[National Post Online]

Master con artist says he never stole - he just borrowed
Rocancourt explains the difference in TV interview
 
Michael Friscolanti
National Post
Police in the Hamptons caught impersonator Christopher Rocancourt after locals wondered why "Christopher Rockefeller" drove a Mazda.


In Los Angeles, police say Christopher Rocancourt posed as everything from a European boxing champion to a high-stakes venture capitalist while bilking millions of dollars from naive Hollywood elites.

In Switzerland, authorities have linked the Frenchman to a massive jewel heist and banned him from returning to the country until 2016.

And in the Hamptons, where New York's gentry spend their summers, the smooth-talking swindler passed himself off as a member of the Rockefellers, brushing aside suspicions about his accent by claiming to be the French heir to the family fortune.

Last April, however, the endless string of lies appeared to have finally caught up with the internationally renowned con man. After fleeing various warrants throughout Europe and the United States, the father of a young son ended up in a wealthy suburb of British Columbia, where police arrested him in connection with a business scam in Vancouver.

Since then, the man who never left the house without a gorgeous woman on his arm has been sitting alone in a B.C. jail cell awaiting trial. But as the allegations against him continue to pile up -- prosecutors in California and New York have already asked for his extradition -- the 34-year-old's gift of persuasion remains as strong as ever.

The alleged cheat, whose preliminary trial on fraud charges is expected to begin in the next few months, has repeatedly denied interview requests from the Canadian media. But in an exclusive chat with 60 Minutes, scheduled to air tomorrow night, Mr. Rocancourt does all he can to convince viewers he is a far cry from the heartless criminal police have portrayed him to be.

In fact, if anyone is to blame for the victims' losses, he says it is the victims themselves. After all, they were gullible enough to believe him.

"Right now I say to you, 'My name is Christopher Rockefeller.' You will believe it? No. You will not. You will laugh," he tells CBS's Steve Kroft.

Throughout the conversation, which was taped before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Mr. Rocancourt argues that reneging on a loan is not a crime.

"I never stole. Never," he says. "It's like I say to you, 'Let me borrow your tie right now.' Well, you say, 'OK, that is my tie. I'll let you borrow it.' But today I don't give you back your tie. I did broke a promise, yeah? That make me a thief?"

Mr. Kroft responds by saying: "Yeah, you stole my tie."

"No, I ask you," Mr. Rocancourt responds. "I did borrow it. But that doesn't mean I'm a thief. I didn't grab it. I didn't take it. I didn't steal it."

Besides, he says, he always had the intention of paying back the loans. "Unfortunately, this time I didn't have time to repay the loan because I got arrested."

Before that arrest, Mr. Rocancourt somehow managed to infiltrate a portion of America's most elite circles, from Hollywood stars to wealthy tycoons. After gaining their trust, he allegedly convinced many of them that he could turn their thousands into millions. Then he walked away with whatever cash they gave him.

"I would not consider myself a criminal. I steal with my mind," he told The New York Times months before being arrested. "If I take things, if that is your definition of a criminal, then I am a criminal."

Whatever he is, his lifestyle can be traced back to Honfleur, France, where in 1967 he was born to a drunken house painter and a teenage prostitute. He spent much of his early years in an orphanage before being adopted at age 12, and when he turned 18, he fled to the streets of Paris in a desperate effort to reinvent his life.

By the time he made his way to North America -- after being linked to a jewellery heist in Switzerland -- the brown-haired chameleon was claiming to be close friends with Bill Clinton, Jean-Claude Van Damme and the Sultan of Brunei. He had personal phone numbers for Dolph Lundgren and Robert De Niro, and at one point he even lived with actor Mickey Rourke, driving around Los Angeles in Dodi Fayed's old Hummer.

Underneath his enviable persona, however, was a man whom police say masqueraded as a wealthy investor, who told everyone who would listen that he could triple their money. (In one instance, he agreed to give a woman a US$4.2-million loan, as long as she gave him US$100,000 up front).

At that time, he was living in the swanky Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel in Beverly Hills. To some people, he was Christopher De Laurentiis, nephew of filmmaker Dino De Laurentiis; others knew him as Christopher de la Renta, nephew of the revered fashion designer Oscar de la Renta.

When Mr. Rocancourt -- whomever he claimed to be that day -- checked out of the posh hotel in 1997, he walked away without paying his US$60,000 bill.

"I think I did owe some money to the Wilshire, but $60,000 at the Beverly Wilshire, what it mean?" he tells 60 Minutes. "By the way, it's a nice hotel."

When asked why he skipped out on his tab, the alleged con man points to the obvious. "Well, I like to pay hotel bill," he answers. "But it's just very expensive, you know?"

Mr. Rocancourt was picked up by police in 1998 after a shootout on the streets of West Hollywood. He disappeared, however, after posting bail. Two years later, police caught up with him again, this time after numerous people in the Hamptons started to question whether he was actually a Rockefeller.

The clincher: He drove a Mazda.

But "Mr. Rockefeller," whose aliases now included Fabien Ortuno, James Fox and Christopher Reyes, managed to sneak away again, this time skipping town after posting a US$45,000 bond.

He was finally contained for good on April 27, 2001, when police from three different forces surrounded Mr. Rocancourt in the tiny municipality of Oak Bay, B.C.

Since then, authorities from both sides of the Atlantic have lined up to chat with him.

In L.A., police want to question him about a nightclub shooting, a diamond smuggling operation based in the former Zaire, some hand grenades they found, and other accusations of bribery and perjury. A lengthy indictment is also waiting for him in the Hamptons, where authorities have accused him of grand larceny and numerous counts of theft.

But in the end, Mr. Rocancourt says, it is not a crime to pretend to be someone else.

"I say I like to change my name," he says. "An actor change his name, an actor pretend to be somebody. You don't go prosecute because he change his name or because he pretend to be somebody, so you should prosecute all Hollywood."

mfriscolanti@nationalpost.com