The Real Man Behind …
The Verdict Is In …
It’s chillingly bizarre but true. For decades, German-born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter lived in the United States under the assumed name of “Clark Rockefeller.” The now 52-year-old imposter managed to fool his social circles – including two wives – into believing he was a member of the American blueblood Rockefeller family. His grandiose tales of deceit flew under the radar for years – even allowed him membership at a prestigious Boston gentleman’s club, which catered to his every whim under the guise he was an heir to the Rockefeller fortune.
The conman’s house of cards held firm until 2008. It started to crumble when his second wife asked for a divorce, triggering the panicked “Clark Rockefeller” to kidnap his daughter. Eventually, Gerhartsreiter was captured, tried and imprisoned. But what may be the final chapter in “Clark Rockefeller’s” sham came just this past April. A judge’s gavel came crashing down again, with a jury’s verdict in California: Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was found guilty of the 1985 killing of John Sohus, the son of his then landlord.
In an ironic twist of fate, the murder conviction came with no witnesses, physical evidence or motive.
But wait. There is one man who may have the answers. Mark Seal is the author of “The Man in the Rockefeller Suit” – a book about the life of “Clark Rockefeller.” South Florida Opulence interviewed Seal about his years spent tracking, investigating and writing about this grand imposter.
RJ: Mark, what were the circumstances in which you began investigating Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, the man who posed as “Clark Rockefeller”?
Mark Seal: I first wrote about the man calling himself Clark Rockefeller in the January 2009 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, after a longtime friend in New York called me saying she’d met him in an art gallery, gone to lunch with him, and listened to his unbelievably tall (and turns out to be false) tales. “And now he’s kidnapped his daughter!” she shrieked over the phone after Rockefeller kidnapped his daughter in Boston on July 27, 2008. That night the story of the kidnapping was all over the evening news, and I was hooked. Thus began a story for the magazine, followed by the book, “The Man in the Rockefeller Suit,” and a wild five-years-and-counting journey that continues to this day.
RJ: What was going through your mind as you dug up more and more absurd details about this Rockefeller imposter?
Seal: I did more than 200 interviews with people who knew “Clark Rockefeller” for the book, following the long and fascinating trail of the people “Rockefeller” duped in various ways. Just when I thought I had heard it all – that he was the 18th Baronet of Chichester, a relative of Lord Mountbatten, the graduate of an Ivy League college (or two), a producer of the 1980s TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” the owner of a billion-dollar contemporary art collection, a CIA operative who fully expected to be appointed to the Federal Reserve Board and so much more – I would meet someone new who would have a whole new, and absolutely wild, story to tell.
RJ: Have you ever met Gerhartsreiter in person and spoken to him?
Seal: I did not meet him or interview him. I observed him in court during both his Boston and Los Angeles trials and spoke to people who knew him. I believe he absolutely knew what he was doing as he told story after story to increasingly wide audiences of friends, associates and, in two instances, wives.
RJ: How do you think Gerhartsreiter pulled off the 12-year-marriage to his wife without her finding out who he was (or was not)?
Seal: I watched Sandra Boss giving her testimony during the Boston trial. She is a intelligent, poised, highly successful businesswoman. But as she said from the witness stand, she had a “blind spot” when it came to her husband. “All I’m saying is that one can be brilliant and amazing in one area of one’s life and really stupid in another,” she said during the Boston trial.
In retrospect, there are endless clues that she could have seen, but as she also said in her testimony, she grew up in Seattle, where people didn’t even jaywalk, so she couldn’t fathom that the man she married would lie not just about basic things – like who he really was – but everything.
RJ: What did you personally find most astounding as you researched and wrote your book?
Seal: That he could spend 30 years creating an array of incredible false identities, and increasingly elaborate biographies to accompany these invented lives. Now, we know why: According to the Los Angeles jury that found him guilty of murder, he was fleeing a crime that occurred decades before in San Marino, California.
RJ: Do you know if “Clark Rockefeller” ever encountered or had dialogue with a real member of the Rockefeller family and, if so, whether he was able to pull the wool over their eyes, as well?
Seal: Yes, he did, in Boston. A friend told me about the encounter: The real Rockefeller hadn’t heard of the fake Rockefeller, so the fake Rockefeller receded, without pushing his point too much – something the imposter often did when questioned too hard on anything. After his arrest in 2008 for kidnapping his daughter, a representative of the Rockefeller family told the authorities that they’d never heard of him. The advent of Google and instant
online information would have hampered the advent of a Clark Rockefeller today. But remember: He was living as Clark Rockefeller until the summer of 2008, when Google and other websites had been
RJ: How was the jury able to convict him on the murder charges since there were no witnesses, physical evidence or motive?
Seal: The evidence against him was apparently strong enough for the jury to convict. As to motive, I have a chapter devoted to that very subject in my book.
RJ: Do you know if Gerhartsreiter still thinks of himself as Clark Rockefeller?
Seal: I’ve been told that he does indeed still conduct himself as if he were gentry. However, he was tried and incarcerated under his real name: Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter.
RJ: Was he ever diagnosed with any sort of personality disorder?
Seal: Much time was devoted to this subject in the Boston trial. Here’s what his own lawyer said in the Boston trial (paper 313 of the paperback of my book): “However, [defense attorney Jeffrey] Denner submitted, his client wasn’t a calculating con artist but a mentally ill individual who couldn’t tell right from wrong. He exemplified a certain ‘narcissistic personality disorder and delusional disorder, grandiose type,’ which had intensified over the years, guise by guise, lie by lie, until the pitiable defendant was living in a ‘magical, insane world.’” The jury, however, rejected the insanity defense, which leads one to believe they thought he was smart and cunning enough to know right from wrong.
RJ: Have you ever met or seen interviews with any of his actual family from Germany? Did they have any idea he was posing as a Rockefeller?
Seal: Only two reporters, from The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald met and spoke with the family (which is now comprised only of his mother and brother) in Bergen, Germany, just after “Rockefeller” kidnapped his daughter. When I went to Bergen and called the brother, he said, “You don’t have to go any further – the answer is no,” and then hung up. However, as you’ll see in the book, many people in Germany knew the future imposter well – and were more than happy to talk.
RJ: Do you know if Gerhartsreiter has ever admitted to his lies?
Seal: As far as I can tell, he hasn’t admitted or explained anything. And, of course, he didn’t testify at either of his trials. The almost unbelievable exploits of the man who called himself Clark
Rockefeller are entertaining, as stories about imposters and con artists usually are. But the heart of the story is a tragedy. One person, John Sohus, is dead, apparently bludgeoned with a heavy object to the skull, probably stabbed six times, his remains wrapped in plastic bags and buried in a backyard; his wife, Linda, is still missing. And the imposter has been found guilty of John’s murder. John and Linda’s friends (and there are many) are relieved that justice has finally, after more than 30 years, been done. However, the young couple, just married and still in their 20s, vanished under extremely mysterious circumstances, as if caught in a plot straight out of Alfred Hitchcock, who, of course, was Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter’s, a.k.a. Clark Rockefeller’s, favorite director.
About the author of “The Man in the Rockefeller Suit”: Mark Seal is a writer of more than 35 years, first in Texas newspapers, then magazines, and is currently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. “The Man in the Rockefeller Suit” is the second nonfiction book that he has expanded from a story he wrote in Vanity Fair; the first was “Wildflower,” about the amazing life and brutal murder of the famed Kenyan naturalist and filmmaker Joan Root. He has served as a collaborator on more than 20 nonfiction books for major publishers.