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My Turn: In Cornish, a run-in with a famous murderer, kidnapper and crook

The verdict is in. Christian Gerhartsreiter, aka Clark Rockefeller, has been found guilty of first-degree murder by a jury in California. You may add that horrible felony to the list of crimes, including kidnapping and assault, for which he was prosecuted in Massachusetts. And, of course, there is the litany of potential charges that might have been brought against him for his long, fraudulent career as America’s most notorious alien crook. But this reminiscence is not about all that; it’s about the man we knew as Clark Rockefeller and what he did to the little town of Cornish.

When Rockefeller arrived in Cornish some 13 years ago, the town was a small, open-hearted community of about 1,700 people. The first instinct of neighbors was to welcome newcomers to town. People held cookouts or beer and pizza parties to introduce folks from away to their new homes. So it was with the people who called themselves Rockefeller. Clark and Sandy were the new owners of a house that had once belonged to a famous American jurist, and everyone wanted to know who they were and what their plans were now that they were Cornish people. Sandy was straightforward. A pleasant and obviously brilliant woman, she was a leader in a Boston international advisory group. She worked hard and made a bunch of money, that was clear.

Clark, however, was weird. He dressed like a cartoon figure from an Ivy League college. His uniform was chinos, blue shirt and blazer, no socks, and a stupid-looking baseball cap, worn with the bill forward, not back. It was when he started to appear on a Segway, riding up and down the roads of Cornish, that some of us began to think something was just not right.

Little did we know how far from right he was. The man who called himself Rockefeller was a monumental fraud, playing a role, but he was also an accomplished manipulator, a horror of a man who delighted in turning neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend. And that’s what he did, often so subtly that people who had known each other for years did not know they were being set up, time and again, in a world of fabricated controversies that all led back to Clark. He was a master at spreading poison. An early example was his bitter attack on two friends who had paused to swim in an old pond in Blow-me-Down Brook. He called it trespass and threatened furious legal action by his lawyers in New York City. The threats were completely unnerving.

Of course, he had no lawyers in New York, but who knew? The man claimed to be a Rockefeller after all. And though no one had any idea what kind of Rockefeller he was, the mere presence of a powerful name was enough to frighten people off. And of course, for some, the powerful name caused folks to become his friend, or at least his advocate. He used that dynamic to split the town.

He was, in reality, a fraudulent jack-of-all-trades. He claimed expertise in an amazingly diverse group of endeavours, from rocket science to abstract impressionism. And he did it all with just enough credibility to make one wonder. He did seem to know a lot of astrophysics. He did seem to have an impressive collection of works by Mark Rothko. They were fakes, we later learned, but good enough to fool some people who claimed expertise. And most of them were kept in canvas tubes, which no one ever got to look in, but Clark would kick around with his foot.

It was all a method of expanding his power in a community that was increasingly divided over who he was. Of course, some of his ideas should have tipped us off. He talked passionately about buying the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site and turning it into a bed and breakfast. That would have seemed utterly nuts, but for the fact that there were conservative politicians talking about privatizing our national parks. He used to invite people to his house for dinner with Helmut Kohl and Britney Spears, only to cancel the day before because Helmut and Britney were unable to attend.

All of this would have seemed completely out of this world, but for the fact that it was done with such care by the man who claimed to be Clark, and but for the fact that the name Rockefeller carried such incredible power in the list of people who actually do have power. He claimed to be a member of New York clubs peopled by the rich and famous, and when we checked, he actually was a member. Who were we in Cornish to say “no, the guy’s a bum”? He claimed to be close friends with the Cheney family (yes, that one), and the craziness of that assertion just seemed to reflect the craziness that came out of Dick Cheney.

We all had our run-ins with Clark. They varied from trifling to infuriating, but they all had the same characteristic progression. Every disagreement would lead to a behind-the-scenes attack among neighbors, a spreading of rumors, a repetition of lies that would circle through the town. People would hear stuff they would never have believed from one source, but then it would come back around from somewhere else, gaining credibility. And all of it, absolutely every single word, was a vicious lie cooked up and managed by that horrible, creepy guy.

Well, thank goodness, he’s gone, and he’s not coming back. Even if the proposed appeal of his conviction for murder succeeds, he’s not coming back to Cornish. I think everyone can agree with the Cornish police chief who said, “He’s either in jail or he’s being deported to Germany.” The amazing thing, given the prior history of Mr. not-Rockefeller, is that violence was not done to a person or persons living in Cornish. We have been so incredibly lucky.

And Cornish itself? Cornish continues to be an open-hearted town where people reach out to welcome newcomers. In a little while, no one will even remember who Clark Rockefeller was. But I bet people will ask to look inside the tube the next time someone kicks around his collection of Rothkos.

(Peter Hoe Burling, a Democratic national committeeman for New Hampshire, lives in Cornish.)

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