HAMPTONS' MOST WANTED
They welcomed him into their lives, this golden man with a French accent, a wealthy name...and the police on his trail.
by Stephanie McCrummen Staff Writer (Newsday.com)
WHEN HE entered the room that summer evening, there were little half-bows of deference, and confident, knowing handshakes, the kind that say yes, you belong here at the Palm Restaurant on James Lane in East Hampton. We know who you are, and we are proud of it.
Into that rarefied, mahogany-paneled world the man with the French accent walked, new white tennis shoes across oak floors, what must have been a Cartier watch of gold and diamonds on his wrist, his manner appropriately arrogant, his cachet unquestionable.
"Rockefeller," they whispered.
His table, of course, was ready. And he sat there, sipping red wine, blowing smoke from expensive Cuban cigars, talking million-dollar deals on a cell phone. Transfer this here, that there, he chatted, his assistant taking notes in a leather-bound book of some heft, the Palm staff, all the while, extra attentive.
"Oh, they were so honored... ," said Corine Eeltink, who was with the man that night this past July. "They treated him like royalty." It was about one month and $14,000 later that Eeltink, a Holland-born masseuse, learned that the man introduced to her as Christopher Rockefeller, who claimed friendships with Bill Clinton, George Pataki and the sultan of Brunei, to name a few, is, in fact, a man police believe to be a grifter of international stature.
Authorities believe he is Christopher Rocancourt, 33, born in the tiny harbor village of Honfleur, France.
Over winter, spring and summer, authorities say, the rather slight, slouching, bland-looking man swindled at least $800,000 through phony investment schemes and unpaid bills from more than a dozen people-mostly the moderately rich-in Manhattan and the Hamptons.
The figure could be higher, but few have filed complaints, preferring, perhaps, to take the loss rather than reveal they were conned, that they failed to question the Rockefeller who drove a cheap rental from New Jersey.
East Hampton village police also missed their chance at a prize catch. They actually arrested Rocancourt Aug. 2 on charges of false impersonation and theft of services. He, in turn, produced a passport bearing the name Fabien Ortuno.
Because of Rocancourt's many incarnations-Christopher De Laurentis (son of famed Italian director Dino De Laurentis), Christopher Reyes, Christophe Lloyd and James Fox were some-village police said they did not learn of his dubious history until it was too late.
On Aug. 3, he posted $45,000 bail and vanished.
As they toasted him with Dom Perignon Champagne in the weeks before, Hampton socialites, too, were unaware that authorities have linked Rocancourt with "dangerous repeat criminals of French origin who specialized in banditry." As they discussed phantom yachts and million-dollar homes, they did not know that Swiss authorities have banished Rocancourt from the country until the year 2016, as punishment for his alleged role in an armed Geneva jewelry heist.
As they happily lent him $200 shirts from Barneys, they hardly imagined a man being chased on four continents by the FBI and Interpol, wanted for questioning by Los Angeles authorities in connection with a nightclub shooting, smuggling diamonds from Zaire, possessing hand grenades, laundering money, bribery and perjury.
Certainly, there was suspicion. And many claimed they saw through the ruse.
They described Rocancourt as a clumsy liar, a low-brow, a thug-sleazy, shallow and egotistical.
On the other hand, one Southampton artist, who said he realized the con, still spent hours with the man he described as searching, a "rebel against the absurdity of modern life" who disdained money and pretension, a man sensitive to art, quite knowledgeable about the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and critical of the thinker Immanuel Kant, who wrote, "by a lie, a man throws away... his dignity." Others, quite simply, were taken by the Standard Oil heir that never was.
In what amount to confessionals, they admit being duped as much by their own wishful thinking as by a man who lied even about his percentage of body fat.
"He showed me a mirror, that I have a boring lifestyle. That I do the same thing every day and have hardly any money," said Eeltink of East Hampton, who gave Rocancourt $14,000 to invest. "He promised I would make money fast, become a millionaire soon." Rumors of Rocancourt's whereabouts range from Canada to Zaire to Mexico.
Bruce Cutler, the Manhattan lawyer known for representing convicted mob boss John Gotti, was retained by the man he knows as Christopher Ortuno when he was arrested in August.
"I know him as Chris," Cutler said. "As a successful, serious business person. Very affable, very bright, very honorable." "I am not in contact with him. I hope he's OK," he said. "You don't know what goes on in this world." Geneva, Hong Kong, Sausalito, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hawaii, Paris, Frankfurt, New York-the Hamptons were only Rocancourt's latest venue.
"It was established that Rocancourt was often armed," reads a Los Angeles County district attorney's report. "It was also established that Rocancourt led a high lifestyle: renting limousines, hiring bodyguards and staying in palaces." That report describes how Rocancourt was arrested in 1993 by FBI agents in Las Vegas, and extradited to Switzerland for his role in a 1991 jewelry store heist, in which two hostages were taken at gunpoint, and which ended in a shootout with Swiss police.
It describes how Rocancourt fled to California, where he conducted business out of the tea room of the Beverly Hills Wilshire Hotel and hired an Algerian bodyguard named Amghar.
It details passport scams, failed love affairs.
The story of Rocancourt's time in New York is only a sketch, drawn from police accounts, court documents, a Manhattan private investigator and victims.
He arrived in Manhattan some time last winter. There, Rocancourt was known as an investor in the entertainment business, a wealthy financier.
In these roles, he swindled an upscale shoe store owner out of thousands.
He finagled a bogus deal to buy property in Little Italy-somehow convincing the seller to give him cash up front. He leased a $5,000-a-month TriBeCa loft and stiffed the landlord. He cheated the production company that made a three-minute video -starring himself, cast as a suave movie director.
By April, Rocancourt set off for the Hamptons.
He was joined by his wife, Pia Reyes, who is a former Playboy Playmate; a young boy believed to be their son, Zeus, and a tall blond woman introduced as Laurent, a Parisian model. She was his frequent escort, while Reyes and Zeus were more often out of sight.
Ever-present was Rocancourt's personal assistant, called Joseph, identified in court papers as Dante Daniello. The officious sidekick was also charged with theft of services by East Hampton village police. He is out on bail, but declined to be interviewed.
At various points this summer, Rocancourt was registered as Christopher Lanancourt at The Pink House, where he left a tab of $11,598.74. He stayed most of July at the Mill Garth Inn in Amagansett, where he left a $7,942.07 bill.
By all accounts, his was a life of constant motion, deal-making and idiosyncratic habits.
A Pink House employee said he bought a new pair of white size nine Nike sneakers "like every other day." He rarely carried money. Daniello handled that, always rushing here and there, picking up and delivering envelopes stuffed with cash.
"He would talk about how he wanted to buy the Pink House and how he had a $9 million house in the Hamptons," said the Pink House employee, who did not want her named used. "He talked about how he was in love with a girl in Italy and helped her with her mother who had cancer." According to a statement Daniello gave to police, the Pink House proprietor gave Rocancourt $25,000 in "good faith money" in return for a $250,000 loan he never received. Another woman there gave him $2,000 to invest.
At the Mill Garth Inn, Rocancourt said that he was born in Italy and reared in France.
"He wanted to impress me with his purity," said inn owner Tommie Alegre, recalling their first meeting. "He was presenting himself as from a very good family, a very moral family... He told me what I wanted to hear." Settled in, Rocancourt adopted the name Christopher Rockefeller.
He was a frugal Rockefeller. He played tennis on public courts next to Waldbaum's.
He was a free-spirited Rockefeller, one with a black zig-zag tattoo on his right upper arm.
He was a cad, women said.
He ritually visited the East Hampton Gym. Daniello was always there, now answering two cell phones, presumably one for Lanancourt, one for Rockefeller.
He would always sign in for his boss at the door.
Gym trainers said that while Rocancourt angled for contacts, he was by no means lazy. He worked out rigorously, they said, sometimes twice a day, always wearing a red or blue bandana around his head.
"He was an idiot," said one trainer, who did not want his name used. "He claimed he had 8 percent body fat. We measured it. It was 14 percent on a good day." It was at the East Hampton Gym, in early July, that Rocancourt met Eeltink, the masseuse.
"He was sitting on the bench... I thought, 'Wow, what a guy with stamina to work out so intense,'" she said. "And a woman said, 'Do you know who he is? Christopher Rockefeller.' I said, 'Oh.' But he was distant." That changed, though, when Eeltink began talking money. She mentioned that she was attempting to help a friend sell a house in the Hamptons, that she wanted to invest.
"He said right away, 'I can make you a million and you can stop doing all those massages,'" she said.
Figuring that Rockefellers know money, she anted up $14,000.
The two met at the Palm Restaurant and then met again. Rocancourt was ever- attentive, always asking Eeltink how she was doing, always soothing, she said, in a platonic way.
"He said, 'I want to see you every day. We're going to spend the summer together.'" Eeltink began introducing him around.
She took him to Water Mill, to the summer home of her friends Kim Curry, a real estate agent, and Curry's fiance, a Wall Street investment banker, who did not want his name used.
Curry's fiance said he had lost about $4 million when the stock market plummeted earlier this year. Rocancourt offered him a $450,000 loan in exchange for $50,000 in cash up front-"key money." He whispered that the two would go "jet setting." They would fly to Monaco and "live life large." With nothing in writing, Curry's fiance agreed to the deal, and two weekends of tennis and Hamptons cavorting began.
"It was chaos," Curry said.
Rocancourt drove over frequently in his modest sedan to play tennis on Curry's court. He said his chauffeur was sick.
Daniello flurried about, the two cell phones constantly ringing. It was a Kennedy. It was Revlon mogul Ron Perelman. He stole sips of cognac when his boss wasn't looking, Curry said.
Rocancourt ordered him about with an imperial air.
The Frenchman was also rather regimented himself. He was a healthy if finicky eater, avoiding oils. He insisted on eight cups of coffee a day, black.
He competed fiercely on the tennis court. He never brought over a change of clothes, always borrowing Curry's fiance's instead.
He chatted with Curry about a self-help book she was reading: "Door to Life." He asked if he could have it. She said no. He took it anyway.
Rocancourt invited each person in the house, individually, to dinner at Tsunami, an exclusive East Hampton restaurant. They eventually realized that they were all going together.
"We were late coming in. I said, 'Rockefeller,'" Curry's fiance said. "They said, 'Oh, please, right this way...'" After dinner, the group was ushered into N/V, the adjacent lounge, where a VIP table was waiting. There were bottles of Dom Perignon Champ agne, decanters of obscure vodkas and expensive cognacs.
"I never got to drink that much Dom in my life..." said Curry's fiance.
"Everyone I spoke with claimed to have seen his house, even though they didn't.
"It seemed like the whole circle of people I was around wanted to believe he was a Rockefeller," he said. "Why the hell would I think this guy is not a Rockefeller? I was totally duped. Like everyone else." That would include, police said, a Prudential real estate broker who "invested" $108,000 with Rocancourt, expecting more than $345,000 in return. An East Hampton dentist who was stiffed on dental work he did for Rocancourt, his wife and son. And others.
Eeltink also introduced Rocancourt to Spanish painter Ginnes [CORRECTION: Because of a production error, the first name of Southampton artist Gines Serran-Pagan is misspelled in the cover story and captions in some editions of today's LI Life, which is printed in advance.
Pg. A02 NS 10/15/00] Serran-Pagan of Southampton. Rocancourt came to his studio for what was supposed to be a 10-minute meeting. He ended up staying four hours.
Serran-Pagan spoke of a lawsuit he was dealing with. Rocancourt told him he would call President Clinton about it, but then on second thought, that he would call Gov. Pataki. He boasted of friendships with the prince of Malaysia and the sultan of Brunei. He said he had two jets in St. Tropez, two helicopters, and that he was investing $34 million in a floating casino.
Out of finer labels, Serran-Pagan served him cheap Gallo wine from California.
"He didn't understand the difference," Serran-Pagan said.
There were other slips.
He signed his address in Serran-Pagan's guestbook as Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, and later said he lived at Fifth and 59th.
Serran-Pagan became convinced Rocancourt was a fraud. But he was intrigued nonetheless, he said, and preferred to play along. There was something compelling about this Frenchman in a bandana, brazen enough to pose as a Rockefeller heir.
"He was not a professional con man," Serran-Pagan said. "But Chris was an interesting guy. After that, he came over five or six times." Serran-Pagan organized a dinner in Rocancourt's honor, inviting guests curious about the ruse. He said he wanted to take part in "Christopher's dream." And so his friends were given their own roles: a Greek shipping heiress, an important art dealer, the daughter of the president of Sony International.
They ate chicken soup and spaghetti with sauce from a jar. Rocancourt complimented the meal. He sat on a raw, wooden high back chair, like a throne stripped bare.
Asked to describe his alleged house on Further Lane, Rocancourt replied, "I would say, pretentious." "We were goading him," said Maria Eftimiades, a People magazine bureau chief. "Everything was just the most obvious answer... It was like a game.
'You're going to believe me and you're going to be impressed.'" When one of the guests tried to snap a picture, a virtual fracas ensued, with Daniello tripping over himself to obtain the film.
Even after that, Rocancourt kept visiting Serran-Pagan. Over several days, there were long conversations about life, love and God. Conversations that even in retrospect, Serran-Pagan is convinced were sincere.
Moreover, Serran-Pagan believes that Rocancourt knew that Serran-Pagan saw through his guise, and found in that a sort of reprieve from his fugitive life.
"He hated money," Serran-Pagan said Rocancourt told him. "He was extremely negative about the nouveau riche. Truly, I think he was doing all this out of revenge..." Serran-Pagan said that Rocancourt discussed Nietzsche's work, "The Antichrist," with more than a superficial understanding. "Rather live in the ice than among modern virtues and other south winds!" the philosopher wrote.
Rocancourt wanted to buy several of Serran-Pagan's paintings, including an oil of brooding reds called "Sunset in Quilin, China," another called "Beyond Shadows." Serran-Pagan at first declined to sell.
Eventually, though, he sensed a genuine connection between Rocancourt and the paintings, he said. Rocancourt finally offered cash.
And so another deal was imminent.
But by then, the end was near.
On Aug. 2, East Hampton village police, acting on complaints, pulled Rocancourt over in Amagansett.
Deposed, he spent the night in the East Hampton lock-up. The next day, he fled.
At the Mill Garth Inn, police found that Rocancourt had cleared out, leaving behind only the contents of his rented refrigerator: a fresh lobster, jumbo shrimp, a lump of French butter and a box of expensive Cuban cigars.
ROCKY ROAD A few places Christopher Rocancourt frequented in the Hamptons The Pink House 26 James Lane, East Hampton Rocancourt registered under the name Lanancourt sporadically thoughout April, May and July. He took an owner of the house for $25,000 and left $11,598.74 in unpaid bills. "I thought he was a normal guy doing business," a woman there said.
The Mill Garth Inn 23 Windmill Lane, Amagansett Rocancourt rented a two-bedroom cottage for most of July, leaving a $7,942.07 tab. "When I pressed him for money, he remained charming," owner Tommie Alegre said. "He never became irritable. He said, 'Don't worry, don't worry, we do everything in cash.'" The East Hampton Gym 2 Fithian Lane, East Hampton A favorite venue for Rocancourt. He came in sometimes twice a day for hours at a time. He apparently was obsessed with fitness but also looked for poential victims. It was here he met masseuse Corine Eeltink, who was taken for $14,000.
"He was a jerk from start to finish," a trainer said.
Tsunami and N/V 44 Three Mile Harbor Rd., East Hampton Rocancourt impressed acquaintances with lavish dinners and dionysian spreads of Dom Perignon Champagne at the exclusive East Hampton restaurant and nightclub.
SOURCES: East Hampton village police, court, records, victims