L.A. County Seeks Extradition of Alleged Con Man
Everything about Christopher Reyes seemed to spell fast living and easy money: He drove a Ferrari, hung out with actor Mickey Rourke and lived at the Regent Beverly Wilshire.
Lee Baca, when he was a candidate for sheriff, called him “The Count” and assured advisors that Reyes would pump Hollywood dollars into his campaign.
But Christopher Reyes was actually Christopher Rocancourt, a petty thief turned big-time swindler, a smooth-talking bon vivant with a hint of street toughness and a dash of danger, former associates say.
One Los Angeles woman who crossed him found a decapitated mouse in her mailbox. When he fled Los Angeles in 1999 to escape passport fraud and gun charges, officials say, he had defrauded a dozen or more people, mostly rich or famous. But he is expected to return soon, this time in handcuffs, not French cuffs.
Los Angeles is one of three U.S. jurisdictions awaiting his extradition from Canada, where he is scheduled to be sentenced June 14 for defrauding a businessman of more than $100,000. Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley wants to be first in line because his office played the key role in exposing Rocancourt.
“He’s a con man, and he found his niche and exploited it to the fullest,” Cooley said.
In New York, the U.S. attorney’s office wants him for allegedly posing as a wealthy entertainment executive and luring an unnamed Los Angeles businesswoman across state lines to Manhattan so he could cheat her out of about $100,000. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Authorities in Suffolk County, N.Y., want him on charges of bilking more than $200,000 from residents, false impersonation and leaving unpaid hotel bills. They say he posed there as Christopher Rockefeller--despite having a thick French accent.
Although Los Angeles authorities say he may have cheated people out of more than $1.5 million, many victims “would not come forward,” said George Mueller, an investigator with the district attorney’s office.
He said Rocancourt chose his victims well. Promising mouth-watering profits, he allegedly grifted people rich enough to want to avoid embarrassment or complications. His panache could be overwhelming, say those who met him.
“He talked a good game,” said Peter O’Colmain, general manager of the Regent Beverly Wilshire, where he skipped out on a $60,000 bill. “He told us he was the son of [fashion designer] Oscar de la Renta.”
Rocancourt, a native of France, is a boyish-looking 34, with dark hair, soft features and a nonchalant slouch. His wife, Pia Reyes, is an actress and a 1988 Playboy Playmate of the Month.
Rocancourt declined comment for this story. In previous interviews, he has shown disdain for those who fell for his charades.
He has described his deals not as thefts but as broken promises to repay money willingly given.
His confidence and flair gave him credibility and the aura of success. Workers at upscale restaurants and Rodeo Drive boutiques were at his beck and call, said one alleged victim.
“If the Beverly Wilshire gave him a whole floor [actually, it was a three-bedroom suite], he must be very important,” said Buddy Ochoa, a movie stand-in who said he lost $10,000 to Rocancourt in 1997.
“I thought the hotel must have checked him out. I mean this guy was dressed in Armani everyday.” Ochoa said Rocancourt once took him to a jewelry store on Rodeo Drive to show him a gold block he claimed to have bought for $1.5 million. “They closed the store for me,” Ochoa said.
When Ochoa asked about his business, Rocancourt replied: “I make money for people.”
Born in the village of Honfleur on the Normandy coast, Rocancourt lived what he has described as a childhood of misery, part of it in an orphanage with 250 others. His grifter apprenticeship began in Paris in the late 1980s.
By 1994, he had served four short prison stints in France on various swindling and counterfeiting charges, according to court records. He moved to Southern California in 1995.
Rocancourt soon began attracting quick-profit dreamers; Ochoa was the only one willing to talk.
Ochoa said Rocancourt told him he wanted to help him with his financial problems by giving him a chance to invest in a deal in Japan.
Rocancourt promised to quadruple Ochoa’s investment in a few weeks. He wanted cash, not a check, and said he needed it quickly. A bigger catch, prosecutors said, was Shahram Moussazadeh, owner of several upscale clothing boutiques, including Iceberg on North Rodeo Drive and Sir Oliver on Beverly Boulevard. Rocancourt boasted he was part owner of both, according to court papers.
Moussazadeh doled out more than $250,000 in cash, clothing and cars to Rocancourt in late 1996 and early 1997, Mueller said.
He said a search of Rocancourt’s Regent Beverly Wilshire suite in 1997 turned up a list of his debts to Moussazadeh. Among them: $89,000 for a Ferrari, $20,000 for a Bentley, tens of thousands of dollars in clothing and more than $100,000 cash.
Moussazadeh did not answer Times requests for an interview.
In one deal, Rocancourt convinced Moussazadeh that he and singer Jermaine Jackson, a brother of Michael Jackson, were going to produce Michael Jackson perfumes, name them after his hits such as “Thriller” and “Bad” and market them at the clothier’s stores, according to court records.
Jermaine Jackson could not be reached for comment, but the perfume deal eventually fell through, Mueller said.
Other victims, according to court records and interviews, include:
* French pop singer Michel Polnareff, who lost $250,000 trying to obtain a gun permit through Rocancourt.
* Businesswoman Amanda Thayer, who rents movie props to studios and gave Rocancourt, then posing as an entertainment executive, $100,000 for a $4.2-million business loan he promised her.
She declined to discuss the deal, but sources identified her as the unnamed victim in the U.S. attorney’s case in New York.
* Lillian Pinho of Sunland, who filed a police report about finding the decapitated mouse in her mailbox and gave him $100,000 to invest in a business. Rocancourt also once warned that she “better not snitch on me or you will take a very long nap,” Pinho testified in a Los Angeles Superior Court hearing.
She never got her money back.
The beginning of the end for Rocancourt came in April 1997 when his beefy Algerian bodyguard, Ali Amghar, went to authorities with a bizarre story.
He told of Rocancourt paying $2,000 for a fake passport, of his boasts of sneaking diamonds into the U.S. from Zaire and about a stash of hand grenades Amghar said he found in a heater at an apartment Rocancourt rented in Hollywood.
“I thought I was in big trouble,” Amghar said, explaining why he reported his employer. “So I called him and told him I am gone.”
Mueller said he never found the hand grenades or enough evidence of diamond smuggling to seek charges.
But he said Amghar’s information played a key role in obtaining a warrant to search Rocancourt’s hotel suite.
That search turned up documents about his many ventures and evidence of passport fraud, Mueller said.
In March 1998, the district attorney’s office charged Rocancourt and three others with making and distributing false passports, crimes that could bring them five years in prison.
Two of the defendants are cooperating with authorities; the fourth has fled.
That same month, Rocancourt was arrested by West Hollywood sheriff’s deputies after he admitted to police he had shot a motorist, inflicting minor wounds.
Rocancourt produced Baca’s business card, told deputies he knew the candidate for sheriff and urged deputies to call him.
They did not. But the next day, Baca phoned the station captain, Richard Odenthal, inquiring about the arrest. Odenthal, a political supporter of Baca’s opponent, then Sheriff Sherman Block, said Baca did nothing improper during the call.
Baca has acknowledged an association with Rocancourt, but declined further comment. Baca’s campaign manager, Jorge Flores, said Rocancourt had told Baca he would raise campaign contributions for him from Hollywood sources, but never followed through.
Rocancourt fled Los Angeles in July 1999, shortly before his trial on the passport charges.
He and his wife turned up in New York in the summer of 2000, with Rocancourt using various other names, including Christopher Rockefeller. Employing methods perfected in Los Angeles, he continued talking people out of money, authorities say.
In Suffolk County, he allegedly posed as a wealthy international financier in bilking his victims, according to a 12-count grand jury indictment. He was charged in late 2000 with using a false passport and of jumping bail and skipping out on $18,000 in hotel tabs.
He and Reyes next showed up in Vancouver, British Columbia. Rocancourt was using the name Michael or Mikael VanHoven, according to Canadian court records. His target this time was Robert Baldock, owner of a corporation in which Rocancourt promised to invest $5 million, court papers said. Baldock agreed to pay Rocancourt’s expenses, pending completion of the deal. In court papers, Baldock says he spent $120,000 to $170,000 in four months.
In searching VanHoven’s apartment, police discovered that he was really Rocancourt. Authorities checked the Internet and found news accounts about his Los Angeles and New York forays.
Last month, he pleaded guilty to fraud in the Canadian case. His lawyer, Susan Wishart of Victoria, said prosecutors are expected to seek a term of two to three years for Rocancourt.
Because Canadian law entitles defendants to credit for double the amount of time they serve awaiting trial, Wishart said Rocancourt probably will serve only a few more months. She said he could be extradited by September.
Asked how he persuaded Baldock to give him so much money, she said he told Baldock he was a race-car driver.
“No one checked him out,” she said.
Times staff writer Josh Meyer contributed to this report.