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Chasing Christopher Rockefeller

By Bob Gilmartin, Producer Dateline NBC

It was an anniversary of sorts. I first heard of the phony Rockefeller (a.k.a. Christopher Rocancourt) on Labor Day, 2000 reading about him in the New York tabloids. Within days, I would be assigned to report on the French fugitive which meant trying to find anyone who knew him to see if we could make contact with him.

And then almost eight years to the day after first reading about him, here I was at one of Paris' most elegant hotels, the Meurice, the hotel where the Nazis made their headquarters in Paris during World War II, sitting down with the con man for the third time in eight years.

The first time I met Rocancourt was in a Canadian prison in 2001, then in Paris after his release from a U. S. prison and return to France in 2006. Here I was eight years later to update his story for a new report on Dateline. This would be our third story.

I hadn't seen him since 2006, but in typical French fashion, he greets me with a kiss on both cheeks when I met him in the lobby.

For a moment I felt like I should shake his hand strongly and talk about football, but c'est la vie.

The former orphan and ex-con always seems nervous, jumpy, looking over his shoulder. He's an ants in his pants, can't sit down for a minute kind of guy.

Before we can start our interview, it always takes at least an hour for him to put down his cell phone, stop talking to his entourage, and the twenty-something women that just seem to appear and leave constantly.

But when he sits down, lights hot, mic on his lapel, and camera rolling, Christopher, "the actor," and con man comes to life. He likes to, wants to, needs to be engaged and engaging.

Can you believe anything he tells you? Not unless you can confirm it with outside sources. After what he told me his life was like now, there would be a lot of confirmation to do.

It was all just too unbelievable.

The list is long: walking the red carpet in Cannes, a acting role in a major movie, a job as a TV host and the list went on and on. Just two years ago, he was getting prison "tats" on his chest and back in Allenwood Federal Correctional Center while serving his five year sentence.

And so we checked out his stories, and unbelievably, they were all true.

The list of things he was doing was confirmed in photos, videos and conversations with people who, for better or worse, have gone into business with the former con man. Like him , they are all making money from the story of the Phony Rockefeller.

We had heard about him being on the red carpet at the Cannes film festival with Naomi Campbell back in May, but we had no idea how much more there was. Catherine Breillat, the director, who is casting Christopher and Naomi Campbell - both first time actors - in her movie is very well known and controversial in France.

On the Web, I found an article by Brian Price recently who teaches film at New York University. In writing about one of her films, "Romance," Price writes, "The film is sexually explicit...hence the many accusations leveled against Breillat that she is a pornographer."

But far from being a pornographer, according to Price's article, she also has worked with famous directors like Bertolucci, and Fellini. 

We also talked with her in Paris. A lovely woman who had an accident recently that left her partially paralyzed and walking with a cane. She thinks she will start shooting her movie in 2009.

Which brings us back to Christopher. Why would a well known director use a guy with a broken nose, who grew up a street thug in Paris, and a hustler in the U.S. for a starring role?

One reason, you could argue is that it would be an easy movie to publicize - the first movie of the Phony Rockefeller. But that  does not seem the motivation for the director. She talks about her art, and her characters and how she likes to mold unknowns and shape their performances. I'm curious to see how the critics react to Christopher's first acting role.

Here in the states we will, according to the producer, see the other movie, "A.K.A." involving Rocancourt. It is the authorized life story of Rocancourt who sold the rights to his story for the movie.

Most of it will be shot in English even though it is being made by a French producer, Thomas Langmann. He told me it will be a very expensive film, because it will all be shot on location in New York, Los Angeles and, of course, France. He said he got the inspiration to visit Rocacourt in prison and buy the rights to his story after he saw Dateline's segment back in April, 2001.

He is still looking for an actor to play Christopher, a Frenchman certainly, but one who can speak enough English to play the role.

And the media juggernaut, continues for Rocancourt with a third book, a French National Geographic series of documentaries on U.S. Prisons, and other film projects.

Where will it all end? Rocancourt says he thinks he will make at least as much money from these projects, as he did during his life of crime. He told us two years ago that his con jobs earned him an estimated $40 million.

Christopher Rocancourt's personal life is, of course, as controversial as his public life. He has three children with three different women. For an a man who was left an orphan at five years old and who's walked away from his own children, Rocancourt is full of contradictions. 

When asked about this topic, he says he continues to see his two children. However, he only mentions two. There is a third child, his first born to an American woman in California. That child is never really counted by him in his conversations. The mother of the child told me years ago she never wants Rocancourt in her or her daughter's life again.

This woman actually turned him into the FBI when they were first married based on an outstanding warrant from Switzerland. They were divorced even before he met his second wife Pia Reyes, mother of his son, Zeus.

And how do you account for the former Miss France, Sonja Roland, who was arguably the most beautiful woman in France falling for Rocancourt, and having a child with him.

Funny, whenever you look at Rocancourt's face, it is usually a poker face especially when he is not talking to someone. It's hard to imagine the man has a glib tongue, easy smile and the ability to talk people into doing just about anything for him.

I spent about 48 hours in Paris for this most recent report, and it was interesting to watch Rocancourt, a bold face name in France, walk down the street. You can hear people whisper, "Rocancourt," as he passes.

He says that all of the people coming up to him on the street has become annoying. He says he's learned to say, "nice to meet you," and smile over and over again, and that is taxing on him. Poor Christopher! Yeah, right.

Of course, the most amazing revelation during my interview with Rocancourt was the fact that he was in the Elysee Palace, the French presidential palace in Paris. He couldn't be telling the truth, I thought. As we were doing our interview, he said, in a casual manner that we should check with the local Paris TV channel. He said they have the video to prove it, but that they didn't put it on TV. A conspiracy, he suspected.

Sure enough when our Paris producer, Nancy Ing, who knows everyone and everything in Paris checked, she found it. There it was about 12 minutes of video of him at the palace. The only thing they didn't have was a shot of him and President Sarkozy, who he says, he met.

As to whether he was kidding us about going into politics, who knows. If he can play a Rockefeller, perhaps he can go into politics. As he told us, "why not, it's full of crooks."

Of course, we will be following his story in the years to come. I'm just not sure, if our next trip to France will be for his swearing in ceremony, or the day the gendarmes put the cuffs on him for some wild scheme. "On va voir." (French for, "We will see.")