Video: Confessions of a con man

By Mike Taibbi Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/12/2006 7:50:19 PM ET 2006-03-13T00:50:19

On a grey October morning, behind the tinted windows of a nondescript van leaving Allenwood federal prison in Pennsylvania, sat a man who was used to traveling in stretch limos or anything that spelled “first class.”  Usually, the man traveled in vehicles that made others say, “That guy’s gotta be a VIP.”

In fact, the French-born character often hinted at how important he was: “Rockefeller,” he’d say when asked his name, adding quickly and casually— “But please, call me Christopher.”

Rhonda Rydell, former girlfriend: One word’s not enough for him. He’s powerful. He just walked into the room, and everyone at the table, who were high, influential people, were like “Oh, that’s Christopher. Christopher’s here.”

"Christopher Rockefeller" was a name that seemed to say it all—  a name that seemed to open all the right doors in the summer of 2000 when the 38-year-old Frenchman swept throughout New York’s Hamptons summer playground to the rich and famous.

And when Christopher Rockefeller burst onto the scene, the new money wannabes were thrilled to be rubbing elbows with an old money name.

Hamptons radio gossip show host, Dr. Henri Bernard: Someone said to me, "Have you heard there’s a Rockefeller out and about out in the Hamptons?" And that this guy was a French Rockefeller.

Even in the image-conscious Hamptons, Christopher, who always had a gorgeous woman on his arm, still made an impression both with his name and with his money. On a whim, he would charter a chopper to race him out to a seaside estate he said he was thinking of buying.  He was so rich, he could get away with his favorite uniform— jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap worn backwards— even in the fanciest places.

Shamin Abbas, club manager: We’re used to dealing with a lot of big spenders and flashy people and high rollers, and he carried himself a little differently.

Shamin Abbas managed a club where Christopher was a regular. She says once he told people his last name, he didn’t have to say much more.

The young Rockefeller soon became a magnet for the social and financial ambitions of many in the Hamptons.

Bernard: And you say “Aahh, a Rockefeller, gee a Rockefeller. Maybe he’ll take me to dinner.”

And that’s exactly what he did when he met Kim Curry and her fiance.  His new friends became his frequent dinner guests at lavish feasts in the latest Hamptons hot spots.

Kim Curry: When we walked in, as soon as we mentioned we were with "Christopher Rockefeller", they were like “Oh, right this way!”

The tabs topped out at thousands of dollars. Christopher always picked up the bill and always paid cash. The bubbly flowed, as did Christopher’s non-stop chatter about his incredibly fabulous world.

Curry: He owned an estate in East Hampton. He had jets, he had yachts, he had women coming from Monaco… and the cellphones were going off—the Kennedys are on the line, and Prince Albert was in that weekend.

The conversation invariably turned to money and whether he had any money making tips for his guests. Christopher had plenty, and even offered his dinner partners a great investment deal.

Curry: I thought, okay, he’s a Rockefeller.

Kim Curry and her fiancé, who had taken a hit in the stock market that summer, were thrilled. Christopher told them the deal was simple— they put up some money, he would invest it, they would get a tenfold profit guaranteed. So they ponied up the $50,000.

Curry: The way he presented it was this, “You give me $50,000, I will invest this money, I will in turn give you 500,000 back.”

Mike Taibbi, Dateline correspondent: And when would your fiance and you get this $500,000?

Curry: Immediately.

It was Kim’s friend Corrine Eeltink who’d first met the young Rockefeller at a Hamptons gym, noticing that last name and that he’d signed the register with a Fifth Avenue address.

And when Corrine was invited to one of Christopher’s lavish dinners, he’d invited her to make a similar investment — the same sort of terms and the same knockout payoff.

Corrine Eeltink: We’ll start right today with $25,000 investment.

Taibbi: How much did he say you would make with your $25,000 investment?

Eeltink: Around a million and up, in over like three months.

Corrine bought in too. Christopher also promised millions to a real estate agent who showed him a $9 million oceanfront estate in the Hamptons. The realtor was so impressed she gave the French Rockefeller $100,000 of her own savings to invest.

The buzz about it all was impossible to suppress.

Bernard: I heard something else later in the summer about this guy. This woman came in and said “Oh she had heard about a great investment…”

And so he swept through the Hamptons like the hottest fashion of the season: a Rockefeller promising a golden end to the summer for the chosen few.

Bernard: You can be anything you want to be out here if you have enough money.

But even before Labor day, the glimmer had begun to tarnish. Despite the generosity he displayed at his intoxicating soirees,  something didn’t seem quite right about Christopher Rockefeller, and people began to ask questions.

Kevin McCrary also wined and dined at Christopher Rockefeller’s table but he passed on making any investments. He wondered, “Why is this Rockefeller coming across with this French accent?”

Instead, McCrary’s suspicions led him to the Internet to check out Christopher Rockefeller.

Kevin McCrary: Yes, there was a Christopher Rockefeller. But there was one slight discrepancy— that Rockefeller died in 1790.

Then, by Labor day weekend, as quickly as Christopher Rockefeller had descended on the Hamptons, he was gone.

And it wasn’t long before those who gave money to the Frenchman with the blue blood name learned the details of his past— details that would shock even the most jaded of the jet set.

When he disappeared from the Hamptons in that fall of 2000, no one had any idea that Christopher Rockefeller had also once been a social magnet in Los Angeles in the late 1990s. Unlike the Hamptons, where Christopher made friends with new money stock brokers and other graspers hungry for a quick score.

In Los Angeles, Tinsel town, after all, he surrounded himself with a coterie of well known names and faces.

“Christopher,” the paparazzi would shout when they wanted a picture of him leaving the clubs late at night.

E.L. Woody, paparazzi/photographer: He had cash money in his pocket— and lots of it, huge rolls. He passed out $100 bills to the waiters to the bartenders, to the valet parkers... just making the big show.

The “big show” was recorded in the countless photos and videos of Christopher posing with celebrities. Like British actor Gary Oldman, MTV VJ downtown Julie Brown, or bad-boy actor Mickey Rourke.

Actors like down-on-his-luck Mickey Rourke couldn’t get close enough to Christopher to his money, and to his promises of fame and fortune.  As he did with Mickey Rourke, Christopher said he would help kick boxing action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme with his movie career. And Christopher even talked to Jermaine Jackson about capitalizing on the name of Jackson’s more famous brother, whose autographed picture hung in the Frenchman’s suite. 

And just as in the Hamptons, in money-rich L.A., Christopher never had trouble finding investors. When he said he wanted to open a clothing boutique in Beverly Hills, he invited one woman to buy in — Maria, who would only talk to Dateline in disguise. 

She says Christopher told her he would lend his obvious stature and business genius to the venture...

"Maria": You think, “Wow, what a great opportunity.”

She would put up some of the money, and they both would reap the easy profits, all this while Christopher dabbled in the movie biz as well. 

"Maria": He said that he was here in the States investing in some serious film projects.

The boutique would be located on glitzy Rodeo drive, just around the corner from where Christopher kept a three bedroom suite at $15,000/a week.

So Maria bought in, $50,000, but by the end $200,000.

George Mueller, L.A. DA’s office: He says that “I want to be business partners with you. If you give me some money now, I will give you the rest of the money to consummate the deal or to become your partner.”

George Mueller knew Christopher Rockefeller’s history and patterns better than anyone. Mueller is chief investigator for the Los Angeles district attorney’s office and says he knew Christopher by a number of names, other than Rockefeller.

Det. Mueller: One was being the nephew of Dino De Laurentiis, and that’s if he was talking to people in the movie industry because he bragged a lot about being the money backer on movies. Or if he was in the fashion industry and wanted to take people there, he was the nephew of Oscar de la Renta. He even portrayed himself as a prince.

It turns out Christopher Rockefeller or whatever his name was not a millionaire playboy— in fact, Mueller says he was simply a con man, and a good one at that. His game was to change his name and identity to appeal to the victims he culled— from the celebrity-obsessed of Hollywood to the money-hungry society of New York’s Hamptons. And Mueller says once in their confidence, he would go in for the kill.

Det. Mueller: Christopher picks and chooses the right individuals to play his game. They’re too embarrassed, or because of their stature in the community, don’t want to come forward and say, “Oh, here I am. I made a mistake. He took my money.”

Mueller says he knew Christopher was conning but didn’t have enough evidence to stop him—so he prepared a search warrant his hotel suite. But as police were ready to move in, as he had done so many times before, the con man simply slipped away.

Det. Mueller: He knew that he was being investigated because when we executed the first search warrant, we just were unlucky and we missed him.

But when Det. Mueller raided Christopher’s suite, he did find the Det. evidence he was looking for— guns, wads of money, the paperwork for a hundred schemes and illegal passports.

But where was Christopher?

You might think he would have gone into hiding, but that wasn’t Christopher’s style. Instead, he embarked on a rich man’s tour of exotic Asian hotspots with an expatriate pal named Charles Glenn.

In home video taken by Glenn and obtained by “Dateline,” the two men are seen living the high life, in Hong Kong, in Jakarta, in China, and in Bangkok. And as usual, wherever Christopher and his best friend went, they had nothing but the best: the best hotels, sometimes staying in the penthouse presidential suite, having the best transportation — stretch limos with even police escorts, the best restaurants where, despite the language barrier—exotic dishes always arrived to pamper the palate. There was shopping everywhere, buying jade and long chains of gold, and Christopher made sure there was a constant stream of beautiful women at hand.

Over time, Charles Glenn observed, his friend Christopher seemed more and more obsessed with his notoriety— even fancying himself a mafia don.

Charles Glenn: He’s always telling me, “I’m the last of the godfather.” Always, you know, like, “Call me godfather or whatever.” I say, “Okay, I’ll call you godfather, whatever you want.”

But apparently, what Christopher really wanted was to get back to his con game.

And so after a month of Asian indulgence, even thought Christopher knew Det. Mueller was on his tail, he made a brazen move: Christopher returned to L.A. and even called Mueller to taunt him.

Det. Mueller: He says, “You know, George,” he says, “You’re a good player. I’m a good player.” He says, “You know, if you’d actually meet me for tea, you would really like me. We could become friends.”

Mike Taibbi, Dateline correspondent: In your first conversation he’s calling you "George"?

Det. Mueller: Yes. And then he even got a little more arrogant and said, “And if you do arrest me I’ll just bail out and flee the country anyways.”

One month after Christopher returned to L.A.,  Mueller arrested him on illegal gun possession and phony passport charges. But, on the eve of his trial, Christopher made good his promise to Mueller: he jumped bail.

And fled— not out of the country— but to New York’s Hamptons—so he could appear on another stage in his most audacious performance yet.

And so it was in the summer of 2000, while he was on the run from the law in L.A. that Christopher arrived in the Hamptons. It was for this limited-run performance that he borrowed the name Christopher Rockefeller, a Rockefeller who ended up conning all those Hamptonites. It also turns out his game almost ended there too, when he was thrown in jail for not paying a $20,000-hotel bill.

East Hampton police Sgt. Margaret Dunn and, her partner, Lt. Jerry Larsen got the case.

Mike Taibbi, Dateline correspondent: What did he say when you said, ‘You know we’ve got a couple of people downstairs saying you stiffed them for some big dough...”

Lt. Jerry Larsen, East Hampton police: All a big misunderstanding. He has plenty of money the money’s all available to be wired, he’d be more than happy to pay the bill.

Once again, Christopher talked his way out of a jam.

The East Hampton cops ran their prisoner’s fingerprints to check for outstanding warrants in New York State. There weren’t any. But they didn’t do a nationwide check, so with only the innkeeper’s complaint on the record, bail was set at $45,000. 

Det. Margaret Dunne: He had posted his $45,000 bail, and he fled. That was the last we saw of him.

It was only after Christopher disappeared that the story of the phony Rockefeller spread like wildfire and made for sensational headlines: That’s when the local police found out Christopher was a fugitive and wanted in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles detective George Mueller was not surprised to learn of Christopher’s latest exploits and expected he would soon be up to his old tricks again.

Det. George Mueller, Los Angeles police: The games not done, he still wants to play that game... and he needs that, he thrives on that, and he wants it.

The question was, where would Christopher wind up next?

The answer: Canada
It was April, 2001, eight months after he ducked out of the Hamptons that Christopher defrauded an elderly couple of at least $100,000 in a real estate deal. The Canadian Mounties got the man everyone was looking for, arresting Christopher at a seaside hotel.

Cpl. Grant Learned, Royal Canadian Mountain Police: A single charge of fraud relating to business transactions and financing schemes.

It turns out Christopher had fled straight to Canada from his sojourn in the Hamptons, taking up residence in Vancouver, British Columbia. There, he told the elderly couple he later swindled that he claimed to be a famous race car driver looking to make money in real estate.  

He was arrested by the Mounties along with a woman named Pia Reyes. It turns out Pia Reyes was in fact Christopher’s long-time wife, a wife who claimed then and thereafter that she never knew anything about her husband’s con games. 

Canadian authorities believed her enough to drop all charges against her. Two months before Christopher’s arrest in Canada, while he was still on the run, Dateline interviewed Pia.  At the time, we pressed her about what she did know about her con man husband...

Was she just another victim of his lies and deceit?

Taibbi: What did he tell you he did?

Pia Reyes, Christopher's wife: A businessman.

Taibbi: Did he go into any greater detail than than?

Reyes: No.

Taibbi: When you married Christopher, were you absolutely confident that you knew enough about this man?

Reyes: I didn’t know every detail, no.

Reyes, a former Playboy playmate, acted in a few Hollywood “B” movies but eventually wound up as a hostess in an upscale LA bistro. That’s where she met Christopher in 1995. 

She bore him a son named Zeus, but says that throughout their eight- year marriage, she asked few questions.

Taibbi: Did he tell you he was rich?

Reyes: He didn’t tell me was rich, but he always had high life.

Reyes says she never got the “hows” or “whys” of her husband’s business, but that she learned early on and came to accept that life with her quirky husband could and often did change in a heartbeat.

Reyes: Really, he just would wake up one day and use it. He would just pick a name—and I would just shake my head. It’s almost like completely ridiculous to use the name Rockefeller. I mean how can you believe someone that has a French accent with an American historical name?

Christopher eventually pleaded guilty to scamming that elderly couple in Canada and agreed to return to the U.S. Here, he also entered guilty pleas to the L.A. charges of gun possession and bribing passport officials  — and to fraud charges in the Hamptons.

His sentence was 5 years in prison and court-ordered restitution of $1.2 million dollars to the few victims who came forward.

Det. George Mueller: I do believe Christopher got a pretty good deal. 

Too good a deal, says Mueller, who’d pursued Christopher for years.

Det. Mueller: I believe he probably defrauded closer probably to $5 million. But there are a lot more victims out there and a lot of people that just haven’t come forward because of the embarrassment to them.

And so in the end...just who was Christopher Rockefeller?

His given name was Christopher, but his family name certainly wasn’t Rockefeller—not by a long shot: His real name was Christopher Rocancourt.

After nearly five years in prison, Christopher Rocancourt’s days as a con man living in the U.S. ended when immigration officials put him on a one way flight back to France—first class, of course.

“Dateline” was with him as he jetted back to Paris. Outside the airport, swarms of paparazzi jockeyed for the first photos of the French con man who’d swindled all those rich Americans.

He sped away to dodge the French press, but had promised “Dateline” his first TV interview to take place a few days after his return. He had to speed away to dodge the French press, leaving us to wonder whether he’d keep his promise to give “Dateline” his first interview.

So now he was home, the city of lights, and not incidentally the scene of some of his earliest crimes. But there were still unanswered questions: How had he done it, how had he pulled off all those cons, and to make a living now, would he do it again?

But typically, before we had a chance to ask those questions, he was gone.

Mike Taibbi, Dateline correspondent: For many years in your life, you were not honorable.

Christopher Rocancourt: I agree with that.

Taibbi: How honest are you willing to be with us in the answers you give us?  100 percent?  70 percent? Depends on the question?

Rocancourt: No, no, no, no. I don’t have time to play games no more. 

Rocancourt had played the game for many years, and except for the one time he pleaded guilty in court, he refused to admit he was a con man— always insisting that his victims were just bad business people who had loaned him some money.

Taibbi: So are you’re willing now to say for the first time, “Yes, I Christopher Rocancourt, I was a con man.”

Rocancourt: I’ve been a “confidence man.”

Taibbi: The abbreviation is con man.  You always hated that.

Rocancourt: I don’t like that word.  It sounds so corny.  You know “con man.” It sounds so corny.  It’s just confined in such a little word.

Taibbi: To con is to trick. And you tricked people.

Rocancourt: Like I say, “confidence man,” I agree with that. But the “con man,” yeah, see, listen,  if you like it, go ahead for it.        

Rocancourt prefers another word to describe his skills: actor.

Taibbi: An actor.

Rocancourt: I think I’ve been a great actor.  I don’t think you can be a good con man, you know, without having some acting lessons.

Rocancourt says he started honing his acting skills at a very early age to conceal his less than glamorous upbringing. He was born in the small French city of Honfleur on the Normandy coast. Rocancourt never told anyone, not even his wife, that his father was an alcoholic who froze to death on the street, and that his mother was a sometime prostitute.  Rocancourt was abandoned at age five, and grew up an orphan at the children’s hostel of San Germaine.

Dateline was with him during his first visit in 25 years.

Rocancourt: I remember my father bring me to this orphanage—the last time I saw him. I remember crying.  He left.

He ran away from the orphanage in his teens, and that’s when his life of crime began. At 23, his first really big score, forging a deed for a Paris building he didn’t own and then selling it!

Taibbi: You sold a building?

Rocancourt: Yeah the whole building. That is what they call… I did make a fake deed. I did sell the whole building.  (laughter)

Taibbi: And how much did you sell this building for that you didn’t own?

Rocancourt:  $1.4 million. 

Taibbi: Dollars?

Rocancourt: Yes.

He had discovered the kind of crime that would define his life— he would be a con man, eventually taking on many different identities, including Christopher Rockefeller, a name that he says just “popped into his head” as he signed the guest register at a Hamptons gym.

Rocancourt: The lady said “What’s your name? You know you have to register.”  I signed it “Rockefeller.”  Just like that.

Taibbi: Just like that.

Rocancourt: Just like that. 

Taibbi: What was the effect on other people the first time you used the name Rockefeller and claimed it as your own?

Rocancourt: Like an ice cream melted.  People just melt.

Taibbi: They just melted.

Rocancourt: Yeah.

A Rockefeller with an accent so thick you sometimes need subtitles to understand him.

Rocancourt: How you for a minute  can be serious to think when you don’t have to know history to say, “Hey, Rockefeller, your French accent.  There’s no Rockefeller in France.”  C’mon, use your brain?

Taibbi: All they needed to believe it for was a split second that if they could smell money—

Rocancourt: They smell the money like the shark smell the blood.  Nothing else.

Taibbi: But, they wouldn’t even pick up the odor.  They wouldn’t even pick up the smell if they hadn’t heard the name “Rockefeller.”

Rocancourt: They didn’t wait—for the smell.  Zoom... My gosh. 

And whether he was playing the role of a Rockefeller in the Hamptons or a movie producer in Hollywood, Rocancourt says he always used the same simple bag of tricks to lure his potential victims: champagne dinners at an expensive restaurants,  and the unmistakable impression that the guy who always reached for the check, always, had to be absolutely loaded.

Taibbi: What’s the biggest tab you ever picked up? Do you remember?

Rocancourt: Biggest tab? With wine I think is—probably 80 grand.

He says he always counted on his victims thinking they were taking advantage of him, and that he always counted on their greed.

Rocancourt: You do think for that time you are much smarter than me.  You did think for that time, you can profit better with me.

Taibbi: Right, and so for those people, they should be punished?

Rocancourt: No, no, no, no, no. You been a dummy.  You been stupid.  Just like I did prison time.  I take my time.  Just accept it for fact.  You’re not that bright.  You been stupid for that time.  Just accept it. Oh, you been ripped off.  Is what happened.

Taibbi: But what you have done is criminal.  You admit that.

Rocancourt: No question.

Taibbi: But you’re saying you don’t feel any sympathy for the people who lost money—

Rocancourt: No.

Taibbi: --because they were greedy and they believed in you and they threw money at you.  And you didn’t pay ‘em back.  You don’t feel sorry for them?

Rocancourt: No.  I keep it real. You want honesty? You have it. I keep it real.  What do you want me to tell you?  I have a feeling I don’t have?  I don’t.

But you still had to wonder, and we did: whether this con man is like the high stakes gambler who once exalted that "Money you earn is never as sweets as money you win" and whether this con man will simply miss the con too much to stay away.

Rocancourt: People change. Why you cannot just believe for once that can be possible?  Listen—

Taibbi: Oh I believe it.  I believe people can change.  I don’t know about you. Question now, are you gonna live an honest life now?

Rocancourt: Yeah, I will.

Taibbi: Honest in all ways?

Rocancourt: If you will ask me, “I will never lie again?”  No, of course I will lie again.  On what level?  Not on the same level.  Listen, let’s not be foolish now.  Okay?  I’m well known for what I did.  Come on.  No, you can be a good player but there is a time where you just retreat, you know? You have to stop it.

Taibbi: And you’re saying that won’t happen again?

Rocancourt: No, it will not. I think it’s a closed chapter.

George Mueller, the L.A. investigator who tracked Rocancourt’s con man career isn’t buying it.

Det. George Mueller:, L.A. police: He’s not gonna change.  I mean, you really can’t take the lines off of a zebra. I don’t believe the game is over.  I think Christopher will be back doing what he does. I don’t believe he’s gonna change his ways.

The ultimate con: celebrity
So what does a convicted con man do for an encore?

Given the French appetite for his story, he was about to pull off the ultimate con— turning his celebrity as a criminal into a money making venture.  

Dateline doesn’t pay for interviews, but Rocancourt had a team of media handlers selling the rights to his story to the French media. There were the first photos of the phony Rockefeller for sale, the first print interviews, the first French TV interview — which an entertainment show got.

And while he was in prison, he wrote a best seller: “I, Christopher Rocancourt, Orphan, Playboy, Prisoner” (English translation). The deal for a second book, “Christopher Rocancourt, My Lives” was signed within days of his arrival. He even sold the rights to his name on a clothing line, Rocancourt Jeans.

In fact, Rocancourt is being treated as something of a national hero, the solitary French rogue who beat the big bad rich Americans at their own greedy game.

Rocancourt: To be a French citizen, barely speak English.  Come to America I say “Hey, I’m here. There you go, let’s make this my playground.”

When you spend time with the con man as we did, you can see how his charm and his fast moving tongue talked a lot of people out of a lot of money— and it makes you wonder if, for this former orphan-turned-millionaire, crime did pay.

Taibbi: You had stashed some money away. At least I got the clear impression that you’d stashed some money away.  Had you?

Rocancourt: No.  I can't answer that.

Taibbi:  How many millions in your life did you make?

Rocancourt: At least 40. In my life I had $40 million.

Taibbi: $40 million.

Rocancourt: Yeah.

Taibbi: Which means you made $40 million.

Rocancourt: All my life—my whole life?  Yeah, easy, yeah.  Yeah, I did make couple dollar. (Laughs).

When he was sentenced, the judge ordered Rocancourt to repay more than a million dollars to his victims. To date, he has only repaid about $5,000. And prosecutors think there’s little chance his victims will ever get full restitution.

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