe she had lucked into becoming part of the aristocracy, and as long as he didn’t let go of that belief, she could justify anything to herself. When it came to Rockefeller’s lies, she didn’t discriminate: giant whoppers or little fibs, she believed ’em all! She acknowledged in her testimony that she never saw Rockefeller’s name on a birth certificate, bank account, Social Security card, school diploma, or medical records. Rockefeller told her that he did not have a driver’s license because he had an eye ailment and could not operate a vehicle. He had no need for a passport because an ear problem prevented him from flying. She believed that he was mute for seven years after a childhood fall, and regained his speech after seeing a dog and saying the word, “woofness.” When they met, he told Boss that his mother was Mary Roberts, a woman from northern Virginia who was killed in a car accident with his father when he was 18. Suddenly in 2002 or 2003, however, Rockefeller told her that his mother was Ann Carter, the childhood actress, but that she still died in a car crash. Turns out Ann Carter is still alive to this day.
Although his murder trial will start this month, it is far from a sure thing. For one, the body of Linda Mayfield has never been found. John Sohus’s body was presumably found in 1994 in San Marino by builders digging a swimming pool, but since Sohus was adopted, there is no way to prove through DNA that the remains are his. If he somehow manages to beat the charges, one has to wonder what is next for Rockefeller, a fifty two year old man with no life skills other than manipulating people. Would he attempt to move somewhere in the world where they haven’t heard of “Clark Rockefeller” and try out his old tricks? Time will tell, by I have a feeling that he will most likely be spending the rest of his life behind bars.