Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Serial Imposter and a Novelist
Credit: John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe / Getty Images

At the time, it seemed to be simply a “noble gesture,” as the novelist Walter Kirn writes in his new memoir, Blood Will Out. He agreed to drive a crippled rescue dog from Montana to New York and deliver it to an eccentric member of the Rockefeller family, who had adopted it on the Internet. Instead, the author of Up in the Air was pulled into a decade-long friendship based on an elaborate web of lies. Without knowing it, he had entered the world of a serial impostor and murderer. As he attends the trial of “Clark Rockefeller,” Kirn is forced to examine every interaction he had with the man, and the confounding way in which our notions of reality can be suddenly – irrevocably – stripped bare.

The trial of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a German immigrant of many aliases, for the 1985 murder of John Sohus in San Marino, California, began in early March 2013. It was held in downtown Los Angeles, in the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, a hulking, rectilinear, gray hive of offices and courtrooms that stands across a plaza from City Hall. It's a part of the city that's rarely seen on film – a district of dismal bureaucratic towers presiding over an outdoor homeless shelter. Attorneys, jurors, and city workers mix on the sidewalks with shopping-cart vagabonds and lean, shirtless drifters squatting in ragged camps. (One morning I saw a man hunched beside his bundle tending a pet brown rabbit on a leash.) The lawyers walk briskly past the squalid scene, jabbering into blinking Bluetooth headsets and sip-sucking Starbucks mochas through plastic cup lids. The jurors appear vaguely stranded and at loose ends, uprooted from their routines and livelihoods. Certain blocks are lined with parked police cars and media vans equipped with satellite masts. Most everyone who can leave by rush hour does.

On the first day of jury selection, I rode an elevator to the Foltz Center's metal detector-equipped ninth floor, the home of the city's highest-profile trials – O. J. Simpson, Phil Spector, Michael Jackson's doctor – and took a seat on a hard bench only a few feet away from the defendant. I had known him for almost fifteen years by then and considered him a friend for ten of them, visiting him at his clubs and in his homes, talking with him often on the phone, and casually tracking his passage toward middle age while keeping him informed of mine. Except at the very end of our relationship, after his divorce from Sandy, when he came to me bewildered by an experience that I'd endured myself a few years earlier, we were never close friends, never intimates, but he was a singular figure in my life and a subject of frequent contemplation. I'd never written about him as I'd planned – my literary killer instinct had yielded to a desire for his favor – but I nevertheless imagined I'd understood him. Events had proved me wrong. They'd proved a lot of people wrong.

He was dressed the way he had been when I'd known him, as Clark Rockefeller (the name he also used with his attorneys and fruitlessly asked the court to recognize), in a preppy blue blazer, gray slacks, and a white shirt, every item a size too big. He still wore shoes without socks, exposing pale gaps of ankle, but he'd traded the thick black glasses I used to see him in for a professorial rimless pair. His hair had darkened to a mousy brown and his face was leaner than in the past, which emphasized the sharpness of his long nose and the elfin points of his big ears. According to the German passport found by investigators in a hiding place where he'd stashed various personal belongings, including several paintings rolled up in tubes and a book of signed blank checks from Sandy, whose salary had helped bankroll his charade, he had just turned fifty-two years old.

He'd been in prison for four years by then, the result of a prior conviction in Massachusetts for abducting his daughter, whom he called "Snooks," in 2008, during a supervised visit in Boston. I'd met her in 2002, when she was one, during a visit to his rambling country house in Cornish, New Hampshire. He'd lured me there with a promise to introduce me to J. D. Salinger, who lived nearby and was, Clark said, a friend. Later on in the trial that mad weekend would come back to me, reemerging in hindsight as the moment when all the clues were spread out for me to read and I should have caught him at his game, but for now my clearest memory was the child. She was learning to walk, I remembered. She stuck her arms out, toddling unsteadily toward a sofa where he sat coaching her, saying, "Snooks can do it." Sandy, who'd just returned from a long business trip, stood by looking haggard and angry. The child made the crossing. People clapped.

Clark snatched her when she was seven, off the street, bundling her into a hired SUV whose driver had been made to think that the pursuing social worker – who grabbed the car door and was thrown aside – was Clark's obsessed gay stalker. Several blocks on, Clark had the driver stop and caught a cab to a prearranged location where another dupe, a female friend, was waiting to drive him to New York City, supposedly to meet a yacht. (He paid her five hundred dollars for her services, apparently his customary rate.) From there, he and Snooks proceeded by unknown means to a house he'd bought in Baltimore, where he'd spent months preparing a new identity under the blandest of all his phony names: Chip Smith.

What he planned for his next move wasn't known; after a nationwide four-day manhunt FBI agents tracked him to the house and lured him outside with a staged phone call in which he was told that a catamaran he'd purchased was taking on water in the harbor. I had reason to think from a conversation we'd had a few months before the crime that he might have been headed for Peru, a country which he'd told me refused to extradite American parents who fled there with their children. This tidbit came up during one of the long phone calls that followed his divorce, when Clark would rant about Sandy's "cruelty" in separating him from Snooks. I was a divorced father myself by then and I sympathized with his frustrations, but now and then his intensity alarmed me. His mention of Peru as a safe haven was part of a troublingly transparent probe into my own potential willingness to act extremely in custody matters. Clark believed that the American legal system shamefully disregards the rights of fathers and that, as its victims, we needed to fight back.

The kidnapping, which made international news and later inspired a TV movie, exposed Clark Rockefeller as a fraud, the most prodigious serial impostor in recent history. It also connected him to a lineage older, and in a certain fashion richer, than that of the founding family of Standard Oil: the shape-shifting trickster of American myth and literature. In Melville's The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, this figure takes the form of a mutating devil aboard a riverboat who feeds on his fellow passengers' moral defects. In Hucklebery Finn, he again stalks the Mississippi River as the Duke and the Dauphin, flamboyant mock aristocrats whose swindles are cloaked in Elizabethan claptrap. In The Great Gatsby he's a preening gangster sprouted from a North Dakota farm boy. In Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels he's a murderous social-climbing dilettante. In Joseph Heller's Catch-22 he's Milo Minderbinder, the blithe wheeler-dealer who'd blow up the world if he saw a profit in it. He's the villain with a thousand faces, a kind of charming, dark-side cowboy, perennially slipping off into the sunset and reappearing at dawn in a new outfit.

But if Clark was all that (I'd learn after the trial that he understood his literary provenance and took great pride in it), then what was I? A fool. A stubborn fool. When his story began to unravel during the manhunt, and the Rockefellers claimed not to know him, I told a fellow reporter that they were lying, a family of cowards running from a scandal. I only backed down when his German name was published and the word Lebensraum echoed through my head. The disclosure unsettled me but it also softened me, especially when more facts about his background trickled out in the days after his capture. I too had a German name and German blood, and I'd spent a summer during college living in Bavaria, his home province. I was eighteen then, about the same age he was when, in 1979, two years before my stay in Munich, he left the small town of his youth for the United States. I'd left my own small town that year, for Princeton. I knew the yearning. No wonder we'd been friends.

Excerpted from Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade by Walter Kirn. Copyright 2014 by Walter Kirn. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation.

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