The international man of mystery

I’ve been following the Clark Rockefeller story with a lot of interest, perhaps because I’m a parent now, and perhaps because the early news stories kind of made it sound like I should know who he was, although I’d never heard of him before.

Now that the new details are out there, I don’t feel nearly so bad now. Even the people who knew him well didn’t know the half of it.The Telegraph has a good rundown on the current theory about the man. Personally, I think it’ll make a great book and perhaps a movie someday.

The story basically goes like this. Last week, an eccentric and mysterious Boston millionaire disappeared with his daughter during a custody visit. Rumors about their whereabouts spread quickly, including the Caribbean, but the two were eventually found in Baltimore, in an apartment he had recently purchased.

There was no trace of the man prior to 1991. The famous Nelson Rockefeller had a son named Michael Clark Rockefeller, and this Clark Rockefeller seemed to want people to think he either was that person or somehow related to him, but Michael Clark Rockefeller died in 1961 at the age of 23.

As people around the country followed the story, they started noticing this man looked familiar, but they didn’t know him as Clark Rockefeller. But they knew various other people who certainly looked and acted a lot like this Clark Rockefeller, and like him, they would just appear and vanish mysteriously.

Rockefeller appeared in New York in 1991. He never said much about his background, but was well spoken, appeared to be highly intelligent and educated, and could converse with authority on various subject matters. He soon talked his way into high society circles, participated in community groups, and gained influence, particularly in New England, where he settled with his wife, Sandra Boss, an ivy league graduate and wealthy executive. They had a daughter, and he played stay-at-home dad while she earned $1.4 million a year. They divorced in 2007, partly because she believed he might not be what he said he was. Unable to produce any kind of government-issued identification, he didn’t put up much of a fight in the divorce proceedings.

No marriage certificate was ever filed. I wonder if this could cause legal problems for Rockefeller now. After all, if the marriage was never legal, why is there need for a divorce and a settlement? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The story seems to begin around 1979 or 1980. A German teenager named Christian Gerhartsreiter or Christian Gerhart Streiter met an American and exchanged addresses. The American said to look him up if he was ever on this side of the Atlantic. Surprisingly, he showed up on their doorstep in Connecticut not long afterward. Unable to accommodate him, they put an ad in the paper. A nearby family who had sponsored a number of exchange students answered.

The young German attended school but seemed put off by a middle class lifestyle. The people who knew Streiter remember him as condescending and arrogant, yet charming. He claimed an elite background, yet there is some indication that his father actually painted houses for a living.

He also could creep people out, so he lived with several different people during the school year, although he remained in touch occasionally with his first host family. After a year of school in the United States, he headed west, first to Minnesota, then to California, where he said he was using the name Christopher Crowe.

In the early 1980s, a man named Christopher Chichester appeared in high society circles in California. Claiming to be British, he charmed his way into belonging. During this time, it appears Chichester applied for a stockbroker’s license and perhaps a driver’s license as well. The fingerprints he provided would prove interesting a few years later.

In February 1985, Chichester’s landlords disappeared. A couple of months later, he disappeared as well. Although Chichester wasn’t a suspect, the authorities wanted to speak with him.

In 1988, a man identifying himself as Christopher Crowe surfaced in Connecticut, where he attempted to sell a truck belonging to John Sohus, the landlord who had vanished back in California. Crowe couldn’t produce the paperwork for the truck, so the potential buyer alerted police. But Crowe disappeared again.

In 1994, human remains turned up on the former Sohus property. Authorities believed they had found John Sohus, although his wife has never been found. Authorities still wanted to question Chichester, who they described as a con man who would mingle in social circles and make friends with wealthy, influential people.

But it was 13 years before any trace of Chichester appeared again.

In August 2007, after Baltimore police arrested Clark Rockefeller, people in California noticed that Rockefeller bore a striking resemblance to Christopher Chichester and started calling police. After Rockefeller was fingerprinted, California authorities checked the prints against the prints provided by Chichester more than two decades earlier. They seemed to match.

Rockefeller has said little. Through his attorney, he says that he has little or no memory prior to his marriage in 1995, that as far as he knows his name is Rockefeller, and he most definitely isn’t Christopher Chichester. Other than that, he refuses to stay anything. He sits in a cell, held without bail, because prosecutors don’t believe any amount of money will guarantee he will show up for trial.

And investigators don’t buy the memory story. While they’re giving limited information to the press, new details about Clark Rockefeller’s possible past appear every few hours.

Some questions certainly remain. Early on, some people observed Clark Rockefeller had the distinctive Rockefeller nose, saying it was either genuine or a very good copy. Is the resemblance coincidental? Did someone note once that he looked like a Rockefeller, planting the idea of a new identity in this man’s mind? Or did the former Christopher Chichester decide to take on the Rockefeller identity and have plastic surgery in the late 1980s or early 1990s to make the claim look more believable?

And while it’s possible to track the movements of the various aliases from New England to California and back from 1981 to 1985 to 1988 to 1991, what happened in those gaps?

And perhaps most chillingly, if he wasn’t a suspect in 1985, why did Christopher Chichester flee? If he had nothing to hide, why wouldn’t he answer investigators’ questions?

Some may wonder how a mediocre student could display such knowledge of travel and physics, among other subjects, but it looks like this guy has a fondness for libraries and hasn’t had a job in 28 years. I’m guessing if he spent a significant part of the day in libraries with his nose in books while everyone else is at work, he could become conversant in pretty much anything.

Of course I also wonder how he managed to travel the country and keep up appearances for nearly a decade and a half without a job. Travel and housing cost money, and how did he finance his expensive taste in clothes? Marrying a millionaire certainly helped during the last 12 years, but where did he find the money to woo her?

This story is only going to get better. But I do hope there are no more literal skeletons involved.

02/14/2001

More from across the Big Pond. I got this from Chris Miller, one of my editors at Computer Shopper UK, yesterday. Always good to hear from him because he makes me think, even though we rarely agree about anything but magazine design.

Hi Dave

I’ve been looking at the web page and I’m glad you like the ‘Window cleaner’ illustration from the new issue – much better than the blue blobs. Also glad you are holding up Shopper UK as a paragon of design. Thanks.

I shall avoid the subject of John Ashcroft, whom you appear to revere for all the wrong reasons. What I really want to say is that I think you need to prioritise your outrage. A ‘sick, sick society’ is not one where a high school can produce a play about rape, but one where children are shot and killed in schoolyards every day. The purpose of art is sometimes to shock – insecurity and violence are perfectly valid themes to explore. And why tell a story about secure, confident people who know exactly what they are doing? Where’s the drama in that? If that were all that was allowed, there would be no “Romeo and Juliet”, no “Jane Eyre”, no “Jude the Obscure”, no “Psycho” – cultural landmarks all.

Guns, however, are a serious social problem in your country which no-one seems to want to do anything about because of some semi-mythological “constitutional right” – which is, if I may speak frankly, bulls–t. I’m tired of the excuses everybody uses – guns mean massive profits and no-one, except maybe a few Ivy League intellectuals and northern-California hippies, is really serious about banning them. This despite Columbine, the disgruntled postal workers, the dot com rage and countless other pointless and avoidable deaths.

High school plays are not the scourge of American society.

Cheers now
Chris

I think you take me for having oversimplified far more than I have. Inappropriate high school plays are mostly a symptom of the problem–I won’t say they don’t cause problems, but no, we won’t solve all our social ills by toning down our school plays or our television. But it wouldn’t hurt anything either.

Likewise, getting rid of all our guns won’t eliminate all our violence. Guns are outlawed in Britain, but does anyone really believe the IRA doesn’t have guns? But there are other, more creative and more effective ways to kill people and blow things up than to use guns, and you can do it with regular, perfectly legal household items, as the IRA has so effectively demonstrated over the years.

It’s not like massacres happen every day in the United States. Once or twice a year, someone’s caught planning one, like earlier this week, and on the occasional God-forsaken day, an event like Columbine happens.

But banning handguns is a very superficial solution to a bigger problem–no less superficial than banning school plays or a particular television show. Banning guns won’t keep them out of the hands of criminals. Even if it would, desperate or very angry people would commit their crimes with knives or other weapons, just as they did before guns were reliable. The irrefutable fact is that in the handful of states that have gone the opposite extreme and enacted concealed weapons laws, crime has gone down. Social engineers HATE to talk about that because it goes beyond all the hip, chic theories of the day. So a guy walks into McDonald’s and starts shooting. He’s in control. But then some gun-totin’ cowboy (to use the popular image of Americans) whips out his gun and from behind the cover of a table, starts shooting back. The odds are suddenly changed. Can the citizen with the gun prevent anyone from getting hurt? No. But he greatly increases the probability of the one person in the building who deserves to die in such situations (the armed gunman) of sustaining bodily harm of some sort, and greatly decreases the number of potential casualties. And what if there are two or three snipers? The out-of-control situation gets back under control real quick, with minimal harm.

You don’t hear of these situations often because 1) they don’t happen very often and 2) the hard left-leaning press hates these stories.

But remember, this works in the United States but sounds like insanity in Europe because of the differences in our culture. In Europe, private ownership of weapons was a threat to the government, so it generally didn’t happen. In the Americas, weapons were absolutely vital to protect yourself on the frontier–there were hostile animals out there, and yes, hostile people. As the frontier pushed west, weapons were less essential, but they didn’t become unnecessary. Then we gained independence, and the government favored private ownership of guns early on, partly because a citizens’ militia meant there was little need for a standing army, which saved tax dollars, which kept the citizens happy because they hated taxes. That didn’t last, but guns remained a necessity in the west for about a century. To a degree, they still are a necessity in some segments of our society–there are still predators out there that threaten your livestock. Guns are part of our culture, and you won’t transplant overnight the disarmed European culture that formed over a timeframe of centuries to the United States. But the Wild West approach still works here.

But this, too, is a symptom. The greater problem is that we’ve lost our moral compass. OK, so you don’t like my religion. Demonstrate to me that a society that says it’s OK to kill, OK to cheat on your spouse, OK to steal, OK to disrespect your parents, and OK to lie can thrive. Find me one. You won’t.

Whether you like the religion or not, you can’t deny that its set of morals just plain works. But so few teach right and wrong anymore–now you just do what feels good. It feels good to cheat on your wife, so you should do it. You’re liberated. OK. So how is that different from me deciding it feels good to kill my former neighbor who caused me so much grief? Or what about my current neighbor’s nice black BMW? Wouldn’t that be a much nicer ride than my Dodge Neon? Why not steal that? If it feels good, I should do it, right?

Personally, I fail to see the difference.

So what’s the matter here? We’ve got a very self-centered society, interested in very little other than individual pleasure. So go screw around, it’s fun. The eventual result of that is kids. That’s OK, they’re fun too when they’re winning trophies and doing good. Just don’t get in my way. Here’s the remote. Here’s a video game. Have fun. Don’t bother me. And the kids grow up with parents (or a parent) respecting no one but themselves, and they learn that behavior.

So the kids grow up. Their most basic needs of food and clothing and shelter are being met. Usually. But their emotional needs aren’t. Their parents aren’t really there for them. So they don’t mature properly. They don’t exactly learn right and wrong. Their parents don’t model it for them, and they sure aren’t being taught it in school. Growing up is tough. I remember. I was a smart kid, too smart for my own good maybe, and yeah, it made me unpopular. A lot of people didn’t like it. Plus I wasn’t a big guy. I’m 5’9″, 140 pounds now. (Below average height and below average weight, for the benefit of those on the metric system.) At 14, I was 5’4″, not even 100 pounds. I was an easy target. I got in my share of fights, and I usually didn’t win. For one, the bully was almost always bigger than me. For another, I was always outnumbered anyway. Growing up too smart can be as bad as growing up the wrong race. F. Scott Fitzgerald got it right in The Great Gatsby, when his character Daisy said, after her daughter was born, “All right, I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

Actually, he got it half right. The best thing a guy can be in this world is a beautiful little fool, or better yet, a big hulking fool. People like dumb, beautiful people, because they’re good to look at and they’re non-threatening.

I’ll be brutally blunt: I grew up with a lot of jackasses, and frankly, there were times that I thought the world would have been a much better place if someone brought a gun to school and pumped some lead into their ugly faces. There. I said it.

When I read about the Columbine killers, it resonated with me. I understood those guys completely. One of them was the brains of the outfit. The other was a follower, pure and simple. But I understood how they felt, I understood (and even dug) the music they listened to, and for a time I even dressed like those two did. One of my former classmates even told me after the event, “Those two guys remind me of you.” After all, I used to run around in a black trenchcoat, black t-shirt and black jeans and combat boots, looking gloomy and listening to Joy Division and The Sisters of Mercy.

And don’t get me wrong. My dad had guns. My dad had a lot of guns. He kept the really big stuff locked up, but he had handguns stashed. There was a Derringer he kept in his sock drawer. He had another gun he kept stashed inside the couch in the basement. For all I know he had others. He taught me how to shoot the Derringer. He also taught me how to shoot a .22-calibre rifle. I wasn’t very good, but at close range you don’t have to be.

So why didn’t I turn into one of those guys? My dad taught me to respect human life. Dad was a doctor. Dad even treated a couple of guys on death row. There was a guy who used to hire drifters to steal cattle, then sell them quickly. Then he’d kill them to eliminate the evidence (and cheat them out of their share of the money). I don’t remember how many times he did this. My dad had a brief encounter with him while he was getting an x-ray. They exchanged words, and it wasn’t exactly nice. “Meanest sonofabitch I ever met,” he recalled. I asked him why he treated him, especially seeing as they were going to kill him anyway. Know what he said? He said it wasn’t his job to kill him. It was his job to make sure he had the same quality of life (or as close to it) as anyone else. Killing the man was the state’s job, if it ever got around to it.

So if my dad could respect the life of this man, who by the account of everyone who ever met him wasn’t worth the oxygen he breathed over the course of a day, then shouldn’t I respect the lives of the people at school?

Dad (and Mom too) taught me right and wrong. And they didn’t ignore me, they disciplined me when I stepped out of line. The worst happened when I was 2 or 3. I was being the epitome of brat, and making matters worse, we were guests at a family friend’s house. My mom took me out to the garage, partly to figure out what to do with me. Well, it was March or so, so it wasn’t too cold in there, and it wasn’t too hot, and there was absolutely nothing to do in there either, so she found a lawn chair and told me I had to sit there until I decided to act civilized. Then she went back in the house. Our host asked, “Where’s David?” and my mom told her. After about fifteen minutes, she came back out and asked if I could act civil. I said yes.

That was the most trouble I was ever in. Yes, I got spanked a few times (but it was a very few), and I got yelled at a few times. But with my parents, discipline was consistent, and it was swift. And because it was those things, it was rare–I didn’t step out of line much.

I don’t think the idea that if I were to commit a crime, I might be able to beat the system ever occurred to me until I was 18 or 19. If I didn’t beat the system at home or at school, why should I expect to be able to beat the government?

So no, I never thought of killing my antagonizers. And that’s fine. They got theirs. My biggest antagonizer never finished school. At 17, his parents kicked him out of the house. He drifted around a couple of years, living out of a van and the occasional cheap motel, then finally settled down. At age 21, he was working in a restaurant, doing the same job as a lot of 17-year-olds. He’d be 27 now, and if there’s anything more pathetic than a 14-year-old loser, it’s a 27-year-old loser, and anyone who knew us both would see it now.

Meanwhile, I kept working, doing my best at what I was good at, doing my best to ignore the taunts, and a funny thing happened. At age 17, the taunts stopped. People didn’t mess with the seniors–we were the oldest people in the school besides the teachers. We’d paid our dues. We earned our respect. And the seniors didn’t mess with each other. Being smart became almost… admirable. In college, that was even more so. And get out into the professional world, and it’s even more so. The things that people made fun of you for in school raise eyebrows now. I’m not at the pinnacle of success, but I have everything I want or I can get it.

So, coming back around again… It starts at home. It starts with the family paying attention to its members, and doing its duty. Morals may not be any fun, but an immoral society is even less fun. Certain things like life, dignity, and personal property have to be honored absolutely. Do these things, and you won’t come out all bad. The occasional bad apple will still slip through, but it’ll be an oddity, and a whole lot easier to deal with.

Do these things, one family at a time, and I don’t care what culture you’re in, you won’t go wrong. The whole culture will benefit, with or without guns, with or without questionable forms of entertainment.

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