BOSTON (Reuters) - When a 12-day international manhunt ended with the arrest of a middle-aged man in Baltimore for kidnapping his 7-year-old daughter, it seemed like another father had gone too far after a messy divorce.
But as prosecutors build the case against the 48-year-old man being held in a Boston jail, the details of his life have unfolded like a plot from one of Patricia Highsmith’s “Ripley” novels, complete with high-society cons and murder.
In Boston, he passed himself off as Clark Rockefeller, a charming millionaire with ties to a famous New York oil dynasty. In California, he became Christopher Chichester, a South African. On Wall Street, he was Christopher Crowe.
Prosecutors believe he was raised in Germany, spent three decades in America as a con man, worked on Wall Street, and was married twice. He is also being investigated in the suspected murder of a California couple.
His wife of 12 years, Sandra Boss, a partner with global management consultants McKinsey & Co in London, accused him of lying about being a Rockefeller in divorce proceedings in December and won custody of their daughter after he refused to provide proof of his identity, Boston authorities say.
“One of the few things we know for sure is this defendant’s true name is not Clark Rockefeller,” said Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley’s spokesman, Jake Wark, of the slight man with thinning red hair and thick-rimmed glasses.
“We’ve learned from interviews and from other investigative avenues that he’s very shrewd, a very skilled manipulator. That’s he’s able to ingratiate himself with people sometimes at the upper ranks of society,” he added.
Germany’s Foreign Ministry is working with U.S. authorities on the case, a foreign ministry spokesman in Berlin said.
His lawyer says his client is a Rockefeller. But Fraser Seitel, a spokesman for the Rockefeller family, says there is no Clark Rockefeller in the dynasty’s genealogy.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office deputy Derrick Thompson told reporters this week he believes “Clark Rockefeller” is in fact German native Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter — a man who used the alias Christopher Chichester in the 1980s.
Los Angeles authorities want to question Rockefeller in the presumed murders of John and Linda Sohus, a newlywed couple who disappeared in 1985 around when he was a tenant in the guest house of their San Marino, California, home.
Construction workers digging a pool in the yard unearthed several trashbags of human remains in 1994. Authorities suspect, but never proved, they were those of John Sohus. No trace of Linda was ever found. No one has been charged in that case, and investigators are requesting new forensic tests.
Christopher Chichester was the focus of the investigation at the time, but he disappeared before he was ever questioned. His recent fingerprints matched prints on a license application under a different name that has been linked to the Sohus case.
A former friend, Dana Farrar, told The Boston Globe that she remembers a freshly dug pit in the yard as she drank iced tea with Rockefeller on the porch of his San Marino guesthouse in 1985. He told her he was having plumbing problems.
He resurfaced three years later in Connecticut trying to sell a pickup truck that belonged to John Sohus and using the alias Christopher Crowe, a name he also used on a stockbroker application. He was reported to police after he could not produce the truck’s paperwork.
His lawyer, Stephen Hrones, said Rockefeller remembers the couple but didn’t know them very well. “He just knows that one day they weren’t there. He doesn’t know where they went or why they left,” he said in an interview.
He said he used the alias Christopher Chichester in California because it seemed like a good stage name and he aspired to be an actor in Hollywood.
Hrones said he also doesn’t recall any upbringing in Germany or the Bavarian municipality of Siegsdorf. That’s where he is believed to have been born in 1961, according to Alexander Gerhartsreiter, who has told media outlets that he is the man’s brother. Others in Germany also remember him.
“In Germany, he was a one-off, a bit crazy, but he was no criminal before he left,” said Irene Willinger, who said she knew Rockefeller as Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter before he departed their village at age 17 and never returned.
Rockefeller has said little, telling police he doesn’t remember much of his early life. Those who met him recall an eccentric intellectual with rarefied interests, a distinguished pedigree and a privileged air. Others remember a schemer with an ambiguous accent.
“He was very articulate, a well spoken guy, certainly quirky,” said Dan Shapiro, who leased his former cottage on the wealthy island of Nantucket to Rockefeller and Boss. The two lived in New England before later moving to London.
He said Rockefeller told him he was a scientist with a degree from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology who ran a business based on magnetic-propulsion space technology near Plattsburgh, New York.
“He said he had a company in upstate New York that had thousands of square feet of facilities and that someone had made an offer to buy it for $4 billion, and he refused it.”
He said the man made unusual overtures while renting his cottage in the winter off-season, including raising his own rent by a few hundred dollars a month and offering to do work on the premises at his own expense. He always maintained that he was a member of the Rockefeller family.
Reporting by Jason Szep; Additional reporting by David Milliken in Berlin; Editing by Mark Egan and Eddie Evans