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Video: Fake Rockefeller fuzzy on past

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updated 8/25/2008 7:34:16 AM ET 2008-08-25T11:34:16

A man who claimed to be an heir to the Rockefeller fortune — but whom police believe is actually a con man with a checkered past — says he just wanted to spend time with his young daughter and really didn't have a concrete plan when he snatched her during a supervised visit in July.

The alleged abduction touched off an international manhunt for “Clark Rockefeller,” whom police have since identified as Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a German man who adopted a number of aliases while posing as an aspiring actor, a stockbroker and a member of one of the country's wealthiest families.

“I wanted to change my life altogether,” Gerhartsreiter, 48, told NBC News’ Natalie Morales during an exclusive jailhouse interview airing Monday and Tuesday on TODAY. “I just wanted to live an obscure life.”

When investigators in Boston caught up to Gerhartsreiter in Baltimore on Aug. 2, he was calling himself “Chip Smith.” His daughter Reigh, 7, was fine at the end of what he called “six days of intense fun,” but Gerhartsreiter nonetheless found himself neck-deep in criminal charges and questions about his real identity and past.

During the interview with Morales, Gerhartsreiter suggested he suffered from partial amnesia —remembering only snippets of his life before 1993 — and blamed it for causing the mass confusion over details of his colorful life.

Now in prison grays and awaiting trial on kidnapping charges, Gerhartsreiter revealed to Morales that he had wanted to start all over in Baltimore but put little advance effort into his new “Chip Smith” persona.

“I wanted to,” he said when Morales asked if he planned to set up a new life in Baltimore. “I could no longer really afford to live in Boston. I always loved Baltimore. I wanted to have a boat so I can sail.”

He remained carefully measured when Morales asked if he had planned to return Reigh — known affectionately as Snooks — to her mother, Sandra Boss, or if he planned to have the girl remain with him.

“I don’t really know. I hadn’t really thought about it. Just being together with her was almost like a drug,” Gerhartsreiter said.

Story unravels
In the first hours after Gerhartsreiter’s arrest, the sensational story seemed to be another heartbreaking tale of loss of parental rights. He received a lump sum cash settlement of $800,000 in his divorce, but Boss won full custody of Reigh. Video: Reigh’s mother’s plea

Not long after police announced that they had arrested “Clark Rockefeller" but weren't sure who he was, tips started coming in from far and wide — including his family in Germany. Gerhartsreiter’s past quickly unpeeled like layers of an onion. In Germany, his brother Alexander came forward to identify a picture of the supposed Rockefeller as indeed his brother — and a Connecticut family identified him as the young German student who lived with them in the late 1970s.

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Police positively identified him as Gerhartsreiter through fingerprints, but the man himself claimed no memory of that identity. He told Morales he had been using the name Clark Rockefeller, saying the moniker “was given to me by the one person I’ve always looked up to.” Upon the advice of his lawyer, he declined to identify the person.

California police believe Gerhartsreiter is the man they knew as “Christopher Chichester,” a budding actor who was labeled a “person of interest” in the case of a missing California couple from whom he rented a guest house in the mid-1980s. (Remains believed to be those of Jonathan Sohus, the male half of the couple, were found in 1994; his wife, Linda Sohus, has never been found.)

And former colleagues on Wall Street recognized Gerhartsreiter as the stockbroker they knew as “Christopher Crowe.”

Asked point-blank by Morales whether he is really a Rockefeller, Gerhartsreiter replied: “I always left that ambiguous. I never really knew if I was or wasn’t.”

Toast of Manhattan
Still, it was as a Rockefeller that Gerhartsreiter had lived for 20-some years. He told Morales about meeting his future wife, Boss, in New York City in 1993. They fell in love, married two years later and became a Manhattan “it” couple, entertaining lavishly and joining select social circles.

Gerhartsreiter told Morales that Boss knew he was not a true Rockefeller but she reveled in exploiting the name in her own climb up the corporate ladder as a management consultant. “She usually did so in an understated way — calling special attention to it by keeping it extra quiet,” he said.

Asked by Morales if Boss believed she was really married to a Rockefeller, he responded, “No, clearly not.” TODAY producers have been attempting to contact Boss for comment.

Gerhartsreiter claims Boss was enraged when word leaked out that her husband was not a true Rockefeller, and that was the catalyst in their 2007 divorce. Gerhartsreiter was having his first supervised visit with Reigh after having gone eight months without seeing her when he allegedly shoved a social worker aside and fled to a waiting car with his daughter.

Image: Natalie Morales, Clark Rockefeller
Lauren Kapp  /  AP
Natalie Morales interviewed Clark Rockefeller on Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008, at Suffolk County Jail in Boston. The interview will air on TODAY on Monday and Tuesday and on Dateline in September.
Stretching the truth
Morales tried to add some clarity to Gerhartsreiter’s fuzzy past during the interview, noting that he had also boasted of working for the Pentagon and NASA and working as a scientist. Gerhartsreiter admitted he had stretched the truth, saying, “I’ve worked for persons who worked directly with all the other organizations we have just mentioned.”

His lawyer, Stephen Hrones, told Morales that Gerhartsreiter told tall tales but suggested they were perhaps not as tall as people coming forward now are saying.

“Clark liked to exaggerate. He sometimes told stories people wanted to hear — so that not everything you hear from some of these old friends is anything but a little puffing on his part,” Hrones said.

For his part, Gerhartsreiter maintained to Morales he has no memory at all of actually being German and growing up in upper Bavaria, as his brother maintains. He told Morales, “I’m quite sure I grew up in New York City,” and ticked off several Manhattan memories from his childhood, including a taxi driver’s strike and a visit to the Central Park Zoo.

For the record, Hrones says his client is “not denying he might be this person. He just doesn’t remember. He’s got a block there.”

On a lighter note, during his days living as a Rockefeller in Manhattan, Gerhartsreiter told Morales that he and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger became dog-walking buddies during his days on the Upper East Side.

“My dog Yeats was always very much in love with Amelia, Henry Kissinger’s dog,” he said.

Facts or fictions?
After the first part of her interview aired on TODAY Monday, Morales told hosts Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira that trying to find kernals of truth in Gerhartsreiter’s odd, rambling narrative was far from easy.

“He was very elusive and he had many different past lives,” Morales said. “It was a like peering into the mind of somebody who had lived to be so many different people.”

Lauer asked Morales whether she believed she was interviewing a con artist — or a man who actually believed his own bizarre back story.

“I think he would love to have everybody believe he is all of these characters and identities and I think he's convinced himself so much so that it's altered his reality to some extent," Morales replied. “But I do think he is, in a way, putting on a little bit of a performance."

Having observed Gerhartsreiter’s cultivated, somewhat haughty manner, his oddly generic European accent and his seemingly contradictory answers to questions, Lauer asked Morales how she kept a straight face during the interview. Morales admitted, “For some of the answers it was hard."

For example: Despite what police say is ample evidence of his true identity, the mystery man who sat down with Morales stiill refuses to completely admit that he isn’t a true Rockefeller.

“Perhaps at some point we can do a DNA test to really find out,” Gerhartsreiter said.

Gerhartsreiter is being held without bail in Boston pending a pretrial hearing Sept. 3. He has yet to enter a plea to charges of parental kidnapping and assault.

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