Reported and written by Maria Cramer in Germany, and Michael Levenson, John R. Ellement, Eric Moskowitz, Maria Sacchetti, and Shelley Murphy in Boston.
BERGEN, Germany - Clark Rockefeller started life in this humble resort town in the foothills of the Alps, not as the privileged son of European royalty, but as Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a mischievous Bavarian schoolboy and beloved son of a homemaker and a graphic designer.
His younger brother, Alexander, standing on the porch of the family’s stucco two-story home with blue shutters and geraniums blooming in the flower boxes, confirmed that Rockefeller is his brother.
He made the confirmation after being shown two photographs, one of Rockefeller that was distributed by police after he allegedly kidnapped his 7-year-old daughter on a Boston street on July 27, the other of Christopher Chichester, a Rockefeller alias, who is wanted for questioning in the disappearance and presumed slayings of a San Marino, Calif., couple in 1985.
He said his brother had left Bergen for the United States at age 17 in 1978 to find fame and fortune, and had not contacted the family in more than 20 years. He recalled the family receiving a phone call from his brother in the 1980s, announcing that he was changing his name to Christopher Chichester, because Gerhartsreiter was too difficult for Americans to pronounce.
But Alexander Gerhartsreiter said he did not know until yesterday that his brother had made international headlines as a high- society con man accused of kidnapping in Boston and wanted for questioning in a murder investigation.
“I think Germany was too small for him,” said Alexander Gerhartsreiter, a husky, baby-faced blond with wire-rimmed glasses and tousled hair. “He wanted to live in the big country and maybe get famous. Now that I see all this, he’s really famous.”
While Christian Gerhartsreiter’s former schoolmates and friends recalled his days as a restless child in this rustic village of lush green valleys and crystalline lakes in the far southeast corner of Germany, hard by the Austrian border, the official investigation into Rockefeller’s past intensified.
The Foreign Ministry in Berlin confirmed yesterday that it is cooperating with US law enforcement officials, who have asked German authorities to help them determine Rockefeller’s identity.
“We are now checking if he could be the German citizen Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter,” a spokeswoman said in a telephone interview in German.
Russell Kleber, a spokesman for the FBI in Boston, also confirmed the overseas investigation saying, “We are working the German connection.” He added that the agency had not definitively identified Rockefeller’s identity but was “still working all of the possible leads.”
Thousands of miles away from the idyllic hamlet of 4,831, Rockefeller’s lawyer, Stephen B. Hrones emerged from an hourlong meeting with his client at the Suffolk County Jail on Nashua Street and revealed yesterday that Rockefeller speaks German but recalls only “bits and pieces” of his childhood - a Scottish nanny and a visit to Mount Rushmore in a station wagon, for example.
“He has no memory of being from Germany or of having a German brother,” Hrones said. “He tells me he’s Clark Rockefeller. I believe him. I haven’t been shown any hard evidence that he’s something other than what he tells me he is.”
Hrones said Rockefeller does not remember coming to the United States in the late 1970s and living in Berlin, Conn., with a series of host families. He said Rockefeller does not remember marrying Amy Jersild in Wisconsin on Feb. 20, 1981, as marriage records indicate. His first clear memories seem to begin at about the time he met Sandra Boss, whom he married in 1995 and divorced last December.
“He tells me he still doesn’t remember about the past,” Hrones said. “He remembers bits of pieces, silly sorts of things.”
He remembers working as a stockbroker in New York, but does not remember which name he used or where and when he worked on Wall Street. He remembers being in California, but does not remember being a tenant of John and Linda Sohus, the San Marino who are presumed slain.
“He doesn’t remember murdering anybody there and he doesn’t remember being a tenant of the couple that was murdered,” Hrones said.
Acquaintances say that as Rockefeller traversed the United States, from Connecticut, to Wisconsin, to California, New York and Boston, he used a series of aristocratic-sounding aliases and said he was the descendant of royalty with a collection of luxury cars and a family castle.
But in Bergen, Christian Gerhartsreiter was raised in modest surroundings by his mother, Irmengard - a homemaker who is now ill and heavyset with white blond hair - and their father, Simon, who died a few years ago of natural causes and is now buried in a plot behind the local church.
Christian Gerhartsreiter’s earliest life was in some ways a rebellion against Bergen, a sleepy town surrounded by rolling, velvety hills that is popular with tourists from France, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic, who come to cycle and hike before heading to more bustling destinations in Austria, Italy, and Turkey.
Drinking beer at the Edelweiss pub in nearby Siegsdorf, several locals recalled attending elementary school with Christian Gerhartsreiter. One said he was mischievous, and recounted the time Gerhartsreiter used an air rifle to fire at the windows of the parish center at St. Egidius, a cream-colored church with a dark gray spire that looms over Bergen.
“He was like a flu,” said the schoolmate, now 50, who declined to give his name. Another former schoolmate chimed in: “In every place, there are troublemakers. Some stay like that and others change.”
The local teenagers usually spend their free time swimming in nearby Lake Chiemsee, skiing, and hiking. Once a year, thousands of the villagers gather at the top of Mount Hochfelln to celebrate a Catholic Mass. Bergen’s coziness can be beguiling but also stifling for a young person.
“I like it here, but for teenagers it’s a little boring,” said Simon Weichwald, a thin 16-year-old with shaggy brown hair who works in his parents’ pastry shop near the Gerhartsreiter home where Rockefeller was raised on Bahnhof Street, a busy route in the heart of the village. “I’d like to live in Berlin, or any big city in Germany.”
Christian Gerhartsreiter went to grade school in Bergen and Siegsdorf, then a private business-focused high school in Traunstein, a larger city about 6 miles north of Bergen.
“He was always very smart,” said Alexander Gerhartsreiter, 34, who with his blue eyes and long, thin nose, resembles his brother.
But when Alexander was about 5 or 6, his brother left for America, telling the family that he wanted better things. The family rarely heard from Christian and eventually resigned themselves to occasional letters and phone calls.
Alexander said the last time the family heard from Christian Gerhartsreiter was about 1985 - the same year the Sohuses vanished in San Marino, and Chichester left San Marino before he could be questioned by police. Nine years later, in 1994, workers digging a pool for the new owners of the Sohus’ home found skeletal remains, believed to be those of John Sohus. Neither Linda nor her remains were ever found. In Bergen, a friend of the Gerhartsreiter family recalled only a snippet of the life in America that Christian had recounted to his family.
“He said he was hosting a radio show, doing classical music,” said the friend, who would only give his first name, Werner.
In fact, he was hosting a late night classical radio show at Berlin High School’s 10-watt radio station in Connecticut, WERB, while an exchange student in the late 1970s, said Jeff Wayne, 60, who served as adviser to the club.
Wayne said the bespectacled young Gerhartsreiter struck him as a pleasant, but also a loner with a serious demeanor who seemed too old for high school. “We figured, well, he’s European, who knows?” he said.
Charlotte Anfang-Gaubatz, 48, who owns a convenience store in Bergen, said Rockefeller sounded nothing like Simon Gerhartsreiter, the father. She recalled the elder Gerhartsreiter’s bawdy sense of humor, how he always told her she should eat more so she would have a plumper bottom, and his determination to make her laugh when she was in a bad mood.
“Usually they say that children are like their parents,” she said. “But the way I know Simon, I could never really imagine that. It’s so shocking, because Simon was such a nice person.”
In Boston, Hrones conceded his client used an alias while on the run after allegedly kidnapping his daughter, Reigh Storrow Mills Boss. “Just because someone uses aliases doesn’t mean they are guilty of anything,” he said.
Hrones said that Rockefeller, 48, was an excellent father and that their legal strategy when he goes on trial for taking his daughter in violation of the court order will be to contend that the custody issue should have been settled under English, not Massachusetts law, because Boss lives in London.