The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor

  • By Mark Seal
  • Viking
  • 336 pp.

In this real-life thriller, a reporter follows the trail of a remarkable deceiver.

In late summer 1978, Christian Karl Gehartsreiter, a skinny, 17-year-old, fantasy-obsessed kid from a village in Germany, appeared on the doorstep of a Meriden, Connecticut, couple whom he had met only months before in Bavaria. The couple had made the mistake of telling him to drop by and stay with them if he ever came to the United States. Gehartsreiter had taken them for their word, and from then on began taking advantage of everyone who happened in his path. Thirty years later, Gehartsreiter became the subject of a nationwide manhunt wanted for parental kidnapping, but not in his true name, but as Clark Rockefeller, an alleged member of the renowned family.

Mark Seal, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, followed the trail of this imposter, from one coast to the other, from the yacht clubs of Connecticut to Boston’s Beacon Hill. Gehartsreiter attained nation-wide notoriety when he used the name Clark Rockefeller, but that was just one of many he used. At the University of Wisconsin, taking film studies courses on a dubious student visa, he acquired a new name, Chris Gehart, and aristocratic airs, and then had a quickie marriage and divorce. With his new green card he headed for California, the land of reinvention.

As Christopher Chichester, he selected exclusive San Marino as his new home. Attired in an expensive wardrobe and affecting a British accent, he succeeded in becoming an overnight sensation at the local churches and clubs, especially with the elderly wealthy widows. Never known to be gainfully employed, but never hungry, he frequented USC film school; his interests were in film noir, which was appropriate since before he vanished from the scene his landlady’s adopted son and wife had mysteriously disappeared.

This well-written book reads like a thriller. The succession of Gehartsreiter’s roles certainly keeps one’s interest, but meeting the many victims of his deceit is just as fascinating. Mr. Seal interviewed almost 200 people, many of whom appeared to have been enthralled by Gehartsreiter’s performance. Only the occasional individual detected cracks in the Rockefeller disguise, but all admitted they initially were impressed by the Rockefeller name. As one of Seal’s interviewees said, “A con man gets by because you want to believe what he’s telling you.”

Gehartsreiter returned to Connecticut with the missing couple’s pickup truck and another name and persona. Naturally, he headed for the prominent churches and clubs of Greenwich. Now using the name Christopher Crowe and purporting to be a computer whiz, he landed a position through his new social contacts as a vice president selling junk bonds on Wall Street. His career ended when, during a background check by his employer, it was discovered he used the Social Security number of the notorious serial killer David Berkowitz on his application! When authorities from Connecticut came calling asking about the pickup truck from San Marino, he vanished for four years.

In 1992 he surfaced as Clark Rockefeller, a blue blood, replete with a lockjaw accent and a wardrobe taken from the pages of The Official Preppy Handbook. With a major collection of modern art hanging on the walls of his East Side apartment, he again targeted prominent Manhattan clubs and churches, where he found a new wife. The two became an item in local social circles as she started her climb up the ladder at McKinsey & Company, financially supporting the Rockefeller she believed she had married.

Mark Seal’s research reveals an unusual individual —a gifted linguist, a quick study of people and places, and intelligent, yet, all those gifts wasted pursuing nothing more than a comfortable lifestyle at others’ expense. Mr. Seal also presents people hoodwinked by Gehartsreiter — remember that expensive modern art collection that enthralled so many experts and connoisseurs in New York and Boston? It turned out to be bogus.

Following a contentious divorce and subsequent parental kidnapping in 2008, Gehartsreiter could very well have continued his life of charades. When he put into motion the intricate and well-planned kidnapping of his daughter, authorities initially were confounded when they began their search. No record of the man Clark Rockefeller existed: no birth certificate, driver’s license, credit cards, Social Security number, previous history.

Only when the FBI found a water glass he had used and lifted a latent fingerprint did they learn that Clark Rockefeller was in fact the German immigrant Christian Karl Gehartsreiter. They also learned he was wanted for questioning by the San Marino Police Department about the human skeletal remains found in the backyard of his former residence. Convicted of assault and kidnapping, Gehartsreiter was sent to a Massachusetts prison, where on March 15, 2011, he learned Los Angeles County had indicted him for murder.

Arthur Kerns, a retired FBI special agent, lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, where as a member of the Arizona Archaeological Society he spends time exploring the beautiful Sonoran desert. His award-winning short fiction has appeared in anthologies and he is putting the finishing touches to his second novel.

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