Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal. Copyright © 2011 by Mark Seal
Sunday, July 27, 2008
The plan was foolproof, the route rehearsed, the cast of characters in place, the itinerary perfectly organized. Outwardly calm but with his heart racing, he was at last ready to accomplish what he had been so meticulously planning for months.
He had come a long way to land in this privileged place, a fifth-floor room in Boston’s Algonquin Club, a venerable bastion of the most blue-blooded city in America, a preferred meeting place since 1886 for U.S. presidents, heads of state, and local and national aristocrats. He belonged here; he was a member of the board and a familiar presence in the club’s impossibly grand rooms, with their tall ceilings, museum-quality paintings, and uniformed staff, all of whom he had come to know and rely upon. His name was James Frederick Mills Clark Rockefeller— Clark to his friends but Mr. Rockefeller to everyone else.
“Good day, Mr. Rockefeller,” the waiters would say as he sat for breakfast or lunch in the dining room, with its four fireplaces and a magnificent view of Commonwealth Avenue. Or “Good evening, Mr. Rockefeller,” as they fetched him his evening sherry in the book-lined library, surrounded by the portraits of past members, whose ranks included President Calvin Coolidge and a Who’s Who of American dignitaries. At forty-seven, he was well entrenched as a link in the country’s most fabled family, which traced its lineage back to John D. Rockefeller, who founded Standard Oil and created a dynasty of philanthropists.
Lately, a cloud had darkened Clark Rockefeller’s usually sunny façade. This explained why he was living, instead of merely lunching, in the Algonquin, which served its members as a haven not only from the unruliness of the outside world but also from temporarily painful and unfortunate events such as marital separation and, as in Rockefeller’s case, divorce. Today, however, he had reason to rejoice. He was going to spend it with his adorable little daughter, Reigh, a precious, precocious seven-year-old he called Snooks.
It was a bright Sunday morning, and he put on his customary uniform: well-worn khakis, a sky blue Lacoste shirt with the crocodile embroidered over the heart, Top-Sider boat shoes (as always, without socks), and a red baseball cap emblazoned with the word YALE. He adjusted his heavy black-framed glasses, which some people thought brought Nelson Rockefeller to mind, and proceeded from his room down the wide wooden stairway. After passing through the club’s hallway, redolent of polish and leather, he entered the imposing front lobby, where Snooks was waiting for him, along with the clinical social worker who was to chaperone their eight-hour visit. Even though Rockefeller’s ex-wife, Sandra, was just a few blocks away, she had followed a court order to ferry the child through the social worker.
“Hi, Daddy!” Snooks exclaimed, rushing over to hug him. She was small for seven, with a blond pageboy haircut and a crooked smile, wearing a sundress. Around noon, Rockefeller hoisted her on his shoulders and started walking toward Boston Common, where they had talked about riding the swan boats in the Public Garden. “Good morning, Mr. Rockefeller,” people said as he passed, for he was well known in this Beacon Hill neighborhood, having lived here for years in a four-story, ivy-covered $2.7 million town house on one of the best streets in the city. That was before Sandra dragged him through a painful and humiliating divorce, taking not only the Beacon Hill house but also their second home, in New Hampshire. She had also won custody of Snooks and moved her all the way to London, where she now worked, leaving him with only three court-supervised eight-hour visits per year. Today was the first, and his daughter had to be accompanied by Howard Yaffe, the social worker who was tagging behind them like a creaky third wheel.
But Clark Rockefeller still had his name, his intelligence, an extraordinary art collection valued at close to a billion dollars, good friends in high places, and cherished private club memberships along the eastern seaboard, where he could avoid bourgeois hotels and restaurants. Although he’d lost Snooks, he’d gotten $800,000 in the divorce settlement, and today he had his adored daughter back with him.
He turned the corner onto Marlborough Street, the tree-lined avenue where Teddy Kennedy once kept a residence. A black SUV was parked at the curb far down the block. Behind the wheel was Darryl Hopkins, a down-on-his-luck limo driver who had had the good fortune to pick up a Rockefeller in the rain one day. He had been driving through downtown Boston the previous summer when he spotted the dignified gent— soaking wet, dressed as if he had just been sailing—attempting to flag down a cab. Hopkins screeched to a stop and offered him a lift. Since then, Hopkins and his distinguished passenger had become something of a team. Rockefeller didn’t have a driver’s license but always seemed to have somewhere he needed to go, and Hopkins was more than happy to provide wheels for him.
Mr. Rockefeller had the kind of peculiarities that the driver expected from very rich people. He spoke in a heavy East Coast rich boy’s lockjaw and dressed exclusively in the uniform of the Wasp aristocracy: blue blazers and rep ties or ascots, when he wasn’t wearing khakis and a polo shirt. Before Rockefeller’s wife and little daughter had decamped for London, Hopkins used to drop off Snooks at Southfield, the exclusive private girls’ school in Brookline, and pick her up.
Today was a bit unusual. Rockefeller had told Hopkins that he and Snooks had a sailing date in Newport with the son of Lincoln Chafee, the former Rhode Island senator who was known to be a “Rockefeller Republican.” But he said he had a problem—a clingy family friend he would have to ditch before they got in the limousine. He offered $2,500 for Hopkins’s help.
Shortly after noon, Hopkins was parked on Marlborough Street when he saw them strolling toward the limo, a short three-person parade— Rockefeller with Snooks on his shoulders, trailed by a compact middle-aged man wearing jeans and a bright yellow polo shirt.
As they approached the vehicle, Rockefeller put Snooks down and stopped to point out one of the street’s particularly stunning historic homes. When Yaffe turned to look at the building, the scion of the famous family tackled him with a body block that slammed the social worker to the ground.
Hopkins had already started the engine when Rockefeller snatched open the back door, yelled, “Get in!” to his daughter as he shoved her onto the seat—with such force that the doll she had been carrying flew out of her hands—and leaped in after her.
As Rockefeller yanked the door shut, Yaffe scrambled to his feet, grabbed the handle, and tried to climb inside. “Go, go, go!” Rockefeller ordered, and Hopkins stepped on the gas, dragging the social worker several yards before he finally let go, hitting his head on the side of the vehicle before crashing to the pavement.
Inside the limo, Snooks was wailing and holding her head, which had slammed into the doorframe as her father thrust her into the car.
“What happened?” Hopkins asked her, glancing into the rearview mirror as he sped away.
“Did you hit your head?”
“I didn’t just hit it, I smashed it,” said the little girl.
“Well, at least we got rid of Harold,” said Rockefeller, meaning Howard Yaffe.
“I know, Daddy,” said Snooks, her crying subsiding as she began to calm down.
Rockefeller barked orders at Hopkins—Take a right, then a left, now right, left—until they were in front of a cab parked outside the White Hen Pantry convenience store on Beacon Hill.
“Stop right here!” cried Rockefeller. The plans for Newport had changed, he announced. He wanted to take his daughter to Massachusetts General Hospital to have her head injury checked, and he would grab this cab. “Wait for me at the Whole Foods parking lot,” he said, throwing an envelope containing cash onto the front seat.
Once in the taxi, Rockefeller directed the driver not to Mass General but to the Boston Sailing Center. A few minutes later, he and Snooks were climbing into the back of a white Lexus SUV. In the driver’s seat was Aileen Ang, a thirty-year-old Asian American piano and flute teacher and Web designer. She had met Rockefeller one year earlier at a members’ night at the sailing center. Ang had found him eccentric but not unexpectedly so, given his pedigree, and as time passed she had gotten to know him fairly well, just as a friend.
Recently, he had told her that he was going to sail around the world with his daughter in his new seventy-two-foot sailboat. He invited Ang to join them, saying she could give Snooks piano lessons. Then, just two days ago, her cell phone had rung when she was in a movie theater. She later found that Clark had left her a voicemail asking, “Are you ready to go cruising?”
She called back to say she couldn’t go, and he said fine, but could she drive him to New York City, where his boat was docked? Of course, he said, he would pay for her gas and her time, a sum of $500. Since Aileen knew he couldn’t drive, she agreed.
On Sunday, she was waiting in her car outside the Boston Sailing Center when Rockefeller and his daughter rushed over and crawled into the backseat. “If you don’t mind, I’m going to sit back here, because Snooks has a headache and I want to take care of her,” he said. Ang started the car.
“Where are we going, Daddy?” Snooks asked.
“We’re going to our new boat,” he told her.
Then the father and daughter both lay down in the backseat. Soon after Ang entered Rhode Island, Rockefeller climbed into the passenger seat and asked to borrow her cell phone. Later she picked it up and saw that he had turned it off.
With pounding rain and terrible traffic, the trip stretched to almost seven hours. At one point Ang turned her phone on and saw that she had four messages.
“Just leave it alone,” Rockefeller ordered. Dutifully she switched it off again. As she drove, she could hear Rockefeller and Snooks talking, playing games, and singing songs.
“I love you too much, Daddy,” Snooks said at one point.
As they were driving into New York City, Clark told Ang to head toward Forty-second Street and Sixth Avenue, where he and Snooks would catch a cab to Long Island for the boat launch. She got stopped in traffic in front of Grand Central Terminal, and before she could even pull over, he said, “I’m going to get off here and grab a cab.” He tossed an envelope filled with cash onto the front seat, grabbed his daughter, and took off without even saying goodbye.
As Ang watched them walk away, she turned her phone back on. It rang almost immediately. “What’s your Rockefeller friend’s first name?” asked the caller.
Ang was perplexed. “Clark,” she said.
“Well, he’s just abducted his kid and hit a social worker. They’re looking for him all over Massachusetts. There’s an Amber Alert.”
“They just got out of my car!” said Ang. “What should I do?”
“Call the police!”
Several hours earlier, back in Boston, Howard Yaffe had sat up dazed in the street. His hip, chin, shoulder, and knee were bruised and bleeding, and his head was throbbing. He managed to pull out his cell phone and dial 911. “A dad has just kidnapped his daughter!” he told the dispatcher. Once he’d given the necessary details, he called the Four Seasons Hotel, where Rockefeller’s ex-wife was staying.
“Sandy, he’s got her,” he said. “I don’t know what to tell you. He’s got her. I’m on Marlborough Street. The police are here.”
Sandra Boss, a tall, attractive woman with a usually confident air, rushed to the scene in a cab. Devastated and distraught, she was crying and frantically pacing in the street. Then a thin, grizzled private investigator ran up to her. Boss had hired his company to send someone to watch Rockefeller and Snooks secretly from the park, but the PI had bungled the stakeout. Yaffe and Boss could only stand there, dumbfounded, and wait for the police to arrive. The getaway point was about to become a crime scene.
“I knew this would happen!” Boss told the police when they got there. “You’ll never find them now!”
“Why?” asked one of the officers.
“Because he’s not who he says he is.”
After twelve years of marriage, she had only recently come to realize this. During their divorce proceedings, in the summer of 2007, Boss had filed an affidavit calling into question her husband’s identity. He shot back with his own legal response, signed, sworn to, and filed in court, under penalty of perjury:
Sandra L. Boss and I met on February 5, 1993, and ever since then she has known me by my one and only name, James Frederick Mills Clark Rockefeller. If I indeed had a different name, one would find it difficult to imagine that in nearly 15 years such a fact would not have come to light, particularly since Sandra throughout our life together met many persons who have known me by the same name for much longer than she has known me.
Now he was sending out another response: Catch me if you can.
An ambulance rushed Yaffe to the hospital with a concussion. Detective Joe Leeman from the Boston Police Department drove the frantic Boss back to her hotel, and she gave him pictures of her daughter and ex-husband, which were quickly distributed far and wide.
Meanwhile, at police headquarters, clerks proceeded to enter Rockefeller’s name into various databases. They found nothing. One of them called the detectives, who put Boss on the phone. To their amazement, she claimed that Clark did not have a social security number or a driver’s license and that she had never seen his tax returns.
What about credit cards and cell phones?
His credit cards had been in her name, she explained. As far as she knew, he didn’t have a passport or a checking account. Since their divorce, she had reached him at a cell phone number listed in the name of a friend. She couldn’t give them any information that would help trace him.