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.

2 thoughts on “The international man of mystery

  • August 8, 2008 at 8:38 am
    Permalink

    Something’s wrong with the HTML around your link.

    • August 9, 2008 at 8:29 pm
      Permalink

      Somehow I lost my original link. Either I didn’t enter it, or I fat-fingered the syntax and then the software lost it. I replaced it with a link with a newer, better story. Several new details surfaced Friday.

      The detail that bothers me the most: He moved to Wisconsin, got married, and then left the next day. The woman divorced him 11 years later. The Telegraph didn’t have that detail but it’s in the Boston papers.

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