|Gerhartsreiter faces Calif. case.|
Not Rockefeller, he told FBI, but a ‘pathetic nothing’
Clark Rockefeller slumped in a chair in the interview room of an FBI office in Baltimore, his left wrist chained to a metal bar, and stared glumly at his interrogators.
Why, they asked, had he lied about places he never visited, jobs he never held, and names that were not his?
He shrugged, defeated. “If you’re born short,’’ he said, “you want to be bigger.’’
The August 2008 interview, obtained by the Globe, offers new insights into the motivations of the German con artist who was born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter but assumed many false identities over his lifetime as he charmed his way into society circles in Boston, New York, and California. It was during the five-hour interrogation, after his capture for kidnapping his 7-year-old daughter, that Gerhartsreiter dropped his pretense and admitted he was not a Rockefeller, but a “pathetic nothing.’’
This week, California prosecutors will attempt to reveal even more about his past as they lay out their case for first-degree murder against Gerhartsreiter, who is accused of killing his landlady’s son in 1985, then burying him in the backyard of the San Marino property where both men lived. Gerhartsreiter has said he is innocent.
More than 35 witnesses, including some of the well-heeled friends Gerhartsreiter made when he was living in San Marino as Christopher Chichester, are expected to testify for the prosecution and provide insights into a man who claimed he came from English aristocracy and was the heir to a European estate.
But during that 2008 interview in Baltimore, a different figure emerged: a sad, insecure man, who said he grew up with no advantages and had achieved nothing in his life with the exception of raising his daughter, Reigh.
“She is the only thing that matters in my life,’’ he said. “I’ve always been poor. I’ve never had anything.’’
His height, 5 foot 6 inches, was a constant theme throughout the interview and one of the explanations he gave for his crushing low self-esteem.
Gerhartsreiter had lived in San Marino in the early 1980s, staying in the guest house of Didi Sohus, an aging alcoholic who lived with her son John and his wife, Linda.
John Sohus was a shy 27-year-old computer programmer who adored science fiction. A 1976 San Marino High School graduate, he included an optimistic quote underneath a yearbook picture of him with shaggy hair and thick glasses.
“When you see others falling around you,’’ he wrote, “and you think the whole world is crazy, cheer up, life can’t be that bad.’’
John Sohus’s remains were found in 1994 by workers digging up the backyard for a pool.
His wife was last seen alive in February 1985. Police believe she is dead, though her body was never found, and Gerhartsreiter has not been charged in connection with her disappearance. Investigators have theorized that Gerhartsreiter wanted the couple out of the way so he could obtain the assets that Sohus stood to inherit from his mother.
Jann Eldnor, a Swedish barber who used to cut Gerhartsreiter’s hair and has been called to testify this week, said Gerhartsreiter often complained of his dislike for Sohus.
Eldnor, who is 67, said a prosecutor and a detective with the Los Angeles County sheriff’s office barged into his barbershop just before Christmas and issued him the subpoena.
“They scared my customer,’’ Eldnor recalled. “He just paid me and ran off.’’
With the hearing set to begin tomorrow, the people of San Marino, a wealthy city of about 15,000, are once again talking about the German fabulist, said Eldnor, who is curious to see his old customer again.
“It will be interesting when the real thing starts, to see if he can really recognize us, those who he knew back then,’’ he said.
During the Baltimore interview, Gerhartsreiter resisted attempts to draw out his real identity and said his childhood was a “total, utter blank.’’
“I always made a point of forgetting the past,’’ he said. “Who cares? What’s the difference? Who cares who your grandfather was? Why look back to things that may not have been pleasant?’’
He talked of a man he knew in New York who often bragged that he came from an old blue-blood family.
“But he was kind of a loser, kind of a nothing, kind of a pathetic nothing, nobody,’’ he said. “Not much unlike me.’’
One of the investigators asked why he told his friends in Boston that he had traveled all over the world, when he had no passport and had not left the United States in years.
“I wanted to make myself more interesting,’’ he said, dropping his head. “I’m sorry.’’
Gerhartsreiter said his former wife, Sandra Boss, a partner at the management consulting firm McKinsey and Company, relished the Rockefeller name and prodded him to tell people he was a Harvard physicist. But he acknowledged that he liked playing the part, and the confidence it gave him.
“Who wouldn’t want to be a Harvard physicist? It sounds darned great,’’ he said. “What’s the difference? It’s not hurting anybody . . . . It is fun to shoot off your mouth, especially if everyone believes you.’’
The Rockefeller name, he said, gave him access to exclusive clubs and helped him meet important people.
“Try the name sometime,’’ he said to the investigators, smiling a little. “It does work wonders. Get invited to a lot of parties.’’
Boss did not return a phone call and an e-mail seeking comment. She testified during the kidnapping trial that she was as deceived as everyone else by her husband.
Gerhartsreiter’s Boston-based lawyers have said that their client’s deceitfulness does not make him guilty of murder.
“He has always maintained his innocence and he has been steadfast in his innocence,’’ said Jeffrey Denner, his attorney.
The hearing is expected to last at least six days. At the end, a judge will decide whether prosecutors have established enough probable cause to send the case to trial. It is rare for a judge in Los Angeles County to decide a case should not go forward, according to legal specialists.
Still, the hearing will be a good opportunity for the defense to measure the strength of the prosecution’s case and cross-examine witnesses whom they have been unable to interview.
“We know that it’s a highly circumstantial case,’’ said Brad Bailey, Gerhartsreiter’s other lawyer. “These hearings become the public’s first exposure to some of the details in the state’s case. Obviously, they’re going to lead with what they consider their best and their strongest evidence.’’
A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles prosecutor’s office said she could not comment on the evidence that will be presented.
During the 2008 interview, Gerhartsreiter said nothing about the Sohuses or his time in California. By the end of the interrogation, the investigators, who had begun the interview with soft, almost nurturing questions, had grown impatient.
They told him his days of lying were over. Authorities would find out who he was and what he was trying to hide, they said.
“The real you did something that is going to get the real you into a whole hell of a lot of trouble,’’ one of the investigators said.
Gerhartsreiter scratched his head, leaned forward, and slapped the table in resignation.
“God, I wish I could tell you more,’’ he sighed. “I just wish I could tell you what you want to know. . . . I don’t have the answer.’’
Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.