Keeping secrets can be fun, even exciting. But not when you find out you're
the one who's been fooled. It's a shock to learn that you were just as gullible
as all the many hundreds of others.
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter pretended to be a Rockefeller, among other aliases. He was a superlative con man who lived a lie for nearly 30 years, and, for the most part, got away with it. Until recently.
Here's how I met him.
I had taken my then-school-aged son to an acting class at Los Angeles City College. A clean-cut pleasant young man came up to me and asked if I'd like my son to be in a student film being made by a friend of his at USC, and for the film to be made in my own home. He said his name was Chris Chichester, and that he lived in nearby San Marino.
His friend was a genuine USC student, and the filming took place without any problems. Chichester himself dropped over once. In the following weeks, he and I exchanged a couple of sociable phone conversations. That's it.
The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor, by Mark Seal, tells the whole fascinating story of this strange fellow. Gerhartsreiter, born 1961 in a small town in Germany, took on the name Chichester when he arrived in Southern California. He specialized in befriending wealthy widows and others by joining their churches to make high society connections.
Decades later, after numerous moves and identity changes, he had somehow turned himself into Clark Rockefeller, a Wall Street pro with a high-earning wife.
His real identity was found out when he was caught and convicted of kidnapping his daughter from his wife's custody after their divorce. Once the pieces starting fitting together, deeper mysteries were unearthed (literally, in the case of buried bones in the yard where he used to live). In March 2011, he was charged in Los Angeles with the murder of the man whose bones they were (and whose truck he drove cross-country). Prosecutors are working towards extraditing him so his murder trial won't have to wait until he serves his full kidnapping sentence of 4-5 years.
People were taken in by his intelligence and seeming sincerity. He never looked away when he spoke to you, he seemed genuinely interested when you spoke with him on the phone. When he talked about himself, when you asked questions, he offered an imaginative lineage that you had no reason to doubt. He didn't seem to have anything to gain from being nice to you. But he must have been practicing his imposter skills every single moment.
Some of the people Gerhartsreiter fooled were perhaps greedy—hoping to befriend a young man related to royalty—others only generous and kind. Certainly I'd love a more in-depth psychological explanation of the con man and his marks than is provided by Seal's book. But we simply don't know the inner story that well yet. As it is, the long and convoluted tale unfolds like a compelling novel, and Seal seems to have done his research well.
Here's a link to a 9-minute NPR interview with Mark Seal, plus an excerpt from his book.
Copyright (c) 2011 by Susan K. Perry