The Man in the Rockefeller Suit

  • August 9, 2011

"In the summer of 2008, Clark Rockefeller of Boston, wealthy scion of a great American family, made headlines when he kidnapped his own daughter and vanished. The police and the FBI were baffled. Tips poured in - Clark was heading to Alaska, to Peru, to the Bahamas - but every lead was a dead end. That was because the man the FBI was hunting did not exist."

Q&A for Mark Seal’s “The Man in the Rockefeller Suit”

Q. Did you actually meet “Clark Rockefeller”? How much time did you spend with him? Did you form an immediate impression? Was his inability to be himself pure self-loathing?

A. I did not meet him. Tried to get an interview, but wasn’t able to gain access. My impressions were formed by the almost 200 interviews I did of people whose paths he crossed during his 30-year odyssey in America, as well as police and other documents. As for self-loathing, a battery of expert witness psychiatrists and psychologists analyzed Rockefeller for his Boston kidnapping trial. The defense’s expert witnesses claimed he was insane, didn’t know right from wrong and his disorder stemmed from an abusive childhood; the prosecution’s witnesses insisted he knew exactly what he was doing . . . .

Q. He seems to be so smart and talented. Why do you suppose he didn’t use his talent to actually become someone he could admire? Was he too lazy to really achieve something or too eager?

A. Smart, talented and extremely energetic to compose so many incredible identities. Had he followed the conventional path, who knows where he might have been by now.

Q. There must be something seductive about conning folks, an adrenaline or some other high? Did you ask for an explanation? Do you have one? Did you do any research on fraudulent personalities? Is there some commonality between imposters?

A. I think there is an adrenalin high, as you put it, in pulling one over on a succession of increasingly smart, successful and high-level individuals. As I write in the book, he loved board games: Clue, Trivial Pursuit, etc. Was this a game of sorts for the man who became Clark Rockefeller? I did considerable research on the imposters of the past (although it didn’t quite fit into the book). One thing they have in common: they prey on people who want to believe them.

Q. Is there a single ingredient that Clark Rockefeller possesses that the average guy just doesn’t have?

A. A chameleon like ability to leave one life behind and start a completely new one – with a new name, persona and locale – without looking back.

Q. Maybe there is a tendency to reorder a little of ourselves in every new encounter; going off to college, new job, residence, etc. but I thought reinventing ourselves was supposed to be healthy and sane. How did Clark Rockefeller get caught in the cycle of reinvention? If he had not been caught do you think he would have remained Clark Rockefeller or advanced to the Prince of ?????

A. In tracing his journey in the book, I did my best to show the reader how he moved from one place and persona to the next – sometimes out of necessity. If he had not kidnapped his daughter off of the Boston street in the summer of 2008 – which blew the lid off of what the Boston D.A. called a thirty year con, the longest he had seen in his professional career – he would most likely be living a lovely life as either Clark Rockefeller or some equally audacious persona.

Q. What do you think Clark Rockefeller was doing for the four untraceable years?

A. Although there are some differences of opinion on this, most believe he was hiding in plain sight in New York City.

Q. The art collection. Is it possible that Mr. Rockefeller painted them himself? What happened to the collection?

A. One investigator did say he believed they were copied by Rockefeller, but I find this hard to believe. Rockefeller did admit to authorities that the collection was fake and his attorney told me they were “derivatives, basically worthless.”

Q. Do most of us want to be friends with a Rockefeller? Is this just because we want to be close to so much luck? After all, how wonderful is it to be born super rich?

A. Most of us are trusting individuals, at least on initial encounter. And if a friendly, well spoken, well dressed, seemingly educated man introduces himself as “Clark Rockefeller,” why would you not immediately say, “Hello.” That’s how many people became sucked into the vortex of this man.

Q. The book reads like fiction. The story is a lark, a fun, fast read. Does that mean you had to interview that way? Is it all in the questions? None of his acquaintances seem to be upset with themselves or did you just leave it out of the book?

A. The best thing about researching this book? The people Clark met along the way. They were friendly, talkative, hospitable and not at all embarrassed to have been taken in by him. Only a few asked me not to use their real names. However, I cannot recall any of them really seeming upset with themselves about their encounter with Clark. As one woman told me in Cornish, “He was the most exciting thing to happen around here for a long time.”

Q. Did he ever really believe himself? How often do we really assume a new identity without our old personality resurfacing in some way?

A. That’s the question I hope comes up in the next phase of his story: on March 15, he was charged with the murder of John Sohus, with whom he lived for a short time as Christopher Chichester in San Marino in the 1980s. Will the real Clark Rockefeller – real name Christian Karl Gerhartsretier finally emerge?

Q. What is the final outcome? Was or is there a trial for the murders of John and Linda Sohus?

A. Clark was extradited to California on July 6 to face the murder charge. We are now awaiting word of if and when there will be a trial.

Q. In “Shantaram” a book by Gregory David Roberts, an escaped prisoner assumes a new identity. But with the new identity, he learns a new language, helps the impoverished and generally goes from bad to good. Does this only happen in fiction?

A. I would hope it would happen in real life. But at this writing, it hasn’t been the case for “The Man in the Rockefeller Suit.”

I want this book: Politics & Prose OR

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