Famous Fakers, From Clark Rockefeller To Hipster Grifter
From our partners at Gothamist — In BBC America’s brand new Supernatural Saturday series “Orphan Black,” street-smart Sarah thinks her problems will be solved by assuming a rich woman’s identity. But as these real-life characters show—and as Sarah soon finds out—your past always catches up with you.
CLARK ROCKEFELLER This average man with the above-average name might still be living his assumed life if he hadn’t kidnapped his daughter from his ex-wife in 2008. Soon, the FBI, Coast Guard and authorities from Boston (where the kidnapping took place) and New York City (where someone dropped them off) joined the hunt—ultimately finding Rockefeller and his child in Baltimore.
As Rockefeller remained in custody for kidnapping and assault charges, it turned out that Boss had divorced him because he lied to her about being part of the Rockefeller family: He was actually a German national named Christian Gerhartsreiter. He had conned his way into the home of a Connecticut family as a foreign exchange student and soon became adept as posing—from working at financial institutions (in spite of having no experience) to claiming he had a multi-million dollar art collection.Deepening the mystery even further was that Rockefeller/Gerhartsreiter had been known as Christopher Chichester in the 1980s in California, where he lived in a guesthouse owned by Jonathan and Linda Sohus. The couple disappeared, and while Rockefeller/Gerhartsreiter/Chichester claimed they were traveling, investigators found a male body’s bones in the backyard.
In 2011, Los Angeles prosecutors charged him with the murder of Jonathan Sohus—just last week, jury selection began for trial—and his tale has inspired a Lifetime movie, a non-fiction book and a novel.
FRANK ABAGNALE Of course the life of a man who managed to convincingly pose as a doctor, U.S. Bureau of Prisons agent, a college professor, a lawyer (he passed the bar exam), and an airline pilot—and pass $2.5 million in phony checks—is made for the silver screen. That’s why Frank Abagnale Jr.’s life was made into the movie (based on his memoir), “Catch Me If You Can” directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Abagnale was active as a confidence man in the 1960s, though for many of his crimes, he was only a teenager.
At 21, he was captured by French authorities in 1969 after an Air France flight attendant/ex-girlfriend recognized him. He served time in France and Switzerland and was deported to the U.S., but managed to escape capture on the way to federal prison. Today, Abagnale is a speaker and consultant to the FBI.
DAVID HAMPTON An attempt to get into New York City’s famous club Studio 54 launched the son of an upstate New York attorney into a masquerade as “Sidney Poitier’s son.” In 1983, David Hampton managed to convince New York society that he was in fact the son of the Oscar-winning actor, telling them he had been mugged and could he have some money and a place to crash—he had attended college with their kids after all. In actuality, he just stole the address book of a Connecticut College student who had gone to Andover with the children of many of his targets. Eventually, after duping people like Melanie Griffith, Calvin Klein and former Newsweek editor and Columbia School of Journalism Dean Osborn Elliott into giving him money and/or a place to stay, Hampton was arrested for attempted burglary in 1983. Elliott told his friend, playwright John Guare, about how he was fooled by Hampton, and in turn, Guare wrote the incisive play “Six Degrees of Separation” about race and class. Hampton unsuccessfully sued Guare for $100 million, claiming he was owed compensation. Hampton died in 2003 of AIDS.
FREDERIC BOURDIN In 1994, a 13-year-old boy named Nicholas Barclay went missing in Texas. Three years later, a teenager with different colored eyes and a French accent claimed to be Nicholas, saying he escaped from a child prostitution ring. He lived with the Barclay family for five months until a private investigator proved—after getting his DNA and fingerprints tested—that he was actually French-Algerian Frederic Bourdin.Bourdin was imprisoned until 2003, and when he returned to France he posed as Leo Balley, a 14-year-old French boy who went missing in 1996, and in subsequent years kept claiming the identities of other children who went missing in the mid-1990s.
THE HIPSTER GRIFTER In the spring of 2009, a story about a young tattooed woman who worked at VICE started to ripple through websites when it turned out she was a wanted criminal from Utah. Dubbed The Hipster Grifter, Kari Ferrell forged checks and doled out sob stories about being pregnant and/or having cancer. She also targeted bearded men with provocative come-ons (like “I want you to throw a hot dog down my hall”).Ferrell eventually served jail time and is active online. In a 2010 interview, Ferrell was asked if she liked any of her victims, “Yes, and that’s the terrible thing. I felt genuine attraction and admiration for all of the friends that I hurt. Coincidentally, I was only dating one of them, and didn’t actually commit any crimes anywhere besides Utah.”
Still, she thinks they got what they want, “Everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame. They wanted to be in the media. They wanted to be a victim of the quote-unquote Hipster Grifter.”
CHRISTOPHER ROCANCOURT Clark Rockefeller is only one of many people who have posed as a descendant of John D. Rockefeller. In 2001, the FBI caught up with Christopher Rocancourt, a French national who had posed as Christopher Rockefeller as well as Sophia Loren’s son and other identities, to bilk the rich out of their money.The Rockefeller name helped Rocancourt convince New York investors to give him their money, but it was really a pyramid scheme. Then he disappeared… to Los Angeles, where he said he was the nephew of famous producer Dino De Laurentiis and hobbed-nobbed with celebrities like Mickey Rourke, promising to revive their careers.
By the time the LA authorities raided his hotel suite, they found guns, passports and money—but Rocancourt had left for Asia. He returned to New York, hiding out in the Hamptons, where he was arrested for not paying his $20,000 hotel bill. He got out on bail since the Hamptons cops never ran a fingerprint check on a national database which would have shown he was wanted by the L.A. police.
After being apprehended in Canada, where he was posing as a race car driver, Rocancourt told reporters things like, “I would not consider myself a criminal—I steal with my mind” and had no remorse, “I feel sorry for their greed.”
ESTHER ELIZABETH REED Esther Elizabeth Reed had managed to attend Columbia University as grad student “Brooke Henson” without anyone raising an eye. But when she applied for a position as a housekeeper in 2007, her potential employer checked her name and Social Security number—bringing up a missing person’s report from South Carolina. S.C. authorities contacted the NYPD, who confronted Reed in her campus apartment. Reed insisted she had simply run away, but when it came time for a DNA test, Reed hit the road.Reed, actually on the lam from stealing her sister’s checks in Seattle, had also managed to attend Harvard and Cal State under other identities. A brilliant conversationalist, she did slip up at times: She claimed she was a chess champion but didn’t know what an opening gambit was. She romanced military academy cadets (she tried to get one to give her a certificate from the assault school), rousing suspicions that she was a spy. Reed ended up on the U.S. Secret Service’s Most Wanted list, for identity fraud and stealing $100,000 in student loans.
The law works in mysterious ways: Reed was found when police in a Chicago suburb were looking for mass shooting suspect in 2008. She told cops, “You have me. I am who you think I am.” Reed was sentenced to 51 months in prison and was released in 2011. She told 48 Hours, “I just wanted to go to college. I wanted to go to college and have a family where I wasn’t constantly plagued by these toxic relationships that I couldn’t make work… I don’t know if I’ll stick with Esther Reed or if I’ll change my name legally to something that might be more comfortable. And then I intend to go on and do something great! No BS.”
Jump between identities with BBC America’s new original series, “Orphan Black,” premiering March 30 at 9/8c as part of Supernatural Saturdays — with “Doctor Who” at 8/7c and “The Nerdist” at 10/9c!