Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Michael Rockefeller

"Michael, You're Mad"

Michael Rockefeller
Michael Rockefeller

Michael Rockefeller was in a pickle that all the money in the world couldn't fix.

He was clinging to an overturned catamaran in roiling waters off the coast of New Guinea, where he had gone on an adventure to collect primitive art. He reckoned he had two choices.

He could hold on to the bobbing hull and hope for an uncertain rescue, or he could swim for shore, roughly five miles away.

The current was against him, and he risked a confrontation with a shark or crocodile.

He decided to swim for it.

He was, after all, a Rockefeller, scion of the fabled family of industrialists, philanthropists and politicians.

Just before he set off, Rockefeller, 23, tried to reassure his catamaran companion, a Dutch anthropologist named Rene Wassink. Wassink, a poor swimmer, had decided to stay with the overturned boat, and he tried to persuade the stubborn Rockefeller against his plan.

Jerry-rigging a life preserver, he emptied two gasoline cans into the Arafura Sea, tightened the lids and bound them together with rope. He stripped down to his underwear and bound his spectacles to his head with twine.

And off he went, paddling toward the forbidding mangrove swamps that lined the southwest coast of the world's second-largest island.

Wassink watched the swimming figure slowly disappear into the watery horizon.

The Dutchman was rescued just nine hours later, on Nov. 19, 1961.

Rene Wassink
Rene Wassink

But Michael Rockefeller was lost, and that was big news around the world. His family was American financial and political royalty. Michael was the great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil Co., and son of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

Gov. Rockefeller and Michael's twin sister rushed to New Guinea after word of his disappearance reached civilization. They were followed closely by more than 100 journalists.

They searched frantically for 10 days at what the press called the end of the earth, where Stone Age cultures had survived. Finally, Nelson Rockefeller held a press conference to say that he had reached the conclusion that his son had died at sea before reaching shore.

With a stiff upper lip, he boarded a chartered jet back to the U.S., and the story retreated from the front pages.

But over time, the disappearance of the earnest, intelligent and impossibly wealthy young man entered American lore, joining a pantheon of missing persons that includes Ambrose Bierce, Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa and D.B. Cooper.

As with each of the other lost luminaries, various theories about Michael Rockefeller's fate have been floated over the years.

Did he simply drown, as his family concluded? Or did he decide to go native and lose himself in the jungles of New Guinea? Was he a meal for a shark or a crocodile? Or, in the most sensational speculative twist, was he a pale human trophy for New Guinean headhunters?

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