The Man in the Rockefeller Suit
The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor
“Forget fiction. Pop this jaw-dropper in your beach bag.” —USA Today
This shocking expose goes behind the headlines to uncover the true story of Clark Rockefeller, wealthy scion of a great American family, who kidnapped his own daughter and vanished. The police and FBI were baffled. Tips poured in, but every lead was a dead end … because “Clark Rockefeller” did not exist. In a gripping work of investigative journalism, Mark Seal reveals how German native Christian Gerhartsreiter came to the United States, where he stepped in and out of identities for decades, eventually posing as a Rockefeller for twelve years, married to a wealthy woman who had no idea who he really was. Fast-paced, hypnotic, and now updated with more stunning details, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit chillingly reveals the audacity and cunning of a shape-shifting con man.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
The plan was foolproof, the route rehearsed, the cast of characters in place, the itinerary perfectly organized. Outwardly calm but with his heart racing, he was at last ready to accomplish what he had been so meticulously planning for months.
He had come a long way to land in this privileged place, a fifth floor room in Boston’s Algonquin Club, a venerable bastion of the most blue-blooded city in America, a preferred meeting place since 1886 for
U.S. presidents, heads of state, and local and national aristocrats. He belonged here; he was a member of the board and a familiar presence in the club’s impossibly grand rooms, with their tall ceilings, museum-quality paintings, and uniformed staff, all of whom he had come to know and rely upon. His name was James Frederick Mills Clark Rockefeller—Clark to his friends but Mr. Rockefeller to everyone else.
“Good day, Mr. Rockefeller,” the waiters would say as he sat for breakfast or lunch in the dining room, with its four fireplaces and a magnificent view of Commonwealth Avenue. Or “Good evening, Mr. Rockefeller,” as they fetched him his evening sherry in the book-lined library, surrounded by the portraits of past members, whose ranks included President Calvin Coolidge and a Who’s Who of American dignitaries. At forty-seven, he was well entrenched as a link in the country’s most fabled family, which traced its lineage back to John D. Rockefeller, who founded Standard Oil and created a dynasty of philanthropists.
Lately, a cloud had darkened Clark Rockefeller’s usually sunny façade. This explained why he was living, instead of merely lunching, in the Algonquin, which served its members as a haven not only from the unruliness of the outside world but also from temporarily painful and unfortunate events such as marital separation and, as in Rockefeller’s case, divorce. Today, however, he had reason to rejoice. He was going to spend it with his adorable little daughter, Reigh, a precious, precocious seven-year-old he called Snooks.
It was a bright Sunday morning, and he put on his customary uniform: well-worn khakis, a sky blue Lacoste shirt with the crocodile embroidered over the heart, Top-Sider boat shoes (as always, without socks), and a red baseball cap emblazoned with the word yale. He adjusted his heavy black-framed glasses, which some people thought brought Nelson Rockefeller to mind, and proceeded from his room down the wide wooden stairway. After passing through the club’s hallway, redolent of polish and leather, he entered the imposing front lobby, where Snooks was waiting for him, along with the clinical social worker who was to chaperone their eight-hour visit. Even though Rockefeller’s ex-wife, Sandra, was just a few blocks away, she had followed a court order to ferry the child through the social worker.
“Hi, Daddy!” Snooks exclaimed, rushing over to hug him. She was small for seven, with a blond pageboy haircut and a crooked smile, wearing a sundress. Around noon, Rockefeller hoisted her on his shoulders and started walking toward Boston Common, where they had talked about riding the swan boats in the Public Garden. “Good morning, Mr. Rockefeller,” people said as he passed, for he was well known in this Beacon Hill neighborhood, having lived here for years in a four-story, ivy-covered $2.7 million town house on one of the best streets in the city.
That was before Sandra dragged him through a painful and humiliating divorce, taking not only the Beacon Hill house but also their second home, in New Hampshire. She had also won custody of Snooks and moved her all the way to London, where she now worked, leaving him with only three court-supervised eight-hour visits per year. Today was the first, and his daughter had to be accompanied by Howard Yaffe, the social worker who was tagging behind them like a creaky third wheel.
But Clark Rockefeller still had his name, his intelligence, an extraordinary art collection valued at close to a billion dollars, good friends in high places, and cherished private club memberships along the eastern seaboard, where he could avoid bourgeois hotels and restaurants. Although he’d lost Snooks, he’d gotten $800,000 in the divorce settlement, and today he had his adored daughter back with him.
He turned the corner onto Marlborough Street, the tree-lined avenue where Teddy Kennedy once kept a residence. A black SUV was parked at the curb far down the block. Behind the wheel was Darryl Hopkins, a down-on-his-luck limo driver who had had the good fortune to pick up a Rockefeller in the rain one day. He had been driving through downtown Boston the previous summer when he spotted the dignified gent— soaking wet, dressed as if he had just been sailing—attempting to flag down a cab. Hopkins screeched to a stop and offered him a lift. Since then, Hopkins and his distinguished passenger had become something of a team. Rockefeller didn’t have a driver’s license but always seemed to have somewhere he needed to go, and Hopkins was more than happy to provide wheels for him.
Mr. Rockefeller had the kind of peculiarities that the driver expected from very rich people. He spoke in a heavy East Coast rich boy’s lockjaw and dressed exclusively in the uniform of the Wasp aristocracy: blue blazers and rep ties or ascots, when he wasn’t wearing khakis and a polo shirt. Before Rockefeller’s wife and little daughter had decamped for London, Hopkins used to drop off Snooks at Southfield, the exclusive private girls’ school in Brookline, and pick her up.
Today was a bit unusual. Rockefeller had told Hopkins that he and Snooks had a sailing date in Newport with the son of Lincoln Chafee, the former Rhode Island senator who was known to be a “Rockefeller Republican.” But he said he had a problem—a clingy family friend he would have to ditch before they got in the limousine. He offered $2,500 for Hopkins’s help.
Shortly after noon, Hopkins was parked on Marlborough Street when he saw them strolling toward the limo, a short three-person parade—Rockefeller with Snooks on his shoulders, trailed by a compact middle-aged man wearing jeans and a bright yellow polo shirt.
As they approached the vehicle, Rockefeller put Snooks down and stopped to point out one of the street’s particularly stunning historic homes. When Yaffe turned to look at the building, the scion of the famous family tackled him with a body block that slammed the social worker to the ground.
Hopkins had already started the engine when Rockefeller snatched open the back door, yelled, “Get in!” to his daughter as he shoved her onto the seat—with such force that the doll she had been carrying flew out of her hands—and leaped in after her.
As Rockefeller yanked the door shut, Yaffe scrambled to his feet, grabbed the handle, and tried to climb inside. “Go, go, go!” Rockefeller ordered, and Hopkins stepped on the gas, dragging the social worker several yards before he finally let go, hitting his head on the side of the vehicle before crashing to the pavement.
Inside the limo, Snooks was wailing and holding her head, which had slammed into the doorframe as her father thrust her into the car.
“What happened?” Hopkins asked her, glancing into the rearview mirror as he sped away. “Did you hit your head?”
“I didn’t just hit it, I smashed it,” said the little girl.
“Well, at least we got rid of Harold,” said Rockefeller, meaning Howard Yaffe.
“I know, Daddy,” said Snooks, her crying subsiding as she began to calm down.
Rockefeller barked orders at Hopkins—Take a right, then a left, now right, left—until they were in front of a cab parked outside the White Hen Pantry convenience store on Beacon Hill.
“Stop right here!” cried Rockefeller. The plans for Newport had changed, he announced. He wanted to take his daughter to Massachusetts General Hospital to have her head injury checked, and he would grab this cab. “Wait for me at the Whole Foods parking lot,” he said, throwing an envelope containing cash onto the front seat.
Once in the taxi, Rockefeller directed the driver not to Mass General but to the Boston Sailing Center. A few minutes later, he and Snooks were climbing into the back of a white Lexus SUV. In the driver’s seat was Aileen Ang, a thirty-year-old Asian American piano and flute teacher and Web designer. She had met Rockefeller one year earlier at a members’ night at the sailing center. Ang had found him eccentric but not unexpectedly so, given his pedigree, and as time passed she had gotten to know him fairly well, just as a friend.
Recently, he had told her that he was going to sail around the world with his daughter in his new seventy-two-foot sailboat. He invited Ang to join them, saying she could give Snooks piano lessons. Then, just two days ago, her cell phone had rung when she was in a movie theater. She later found that Clark had left her a voicemail asking, “Are you ready to go cruising?”
She called back to say she couldn’t go, and he said fine, but could she drive him to New York City, where his boat was docked? Of course, he said, he would pay for her gas and her time, a sum of $500. Since Aileen knew he couldn’t drive, she agreed.
On Sunday, she was waiting in her car outside the Boston Sailing Center when Rockefeller and his daughter rushed over and crawled into the backseat. “If you don’t mind, I’m going to sit back here, because Snooks has a headache and I want to take care of her,” he said. Ang started the car.
“Where are we going, Daddy?” Snooks asked.
“We’re going to our new boat,” he told her.
Then the father and daughter both lay down in the backseat. Soon after Ang entered Rhode Island, Rockefeller climbed into the passenger seat and asked to borrow her cell phone. Later she picked it up and saw that he had turned it off.
With pounding rain and terrible traffic, the trip stretched to almost seven hours. At one point Ang turned her phone on and saw that she had four messages.
“Just leave it alone,” Rockefeller ordered. Dutifully she switched it off again. As she drove, she could hear Rockefeller and Snooks talking, playing games, and singing songs.
“I love you too much, Daddy,” Snooks said at one point.
As they were driving into New York City, Clark told Ang to head toward Forty-second Street and Sixth Avenue, where he and Snooks would catch a cab to Long Island for the boat launch. She got stopped in traffic in front of Grand Central Terminal, and before she could even pull over, he said, “I’m going to get off here and grab a cab.” He tossed an envelope filled with cash onto the front seat, grabbed his daughter, and took off without even saying goodbye.
As Ang watched them walk away, she turned her phone back on. It rang almost immediately. “What’s your Rockefeller friend’s first name?” asked the caller.
Ang was perplexed. “Clark,” she said.
“Well, he’s just abducted his kid and hit a social worker. They’re looking for him all over Massachusetts. There’s an Amber Alert.”
“They just got out of my car!” said Ang. “What should I do?”
“Call the police!”
Several hours earlier, back in Boston, Howard Yaffe had sat up dazed in the street. His hip, chin, shoulder, and knee were bruised and bleeding, and his head was throbbing. He managed to pull out his cell phone and dial 911. “A dad has just kidnapped his daughter!” he told the dispatcher. Once he’d given the necessary details, he called the Four Seasons Hotel, where Rockefeller’s ex-wife was staying.
“Sandy, he’s got her,” he said. “I don’t know what to tell you. He’s got her. I’m on Marlborough Street. The police are here.”
Sandra Boss, a tall, attractive woman with a usually confident air, rushed to the scene in a cab. Devastated and distraught, she was crying and frantically pacing in the street. Then a thin, grizzled private investigator ran up to her. Boss had hired his company to send someone to watch Rockefeller and Snooks secretly from the park, but the PI had bungled the stakeout. Yaffe and Boss could only stand there, dumbfounded, and wait for the police to arrive. The getaway point was about to become a crime scene.
“I knew this would happen!” Boss told the police when they got there. “You’ll never find them now!”
“Why?” asked one of the officers.
“Because he’s not who he says he is.”
After twelve years of marriage, she had only recently come to realize this. During their divorce proceedings, in the summer of 2007, Boss had filed an affidavit calling into question her husband’s identity. He shot back with his own legal response, signed, sworn to, and filed in court, under penalty of perjury:
Sandra L. Boss and I met on February 5, 1993, and ever since then she has known me by my one and only name, James Frederick Mills Clark Rockefeller. If I indeed had a different name, one would find it difficult to imagine that in nearly 15 years such a fact would not have come to light, particularly since Sandra throughout our life together met many persons who have known me by the same name for much longer than she has known me.
Now he was sending out another response: Catch me if you can.
An ambulance rushed Yaffe to the hospital with a concussion. Detective Joe Leeman from the Boston Police Department drove the frantic Boss back to her hotel, and she gave him pictures of her daughter and ex-husband, which were quickly distributed far and wide. Meanwhile, at police headquarters, clerks proceeded to enter Rockefeller’s name into various databases. They found nothing. One of them called the detectives, who put Boss on the phone. To their amazement, she claimed that Clark did not have a social security number or a driver’s license and that she had never seen his tax returns.
What about credit cards and cell phones?
His credit cards had been in her name, she explained. As far as she knew, he didn’t have a passport or a checking account. Since their divorce, she had reached him at a cell phone number listed in the name of a friend. She couldn’t give them any information that would help trace him.
Twenty-four hours after the kidnapping, the curious case of Clark Rockefeller was being scrutinized by FBI special agent Noreen Gleason. She put in a request for the suspect’s records, expecting to receive the usual upper-class profile: Ivy League diplomas, a long string of privileged addresses, tax returns with seven-figure bottom lines.
“There’s nothing,” the investigators told her.
She asked for his social security number.
“Not even that,” came the reply.
Gleason was incredulous. She called a Rockefeller family spokesman. Of the 78 direct descendants of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and 140 descendants of John D. Rockefeller, there was not a Clark among them. He might be a distant cousin, the spokesman said, but, given the circumstances of his crime, that seemed highly unlikely. In short, the spokesman declared, “We’ve never heard of him.”
Very soon, however, anyone who watched television or followed the news had heard of him. Gleason and a battalion of FBI agents and police in the United States and abroad would spend the next six days chasing a shadow. Like Darryl Hopkins and Aileen Ang, the authorities quickly realized that they had been duped. Before embarking on the kidnapping, Rockefeller had devised an equally elaborate escape plan. He told his many well-heeled friends that he was taking a trip, in every case to a different destination, in every case a lie. To one, he said he was sailing to Bermuda; to another, flying to Peru; to another, the Turks and Caicos. From Alaska to Antarctica, the authorities tracked down every lead, and every one turned out to be a dead end.
Because of all the publicity, tips poured in to the FBI and the Boston police from around the globe. But the most valuable one came from a friend of Rockefeller’s right there in Boston. Clark had been at his house the night before the kidnapping, the friend told investigators, and had drunk a glass of water. The friend hadn’t washed the glass yet, so agents rushed over and got it. Technicians carefully lifted the fingerprints and sent them off to the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia.
While the prints were being analyzed, Gleason fretted. It wasn’t just that they didn’t know who in hell the abductor was; more important, they couldn’t know what he might do now with his daughter. Gleason was a tough blonde who’d put in seventeen years at the FBI’s Boston field office. She knew how badly a parental kidnapping could go. In too many cases the kidnapping spouse, when tracked down, said, “If I can’t have her, she’s not going to have her either.” Such cases often ended with the kidnapper killing the child and then himself. If they let it get to the point where Rockefeller knew he’d been caught and he still had his daughter, Gleason feared the game would be over. All the power would be in his hands.
“We need a ruse,” Gleason told her associates. But they had to locate him first.
When the fingerprints came back from the lab, one thing was finally clear: the kidnapper was definitely not a Rockefeller. He was Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a forty-seven-year-old German immigrant who had come to America as a student in 1978. Shortly after his arrival, he disappeared into what the Boston district attorney would call “the longest con I’ve seen in my professional career.” The elaborate, labyrinthine nature of Gerhartsreiter’s shape-shifting adventures, from the time he set foot in this country as a seventeen-year-old student right up to his disappearance, makes his story more bizarre than any gifted writer of fiction could possibly invent.
It was the summer of 2008, and the economic boom was about to go bust. Housing prices were beginning to sink, investment funds would soon be gutted, and America’s New Gilded Age ethos was starting to seem a thing of the past. Within months, of course, the era of excess would be over. The crash would come in a sickening wave, revealing just how much had been built on an illusion. In this, Clark Rockefeller was a man for the times.
It was my longtime friend Roxane West, a woman who divides her time between New York City and Texas, who first told me about Clark, screaming his name to me over the phone the day after the kidnapping. “Clark Rockefeller!” she said breathlessly. “Mark, did you hear about Clark Rockefeller?”
Roxane launched into a wild and improbable story. A vivacious blond Texas oil heiress, she’d recently been living part-time in New York and begun attracting the attention of billionaires, rock stars, UN diplomats, and heads of state. Two months earlier, Roxane and some friends had been touring the art galleries of the Upper East Side, including Steigrad Fine Arts, which was located in an opulent town house on East Sixty-ninth Street and specialized in old masters. There, during the cocktail hour, she met an unusually charming man who said he was an old friend of the gallery’s owners.
“Hi, how are you?” he had asked in an upper-crust accent. “My name is Clark”—he paused, then dropped the last name—“Rockefeller.”
“Oh, hello,” said Roxane.
He certainly looked like a Rockefeller, she thought: the preppy chinos, blue blazer, and red rep tie; the scholarly glasses; the patrician air. Roxane’s friend Eric Hunter Slater, a student of bone structure who prided himself on being able to spot a blueblood from across a crowded room, saw the resemblance too. “He’s got the Rockefeller chin,” Slater whispered to Roxane once the man had turned away. “Notice the jaw-line: small but strong. It’s a dead giveaway.”
Almost immediately, Rockefeller began trailing behind Roxane. He invited himself along when she and her friends left the gallery, and when the group wound up at a friend’s apartment, he cozied up with her on the couch. At the end of the evening he insisted on dropping her off at her home in a taxi.
She received a text message from him the next day. “Sorry about the impersonal text, but giving a tour of the Met, which frowns on phone usage,” he wrote. “Let us meet . . . Please text me . . . I did want to tell you that I find you superbly . . .” Then the text trailed off, leaving it up to Roxane to figure out what he meant.
He called her shortly after that, suggesting they have lunch. They met at a fashionable Upper East Side restaurant, and he told her a little about his life. His parents had been killed in a car crash when he was very young, he said, leaving him with a sizable trust. He was forty, a graduate of Yale, and a single father—his seven-year-old daughter had been produced by a surrogate whose egg had been fertilized by his sperm. He worked as a nuclear physicist and was about to leave for China on a business trip. He’d just come from giving his daughter and her friends a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose collection he knew extensively, since his family had donated much of it.
After paying cash for their lunch, Clark said goodbye to Roxane at the curb. Almost as soon as he left, she began receiving e-mails and text messages from him. He called it text flirting. She proceeded to share some examples over the phone:
“Problem: I cannot get you out of my head. What to do? Argh!”
“Just gazed at Saturn for the last ten minutes. Viewing excellent tonight in Brookline. Wish you could see this. Wish I could see you.”
“In a submarine. Crowded. Strange. Thought of you a minute ago.”
“Sipping strange tropical drink in Nantucket now. Would love to see you. This coming week perhaps go to Central Park and kiss. Sound good?”
But then he complained that he wouldn’t be able to make it to Manhattan, because he couldn’t find suitable accommodations in any of his private clubs, and he said he would never consider a hotel. “Have overnight sitter, but all clubs totally booked for tomorrow . . . annoying.”
After reading me a few more messages, Roxane said she never saw the mysterious man after their one lunch together. Then she suddenly shouted, “And now he’s kidnapped his daughter!”
That night I turned on the television to discover that almost every channel was talking about Roxane’s suitor, but in even more sensational terms.
“International manhunt under way for a Rockefeller!” one news anchor exclaimed.
“Authorities search over land and sea for a man and his seven-year-old daughter,” reported another.
Clark Rockefeller was suddenly the most wanted man in America. He’d soon become emblematic of a time when people would believe just about anything if it was wrapped in a famous name. As his story unfolded, it seemed, like its main character, almost too astonishing to believe.
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