Many possible aliases probed in cold case
The last time she saw Chris Chichester, they sat in the backyard outside his San Marino guesthouse drinking iced tea and playing Trivial Pursuit. It was the mid-1980s. They were friends, movie buffs who loved classics. “Double Indemnity” was Chichester’s favorite.
Chichester, Dana Farrar recalled, acted like just another one of the old-money scions who inhabited the area. But Farrar, then a USC student, suspected there was more -- or perhaps less -- to his story.
“He pretended to be wealthy, but I noticed he used to show up hungry,” she said. “His sports jackets smelled like they needed a visit to the dry cleaner. He drove an old brown Datsun or Toyota. It was hardly the car of a wealthy young man.”
Soon after, he left San Marino, telling Farrar’s aunt he was off to Paris. Jonathan and Linda Sohus, the couple who lived in the main house on that property, seemed to have vanished as well.
Nine years later, bags of human skeletal remains were unearthed there.
Authorities have never been able to figure out whose bones were buried on the property or what happened to the Sohuses or to Chichester.
But in the last week, police on both coasts have begun to ask whether an ex-husband who is accused of absconding from Boston with his young daughter and was captured by the FBI in Baltimore may be the man who called himself Chichester.
“That’s him,” said Farrar in an interview, referring to the photos of the man in custody in Boston. “I know those beady eyes. I don’t need fingerprints to know it is him.”
Forlornly peering out from behind horn-rimmed glasses as he was escorted to a police car last weekend in Maryland, Clark Rockefeller didn’t look like an international man of mystery.
But Rockefeller, who sits in a jail cell in Boston on charges of kidnapping his daughter, is being investigated by law enforcement agencies on two coasts, the FBI and German authorities.
They all want to know if he is connected to a San Marino couple who vanished more that two decades ago.
But police also wonder who Rockefeller really is.
Could he be Chichester, the charming South African with the odd accent who in the early 1980s lived in the guesthouse behind the Sohuses’ home on Lorain Road?
Could he be Christian Gerharts Reiter, an effete German exchange student who landed in Connecticut in 1979?
Could he be Christopher Crowe, a Connecticut man who tried to sell a truck that belonged to Jonathan Sohus after the couple’s disappearance? That deal fell through. The truck’s would-be buyer, suspicious when Crowe couldn’t produce any paperwork, called the police.
It appears that the fingerprints on a stockbroker’s license application Crowe filed in that state two decades ago are a probable match to Rockefeller’s, according to a law enforcement source who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
Maybe Rockefeller is all of them. Or none of them. Police say he is 48 years old.
Rockefeller’s attorney, Stephen Hrones, said that his client could not remember anything before 1993 but that he strongly denied any involvement in the San Marino case.
Photos spanning 20 years show physical similarities among the men. And people who knew Reiter, Chichester or Rockefeller describe a man who exuded refinement, education, and a vague foreign lineage.
A Connecticut man, Edward Savio, said he told federal authorities he believes Clark Rockefeller’s story begins in Connecticut in 1979 when a German exchange student named Christian Gerharts Reiter placed an advertisement in a Connecticut newspaper looking for a place to stay.
Savio’s parents opened their home in Berlin, Conn., to Reiter, who began attending Berlin High School with their sons.
Savio, now 45 and a writer, recalled that Reiter said he was the son of an industrialist in Bavaria.
Reiter helped pay for food but held himself apart from their middle-class household, dismissing their Italian roots and taste.
“He would just look around our house and say, ‘I would never live like this,’ ” Savio said. “And yet he was.”
Savio said Reiter dressed like a preppy, blow-dried his blond hair back, took to calling himself Chris and confided that he dreamed of making his way to California to be in the movie business.
But Savio’s parents grew to distrust Reiter. After about six months, they pressured him to move out.
Within a year, Reiter had left town, Savio said. But he stayed in touch with Savio’s mother, phoning her to say he was living in Wisconsin.
Reiter told her he had changed his name to Christopher Crowe and obtained a driver’s license, Savio said.
Savio, now living in northern California, said in an interview that he is convinced from looking at news photos that Rockefeller is Reiter.
“That is 100% the guy that was in my house,” he said.
And in Bergen, Germany, Alexander Gerhartsreiter told the Boston Globe that he recognized the photo of Rockefeller as his brother, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter -- who left home at age 17 in 1978 to be an exchange student in Connecticut.
Gerhartsreiter told the Globe that his brother never returned home but that he did tell the family he had taken the name Christopher Chichester because his given name was too difficult for Americans.
Federal law enforcement officials are heading to Germany to interview members of the Gerhardsreiter family.
When Chichester arrived in San Marino in the early 1980s, he made the rounds of Rotary Club meetings and charity luncheons and ingratiated himself with San Marino matrons.
“He came across as a very debonair guy,” recalled former San Marino community leader Berkeley Johnston. “He had a bit of a Brit accent like some New Englanders.”
“I thought he was cute,” said Lisa Gallegos, 44, who met him in 1983 at a USC screening of the movie “Yentl.”
She said they went on one date and he boasted of having a master’s degree in film.
The last time she saw him was that night she and Farrar played Trivial Pursuit at the guest house where Chichester was staying, she said.
Both Farrar, a former Los Angeles Times editor, and Gallegos said that that night they noticed much of the backyard of the Sohus’ home was dug up. At the time, neither thought much of it.
“He said there were plumbing problems,” Farrar said.
But after the bones were discovered in 1994, she was contacted and interviewed by L.A. County Sheriff’s Department detectives.
In 1989 or 1990, a man named Christopher Crowe surfaced in Connecticut trying to sell a truck that had belonged to Jonathan Sohus, law enforcement sources said.
After arriving in New England, the man known as Clark Rockefeller married a successful business consultant named Sandra Boss.
He became, according to news accounts, the primary caretaker of their daughter, Reigh, who was born in 2001.
Alma Gilbert-Smith, founder of the Cornish Colony Museum, said she met Rockefeller in the late 1990s when they both bid on the historic Doveridge property that had belonged to a succession of distinguished New Englanders including painters Thomas and Maria Dewing.
“The Realtor called and said, ‘You were just topped by a member of the Rockefeller family,’ ” recalled Gilbert-Smith.
Cornish prides itself on being a place of history and seclusion where residents respect both.
The famously reclusive J.D. Salinger lives there.
Gilbert-Smith said Rockefeller had private patrol cars parked at the entrance driveways to his rambling home.
And when she asked him if the gardens of his home could be photographed for a book she was cowriting about the artists and gardens of the area, he refused.
According to Gilbert-Smith, “he said, ‘Absolutely not. I’m a very private person; I don’t want people knowing where I live.’ ”