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July 19th, 2011
11:52 PM ET

Crime & Punishment: 'Clark Rockefeller,' quick change artist

Editor's note: Tune in to AC360° Monday night beginning at 10pm ET for the next profile in this week's series about notorious con men.

(CNN) - They say pictures do not lie, but there are dozens, hundreds, or maybe even thousands of pictures of the man called Clark Rockefeller, and police say they all lied - because the smiling man in the photos was not whom he claimed to be.

"Well, he's a man who built his life on fiction!," says Mark Seal, author of The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter. Seal has had a long interest in con men posing as people they are not, but this case captivated him like no other. "He didn't just do this with one name or one persona," Seal says. "He did it repeatedly, time after time after time after time, in increasing grandiosity and in increasingly intelligent, learned, successful circles. That's what makes him different."

Indeed, unlike low-level grifters who latch onto unsuspecting working-class folks for a quick rip-off, then scurry away into the darkness, authorities say "Clark Rockefeller" was playing fast and loose with the rich and powerful across the country. His camouflage was often his brashness. The fact that he openly went to the most popular spots, courted headlines, and kept company with so many movers and shakers seems to have convinced many of those who were taken in, that he couldn't possibly be hiding anything.

His trail of deceit, investigators say, began back in 1978, when he was a teenager who came to the United States under his real name, Christian Gerhartsreiter. He was looking for a more exciting life than promised by his middle class upbringing, and found it in an oddball TV show Gilligan's Island.

Seal says, "He started watching that and apparently began emulating the eccentric East Coast millionaire, Thurston Howell III - mimicking his speech and action, and his way of life."

At first it just struck people near him as pretentious and peculiar, but soon police records indicate, his playacting took on a much more serious tone. He started what would turn into years of moving around and assuming different identities.

In Wisconsin, he became Chris Gerhart, a film student and ardent supporter of Ronald Reagan.

In California, he said he was Christopher Chichester, a member of the British royal family, hobnobbing with Hollywood insiders. For a time he was even in charge of a small local TV show.

In Connecticut, he was Chris Crowe, a former film producer. Under this persona, he actually landed a job in bond trading.

Like the main character in the film, "Catch Me If You Can," investigators say Gerhartsreiter was smart, quick-thinking, and he wove a careful fabric of lies that often intersected with just enough truth to elude detection. For example, Chris Crowe, the name he arrived with in Connecticut, appears to have been lifted directly from the credits of a successful television series.

So, armed with his elaborate frauds, authorities say he rubbed elbows with the rich and powerful, joined their clubs and churches, and then lived off of the generosity of people who thought he was the one with all the money and contacts. When they grew suspicious, he simply slipped away.

Then in New York in the early 90s, he took on his biggest role: Clark Rockefeller. He assembled an impressive art collection - almost all fakes - and he met a woman who was attracted to this charming, secretive, quirky alleged member of one of the country's most powerful families. (The Rockefellers, by the way, say he is in no way related to them.)

How did she fall for him? "He was entertaining, he was educated…seemingly," Seal says. "He was fun to be around. He knew a little bit about everything."

They married, had a daughter, and the child became the center of his life. So much so that when the couple divorced after twelve years, and his wife got custody, he kidnapped the girl from a Boston street.

"This man had built a life on lies," Seal says, "and the only true thing in his life was his love for his daughter, and that's what blew the lid off of a 30-year con."

Gerhartsreiter and the girl were quickly tracked to a place in Baltimore where he was already building yet another alias - this time as a ship captain.

He was convicted of the kidnapping, but his troubles were just beginning. As his trail of deception was revealed, authorities in California realized he was the man they'd been hunting in a case involving a couple that had disappeared. Turns out, the couple had been involved with the long gone, royal Christopher Chichester.

Gerhartsreiter has pleaded not guilty to a charge of murder, and he sits in jail today - one man with many pasts, awaiting trial.

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