To catch a thief (Bob Gilmartin, Dateline producer)
I remember that Labor day weekend in the summer of 2000, relaxing on a Long Island beach reading tabloid accounts of the con man who called himself, Christopher Rockefeller. He had ripped off a bunch of people in the Hamptons and fled with their money, and had apparently done the same in L.A. years before leaving behind a string of victims. What a great story, I thought to myself.
Little did I know that within a few days, I would be among the horde of journalists and scores of police trying to find him, and most importantly for us, .
Christopher Rocancourt, the con man’s real name, had simply vanished after getting arrested in New York’s Riviera, the Hamptons. Still, I managed to get the word out through various acquaintances of his that we wanted to talk.
Weeks later, out of the blue, he called me at my office at Dateline NBC. His thick French accent made me think immediately it was him. So where was he? Caller ID, forget about it. Hints of his whereabouts, he wasn’t giving any. Promises of an interview, they started flowing almost immediately.
Rocancourt would have an intermediary contact me. Perhaps we could meet in Europe, he hinted. The New York Times, however, had said he called them from South America.
Soon after that, a call came from the intermediary. Not a pleasant first call either. The guy went by the name of Johnnie C., as Rocancourt had told me he would. It was not so much of a request for a meeting, but a demand: Meet me at an Italian restaurant on the Upper East side he said, and bring a passport photo. It was late in the day, I told him I had no way to get one. He almost yelled into the phone, “get one,” and hung up.
Was I going to be kidnapped, taken to a secret location overseas? Why the photo? I got one, but promised myself I would not give it to him.
I met Johnnie C. at the appointed hour. He was someone the New York Post had written about as a friend of Rocancourt, a sometime actor, and stuntman who had played a bit part on the Sopranos. It was not a difficult casting. In fact, the NY Post had said his brother was “connected.” Just what was I getting into to get this story? Of course, I was also told to come alone which meant I had no backup.
Johnnie C. immediately became hostile, and accused me of being in bed with the cops. I was ready to make my getaway, when he told me, almost ordered me to sit down and eat.
While I didn’t break out my passport photo, one picture I did take with me, and show him was one of Jim Gandolfini, Tony Soprano himself, with me from years back. Jim and I had some common friends and had shared a few pints with Jim few years earlier. It worked. Johnnie C. relaxed. We talked about everything but Rocancourt, but as I left he gave me a promising indication that he and Christopher would be in touch.
Actually, it was Rocancourt who was next in touch. Calling me again, answering questions about his con man life (he denied he was a con man), his family and his future. He said he would eventually return to the U.S. to face charges. Still no time and place was agreed upon.
Next contact came from a friend of Rocancourt’s wife, Pia Reyes. How would I like to talk to her? Of course, I said. This contact, a woman named Maia, was a lot easier to deal with in our initial encounter. She said she would pass on my interest, but I would have to promise not to divulge anything about where Pia was. That was easy to agree to, I had no idea.
Meanwhile, Johnnie C. and I developed a strange, but warm relationship. For such a tough looking guy, he had a fancy for high tea at a midtown upscale hotel. But even those fancy outings still didn’t produce the promised meeting with Christopher.
We settled for second best when finally Pia agreed to come to New York. We met at a hotel in New York, did our interview, and we were all impressed with what a sweet, nice person she was. Of course, we all wondered just how much she knew about her husband.
More time passed. Finally, the week we were preparing to run our first hour program on the “Playboy Millionaire” con man, Rocancourt was arrested in Canada. It was April, 2001.
I immediately flew to Vancouver, British Columbia, and met with him in prison. He was much shorter than I had imagined, and his French accent was so pronounced, it was hard to understand him.
Now at least I was face to face with the con man everyone wanted to interview, the man I had spent seven months chasing around the country.
When you meet Christopher, you realize it will be a long circuitous route to get a straight answer. Would he do an interview? It depends, he would say, and give a list of demands that we couldn’t agree to. One of them was being paid him for the interview. NBC News has a prohibition, as it should, about paying for interviews.
Eventually it came down to whether it would be “60 Minutes,” or us that got the interview. It wasn’t us. He had been promised, he says, a whole hour on “60 Minutes.” I told him “60 Minutes” never does one topic hours. Before the program aired, I bet him a bottle of his favorite champagne, Crystal, that CBS would not do a whole hour about the case. Of course, they didn’t. More on the bet later.
After that meeting in Canada, he eventually pleaded guilty in Canada and the U.S. to a various charges and would serve five years in prison. Time passed quickly for me, probably not for him. I knew Rocancourt would get out of federal prison this past October, and I again started putting my name in the hat for the first post prison interview.
The one thing I had going for me is that his wife Pia felt I had treated her well, and with respect, and Rocancourt said he appreciated that.
In October, 2005, Rocancourt was finally a free man. We had made arrangements through one of his French media handlers (yes he managed to arrange to obtain some while in prison) to get the interview. We also arranged to be on the same flight as him once he was kicked out of the country. However, at the last minute, U.S Immigration authorities switched flights – presumably to spite us and him, and put him on an earlier flight.
Finally, in London, a stop over on our way to Paris, we met. He was finally a free man, and I had him within my reach to get that interview.
We flew to Paris together, Rocancourt assuring me throughout the trip, "Dateline" would get his first exclusive interview.
However, five minutes after our arrival, I thought I lost him again. He was swamped by French paparazzi getting into his car. He sped off from the airport, his last words being I’ll call you to set up the time and place. I had no idea where he was going. It’s always reassuring to hear a con man make a promise.
True to his word, the next day, he called me and told me to meet him in the French countryside where he went for some R&R. I thought he would have been hitting his favorite hot spots in Paris, but instead, he chose to return to the city where he was born. "Dateline" had broken the story in our first report about how he grew up a poor kid in Normandy (near the beaches of D-Day) who was abandoned by his parents at age five to grow up an orphan.
It added a whole other layer to his story. I condemn his crimes, but you can’t help but wonder how this former orphan went from that to living the lifestyles of the rich and famous as Christopher Rockefeller, from the French side of the fabled American royal family.
Over coffee during our first meeting in Normandy, his impulses were hard at work. Let’s go church, he said. After all, felons do seem to find God during their time behind bars. Next it was a discussion of his days at the orphanage. Let’s go there now, he insisted. So we packed off into his car (by now he had his own car, driver and bodyguard).
We arrived at the orphanage late in the afternoon, the first time he had been back there in 25 years.We met a teacher who remembered him from 25 years ago, and his penchant for telling stories and mesmerizing his fellow orphans, a skill that would come in handy later in life as a con man.
We ended the afternoon in a Normandy bar with old friends and family members, Rocancourts he had not seen in years. Looking at him playing foosball in this little bar with the blue collar family he left behind, it seemed he really belonged here, not Hollywood or the Hamptons where he made his mark.
Another thing happened during our trip to this bar and later at a restaurant. It became abundantly clear that he is regarded as something of a hero. In fact, one waitress asked for an autograph of his autobiography he penned while in jail. It seems 1) people were proud of him for escaping the poverty of his early life and 2) people were proud of him for ripping off those fat, greedy, rich Americans. There is no attempt here to foster any anti-French sentiment here, this is my perception of it all. By the way, a second book he just had published hit number one on the French best seller list this week! Case closed.
Two days later, the day arrived when "Dateline" was finally supposed to get the interview. We had a suite at a very nice hotel in Paris, with two camera crews set up, two producers and the correspondent, Mike Taibbi, all hoping he would keep his word and show up.
Of course, at the last minute, more wrinkles. His assistant had called me that morning and said we needed to get another suite just so Christopher and his entourage could rest in between having business meetings and our interview.
No, we couldn’t do it, I told his assistant. We are prohibited from paying or giving any compensation to him to get the interview. I could just imagine getting him a suite and later looking at the bill with everything from champagne fueled room service to jewelry from the lobby store billed to the room.
An hour later, my Paris based producer, Nancy Ing Duclos said the hotel had just called her, and said that one of Rocancourt’s assistants had insisted that NBC would pay for a suite for them, and that we had approved it. So this is what it’s like trying to keep your wallet in your pocket around him and his people.
Of course, we had not authorized a suite for him, nor did he get one. Later in the day, when I checked out of our suite where the interview would be conducted, I found an addition to my bill from a meal for four taken in the lobby restaurant. None of us had eaten there. I later figured out that people from his entourage, possibly his driver and bodyguards had billed it to our room.
That was too late to fix. I was getting a keen sense of how the hustle can become non-stop. We waited for him to arrive, and waited and waited. Finally, he showed up with his media handlers, his bodyguard, his wardrobe people and the publisher of his first jailhouse book. Over lunch, he had just signed a deal for a second book.
I had said to myself that I would not relax until the camera stopped rolling and the interview was finished. Three hours later, I took a breathe. Finally, we had caught the con man... at least on tape. When I called back to New York and told my senior producer, he even cried on camera, I felt we had something special, getting the con man to break down when he talked about losing his son during his prison years.
The next night, we had scheduled a second less formal interview in a setting that Rocancourt had used many times to lure his victims into his net: a nice restaurant. This was his milieu when he did his illegal business, the kind of place where he would wine and dine and blind his next victims by picking up the checks (sometimes in the tens of thousands of dollars) and making business proposals. Of course, the proposals would always end with him getting rich and someone else getting ripped off.
You have to sit with him in this environment to know what it’s like to be mesmerized by his non-stop chatter. With Rocancourt, there is never a pregnant pause in the conversation. You could almost see his mind looking for the next place to take you, and in the case of a potential victim, lead him to the slaughter.
In our case, there would be no sting at the end of the meal, no trap we had been snared into... or would there?
The moment occurred when we first sat down. We were doing our interview as waiters brought water, and drinks into the camera shot, just to have a very relaxed atmosphere. Christopher picked up the wine list at our invitation.
He was looking for something red, I gathered... and something very, very expensive, I feared. He read out a year, and a name, barely audible to me, but hopefully not more than a decade old, I hoped. Within moments, my producer in Paris, Nancy called me off the set with a sense of urgency. As the interview continued, I walked away to see her in deep conversation with the French waiter.
She showed me the wine list, and what he ordered. he bottle of wine was 450 Euros (about $600 U.S.) I could just see my business manager at NBC skinning me alive when I handed in the expense report.
Should I offend him and change the wine, be skinned alive at the office, or just pretend, I didn’t know. I took the cowards option, I started looking for another, cheaper bottle.
There were some wines in the 40 to 50 Euros range, then it jumped to 100 Euros and much higher. I settled on a bottle about 100 Euros, still a lot more expensive that I would have ordered on my own.
Now the test: Would the French con man notice. Would he object? Would he ignore it and continue the interview, or would he get up, offended and end the interview right there. The waiter brought out the wine, Rocancourt looked at the label without any hint of annoyance. The waiter asked if he should pour a taste for him, but Rocancourt waved him off and said just pour.
I assume, he noticed the change, but took it in stride. And if he didn’t perhaps, he is not the wine connoisseur he should be as a descendant of the Rockefeller clan (even a phony one). I think he probably just gave us a pass.
Finally, after trying so hard to get the con man for so many years, I felt a little satisfaction when I thought, well maybe I put one over on him too. But the score is far from settled, we did get a great interview, but he still owes me.
The bet I had made with him over the “60 Minutes” segment five years earlier for a bottle of Crystal champagne if CBS didn’t devote its entire program to him, I never got the champagne.
As the French say, “Touche!”
For the full report, which aired on Dateline Sunday, March 12, . To e-mail Bob about this piece, write .