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In our pages: The case of con man Clark Rockefeller

June 3, 2011 | 11:31 am

Clarkrockefeller In 1978, Christian K. Gerhartsreiter arrived in New England with a falsified German student visa. He later would become Christopher Chichester and Clark Rockefeller, as is told in the new book "The Man In the Rockefeller Suit" by Mark Seal.

Denise Hamilton reviews the book, which she finds "impeccably reported and fascinating."

Seal's book reads like a true-life "The Talented Mr. Ripley," a cautionary tale about how people smarter, richer, better educated and more worldly than you and me were taken in by this emperor with no clothes. Several times, I put it down in disbelief. How could he have fooled so many people — including his high-powered, Harvard MBA-holding wife — for so long?

Seal, who first tumbled down the Gerhartsreiter rabbit hole when profiling him for Vanity Fair, shows how the imposter used his computer skills, personal magnetism, pedigree dog and even his cherubic daughter to worm his way into elite circles. Like many con men, Gerhartsreiter had a preternatural ability to suss out individuals susceptible to his fabrications, who would then vouch for him and open doors.

But as Seal points out, even in pre-Google times, basic library research would have revealed that Gerhartsreiter wasn't the 13th Baronet of Chichester, grandson of Lord Mountbatten, owner of England's Chichester Cathedral, producer of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," a Yale/Harvard grad or owner of the Mondrians, Rothkos and Motherwells on his walls.

Nevertheless, Rockfeller's ruse remained intact until 2008, when, during a divorce dispute, he took his daughter and disappeared, setting off an interstate search. He was found and arrested six days later; in 2009, he was setenced to four to five years for kidnapping.

It was this higher profile that led investigators to unravel Rockfeller's past, which included living as  Christopher Chichester in a San Marino guest house. The couple in the main house, Jonathan and Linda Sohus, disappeared in 1985 under suspicious circumstances; in 1994, bones were discovered on the property when the new owners dug up the yard for a swimming pool. New technology was able to identify the remains as Jonathan's. In March, Rockefeller/Gerhartsreiter was charged with Jonathan Sohus' murder; he maintains his innocence.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: The man who called himself Clark Rockefeller in 2008. Credit: Essdras Suarez / Associated Press Photos