Pasadena Star-News Editor Frank Girardot pulls the mask off ‘Clark Rockefeller’ in ‘Name Dropper’
By Carl Kozlowski 03/28/2013
Everyone has at least one dark secret. For many, it’s a rather simple one — a bad temper, an addiction, a fetish that is too embarrassing to tell anyone about.
But there are some people whose entire lives are one big secret, as they create lie after lie to hide their true identity until they practically don’t exist anymore. Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter is one of those people, a man who created multiple personas as a means of scamming his way through upper-crust society until he was brought down on kidnapping charges.
Even worse, Gerhartsreiter — who was most famously known under the alias Clark Rockefeller, claiming to be a member of one of America’s wealthiest families — is currently on trial in Los Angeles for the 1985 murder of San Marino resident Jonathan Sohus. His story is both fascinating and frustrating to behold, but local readers are lucky that Pasadena Star-News Metro Editor Frank Girardot has been helping make sense of it all for well over a decade.
Girardot has been giving his readers a front-row look at the daily dynamics of the trial, and has just released a new book about the case titled, “Name Dropper: Investigating the Clark Rockefeller Mystery.” Even for a man who thought he had seen the underbelly of society’s upper crust while covering the OJ Simpson trial, the Gerhartsreiter case has left him consistently surprised.
“OJ’s case was special because it had celebrity, a colorful lawyer in Johnny Cochran, all that, plus the high-speed chase, which made it a uniquely LA story,” says Girardot. “This is a lot more subtle, about human beings and our willingness to let people into our lives who we don’t really know. As Clark Rockefeller, Gerhartsreiter was easily accepted into people’s lives and high economic social status without having to prove he ever made one dollar of his own ever in his life.”
Indeed, Gerhartsreiter proved adept at moving among the upper strata of American society ever since coming to America as a teenager. He entered the country in 1979 under the false pretenses that a California couple had invited him to be a foreign exchange student and spent the next decade using a stream of aliases to blend into upper-class circles.
His biggest opportunity in those heady days came when he was invited to live in the guest house of Sohus and his wife Didi, who disappeared at the same time as Jonathan but, unlike her husband, has never been found. During his time there, the couple disappeared and Gerhartsreiter claimed that they had given him permission to use their home as well.
Yet Gerhartsreiter later abruptly disappeared himself, and Jonathan Sohus’ body was discovered in his own backyard in 1994. The crafty con artist might have never been found nor associated with the Sohus’ disappearance if he hadn’t been convicted of kidnapping his own 7-year-old daughter in 2007 amid a nasty custody battle.
Forced into a trial in Boston that drew national attention because of his claim to be a Rockefeller, his world of lies fell apart. He was not only convicted of charges, including parental kidnapping in 2009, but was eventually charged with Jonathan Sohus’ murder after Girardot and fellow Star-News reporter Nathan McIntire wrote a 2008 story linking the Sohus disappearance to Clark Rockefeller.
“You have to realize that the Sohus murder and bone discovery was before the public had the Internet,” says Girardot. “Even now, if you meet somebody outside of journalism, do you Google them or do a credit check? You might Google, but in 1994 you couldn’t do that, and most of us don’t accept people at face value.
“This guy had enough air of mystery about him so they didn’t ask him all those questions,” Girardot continues. “Let’s face it, rich people are weird, odd, and he took advantage of that. Their ideas that they think people would say they’d see the con, but most of us in reality would never see a con coming.”
Even as the trial finally got under way this month after five years of working its way through the judicial system, mysterious factors remain. Girardot notes that Gerhartsreiter has “the best defense Boston money can buy,” with a cost of $4 million so far, but that no one can understand how it’s being paid.
Additionally, the LA County prosecutors are trying the case without attempting to assess a motive, which is an extremely rare approach. Yet, with the trial expected to last at least another four weeks, with around 100 witnesses and 500 exhibits to be displayed by the end, Girardot is happy to note that he will not only entice his readers with daily updates in the Star-News, but will likely be able to add several chapters to a new edition of the book when the verdict is reached.
“It’ll be a weight off my shoulders when I’m done, but on this one, I’d set goals of how many words to reach,” says Girardot. “I would envision it like running a marathon. When you’re done, you tie all the loose ends up, and it’s an exhilarating moment. It’s far more exhilarating to finish than anything else.”