crimesider

The novelist and the murderer

Walter Kirn and Christian Gerhartsreiter (aka, Clark Rockefeller) Beowulf Sheehan, CBS

If you befriended a murderer, would you know it?

In his new book "Blood Will Out: The True Story of Murder, a Mystery and a Masquerade," Walter Kirn tells the tale of his 10-year friendship with a man he knew as Clark Rockefeller, but whose real name was Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German-born con artist who last year was convicted of murdering, dismembering and burying his landlady's son in a California backyard in 1985.

From the beginning, it was an unlikely association. Kirn, a self-deprecating Midwestern native and Princeton graduate who wears cowboy boots with his sport coat and has a successful career as a journalist and novelist, writes that his first impression of Rockefeller was that he was a "twee, diminutive hobbit of a fellow whose level of self-amusement seemed almost delusional."

That impression never changed, exactly, but the two struck up a kind of friendship. Clark told Kirn strange stories - he'd never eaten a hamburger, he'd gone to Yale at 14, he was friends with Britney Spears. And though Kirn writes that he found much of what his friend said somewhat incredible (and hated his habit of "forgetting" his wallet when they dined out), he stuck around, in part, because he liked the idea of being friends with a Rockefeller.

Kirn, who appears in Saturday's episode of 48 Hours "aka Rockefeller," spoke with CBS News' Crimesider about the the con man, the cold case, and how to spot a sociopath.

Crimesider: Once he was unmasked, did you ever doubt that the man you knew as Clark had murdered John Sohus?

Walter Kirn: I was convinced the moment I heard about the crime in 2008 that he was guilty, and it was for a very simple reason. When they described the murder, they said that the suspect was living in the guest house by the garage of the murder victim's mother. And I remembered back to 1998 when he'd called me and asked if he could come stay with me in Montana. I'd said, I don't have room for you, and he said, well do you have a garage or a little guest apartment? I said, yeah. He said, well that's all I need, I used to live in a little guest house and I've never been happier in all my life. And when a Rockefeller tells you that he was never happier in all this life staying in a little guest apartment or over a garage, it sticks in your brain. That was one of the first details that came out in the description of the murder case, and when I heard that I thought, oh my God, he did it.

Crimesider: You write in your book about writers being users. Do you think you missed some clues about who he really was because, in your head, you were using him as a potential character?

Kirn: I wasn't missing clues because at that point there was not a mystery. I wasn't looking at it as something to solve, I was looking at this as a new friendship with a new, very peculiar person.

Because I am a writer and journalist I have two characteristics that most people don't. One, I will tolerate very kooky people in order to get their stories. I'm used to talking to people who other people might not like. Also as a journalist I'm used to hearing a lot of stories from people that may or may not be true but that don't necessarily mean something terrible is going on.

Early on when I met him, I thought a character based on this guy would be great in a novel, even in non-fiction. But once I got to know him better I didn't want to break his privacy. He seemed obsessed with privacy and now we know why. It was only when he was unmasked that I gave myself permission to be a journalist again.

Crimesider: And in the end, you got your book.

Kirn: Yeah. I mean I was very polite for many years and if I had written about him that would have been the end of the friendship. So I got to the end of the story that way. And the gods of non-fiction narrative were helping me every step of the way, I just didn't know it.

Crimesider: We all use the term con artist, but until I read your book I never considered why someone who is a professional liar might be considered an artist at what he does - crafting his own persona. Do you think Clark thought of himself as a kind of artist?

Kirn: I know he thought of himself as an artist. I mean I have in my briefcase copies of sonnets that he sent to me from prison after he was convicted. Some of the strangest sonnets you'll ever read. He also was writing a long novel about the history of Europe. And when I knew him he was writing novels that were novelizations of episodes of Star Trek the Next Generation. The problem was that he wasn't a good artist. In fact the only real art that he could make was trouble for other people. He could make an adventure and a kind of novel and a movie of his life because he couldn't write one that anyone wanted to read. So he got art and life mixed up.

Art is short for artifice which is related to artificial. And he lived an artificial existence. In some ways a lot of us do now. We're on Twitter with one side of our personality, and Facebook with another, and LinkedIn with another side of our personality and we're toggling between them. That's just a version of what an impostor does: shifting from one side of their personality to another with lightening speed. Pivoting around. So we're all becoming a little bit more like Clark Rockefeller than we used to be. But he was the master of inhabiting false exteriors. He's a sock puppet but inside the sock there's no hand really. There's no true self.


Crimesider: You speculate a little in the book about what Clark's "nature" might have been. Who do you think he is, at the core?

Kirn: He is a being who exists purely to take advantage of others. Who sees empathy as weakness, who sees a warm smile as an invitation to take advantage. Who sees trust as something that must be exploited. He looks at a warm, happy trusting person like a burglar looks at an unlocked door - something to go inside and create havoc with. I don't think he knows any other instinct but power. A sense of his own superiority and his own incredible intelligence versus the stupidity of the world is his ruling thought and I think his only motivation.

Crimesider: Did you ever speculate about whether he was born that way? Or bred?

Kirn: There are all kinds of people in this world who set out to distinguish themselves in all kind of ways. And it seems clear that fairly early on, he was a mischief maker, kind of a bully, kind of a sadistic little kid. Now I can't speculate on what went on behind closed doors when he was growing up, but so far there is no real evidence that he was ever the victim of any traumatic treatment.

There are these movies from the 50s about 'bad seed' children. Little kids who are just evil coming out of the box...and I think that kind of movie captures his essence. He's a bad seed.

Crimesider: Had violence or crime ever touched your life before Clark came into it?

Kirn: No, and one of the reasons he got into my life was because I think I was such a trusting young man. When I met him I was 36 years old, grew up in a town of 500 people in Minnesota - literally the town that Garrison Keillor based Lake Wobegon on. I took people at face value and so many witnesses in the murder trial had the same answer when asked, why did you believe this person, they said, I had no reason not to.

And Clark knew enough not to push people. He never asked me for money, he never angered me, so there was no reason to ever have a break or a confrontation.

Crimesider: Did he ever scare you?

Kirn: Not consciously, no. There was a time when I was alone visiting him in his house in New Hampshire and I was driving around these dark New England roads that night with him, and I realized as the silence settled in that I didn't know this guy next to me. I really couldn't even say why we were together. What did I want from him? Had I come up there to see J.D. Salinger, as he'd promised. Was I there because I wanted to make money editing his novels? Or just because I found his company so great?

After I turned this book in last October, the very night I sent off the manuscript I went to bed and two hours later I woke up in a cold sweat from a dream where I was back driving on a road and he turned to me and says, We have to stop the car, I think there's a flat tire. Let's get out and check. And I thought, if that guy gets a tire iron in his hand, I'm done with. And my heart was pounding. And that was the first time that I ever really felt the fear that I'd suppressed.

I think I was also afraid of him going forward. I spent the trial thinking he might get off. And I might have to deal with him again.

Crimesider: I was reading the book on the subway and I found myself looking around thinking, are any of these people living a lie? Has this experience made you more suspicious of people?

Kirn: Absolutely. I'm liable to be much more skeptical of what people tell me than I used to be. And the problem is is when you start being skeptical, everything starts sounding funny. You can meet somebody and they can very sincerely tell you, I was standing next to Reagan when he was shot...and you just go, bulls**t. Because all good stories have one thing in common: they're slightly unbelievable. It's hard now. He confused me a little bit.

Crimesider: After going through all this, do you think you could spot a con artist? Or, at least, a serial liar?

Kirn: I could spot a sociopath, if I had the right information or the right access. And I'll tell you what I think are the diagnostic keys. Number one, you go to the place they live. If you go to the rooms that are behind closed doors, that aren't set up for display, they look empty, cold, like an animal lives there. I remember going into his apartment in New York and his mansion in New Hampshire, and both places just not warm at all. Nothing personal.

A sociopath doesn't warm up their environment, doesn't make it cozy. They don't have to, when they're not performing, when they're not manipulating, when they're all alone, there's nothing. They could live in a fricking hamster cage.

Number two, their sense of humor is off. They don't understand when people make fun of themselves. Because they're narcissists, because they don't really have the gene that allows them to poke fun at themselves, they can't read it in others.

And another thing is that when there are human moments in which a certain emotional response is called for - like someone has died, or someone has gotten a new job - their responses are always phony-seeming and exaggerated. They perform human emotions because they know that's what you're supposed to do, but they don't have any inner sense of like, what scale. They've got a tin ear for grief and a tin ear for joy.

Crimesider: What do you hope people take away from this book?

Kirn: The takeaway is don't be overconfident. The lies and the deceptions that have not yet been exposed still seem like the truth to you. Be humble about your gullibility. That way you may not be such easy prey. Realize that the game of life is the game of, to some extent, being taken advantage of by people who make a science of it. Whether they are in government or personal life or in business, they're everywhere.

  • Julia Dahl

    Julia Dahl writes about crime and justice for CBSNews.com

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