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International con artist left an impression in Whistler

Having a patron skip out on a $4,200-plus dinner tab isn’t usually the stuff to make restaurant owners smile.

Having a patron skip out on a $4,200-plus dinner tab isn’t usually the stuff to make restaurant owners smile. However being one of the latest victims of alleged international con-man Christopher Rocancourt isn’t all bad, according to Bear Foot Bistro founder, Andre Saint-Jacques.

Since the RCMP’s arrest of Rocancourt and his common law wife in Oak Bay on Vancouver Island on April 26, any Whistler business that had dealings with the international fugitive during his four-six week stay here has been under the global media spotlight. After all, Rocancourt is wanted on four continents for allegedly swindling people out of millions of dollars. He now faces charges in provincial court in Vancouver for fraud, physical and sexual assault. An extradition request is also pending from New York State, where he is wanted on outstanding charges of grand larceny. Another extradition request is expected from Los Angeles police.

A true chameleon among men, 33-year-old Rocancourt has managed to change names, occupation and residencies more frequently than Whistler has had snow this season. Against the backdrop of New York’s ritzy playpen in the Hamptons last summer, the former orphanage boy from France managed to pass himself off as a member of the Rockefeller family, convincing some less savvy Hamptonites to hand over thousands of dollars to invest in phoney businesses. He has also passed himself off as a Russian prince – friend to the rich and famous. Place him against Whistler’s stunning mountain landscape this past March and April, and he looked just like another tourist with investments on his mind – at least until some of his stories stop adding up.

Pat Kelly, president of the Whistler Real Estate Company, met Rocancourt on only one occasion but says something wasn’t quite right. Rocancourt was allegedly going by the name Michael VanHoven and pretending to be a professional driver for Ferrari at the time.

"He certainly had the lifestyle of someone who could afford to look at million-dollar-plus houses and was very personable, glib and charming," Kelly recalls. "However people with a lot of money have a certain level of sophistication that he lacked in both clothes, speech and appearance, plus he was a little too outrageous all around."

But what about the growing number of millionaires out there, couldn’t he fit that mould?

"That type of property buyer carries pagers and laptops and they generally don’t have time to hang around a real estate office drinking champagne and flirting with all the female staff," Kelly says.

Rocancourt spent many hours with Kelly’s fellow realtor Don Wensley looking at local top-end homes before finally putting an offer on the $10 million Chateau du Lac property at Nita Lake. However Kelly says the deal suffered "contract interruptus" when the funding didn’t come through.

"Bankers are usually all over someone with the amount of wealth he claimed to have and have been fired for doing less – something was up."

Kelly believes the property offer was probably a smoke-screen designed to create the image that Rocancourt was a serious, solid investor in Whistler, especially since the man was showing people the property as if it was already his.

While realtors lost selling-time over their six week dealings with Rocancourt, others have lost money, including Whistler’s Bear Foot Bistro. Saint-Jacques says Rocancourt, along with his former Playboy model wife Pia Reyes and friends, dined and paid up several times – except for the last meal.

"He made a booking for 10 people worth around $175,000 and was going to pay the last bill then, but the special dinner never happened because he postponed it twice. The next time we heard of him, he was on the news being arrested."

Saint-Jacques says as a customer, Rocancourt was friendly but unusual.

"He seemed to have sudden angry mood swings and was a hard gentleman to gauge," he says. "He wanted to buy the restaurant but we told him it wasn’t for sale. For the most part though he was courteous and liked chatting to the staff and hostess."

Likewise Kirk Hampton, manager of Val d’Isere Restaurant, and Monica Hayes, the PR director of the Westin Resort & Spa, say Rocancourt was a good customer. He paid his bills at both establishments.

A Whistler worker who got to know a more personal side of Rocancourt, Reyes and their four year old son Zeus, is Nanny Network staff member, Sara Harvey. She says she initially babysat for the couple at The Bluffs in Taluswood and they told her their names were Maria and Michael VanHoven. However the business relationship developed into a friendship.

"We had so much fun and they were so nice that it’s hard to believe what’s coming out now," she says. "They never said anything bad about anyone and weren’t at all self involved like many rich people seem to be."

Harvey went out for lunches and dinners with the pair, and even took Rocancourt night-clubbing at Maxx Fish.

"He brought all of my friends drinks all night and tipped the doorman $100 to jump the line," she recalls. "We had a great night, it was really fun."

However she says Rocancourt sometimes acted "a bit sleazy and rang me too much" and she was closer to Reyes and the boy.

"She’s a really nice person to be around, very calm and always painting because she’s an artist. Zeus is a great kid and it’s obvious how much they both love him."

Harvey says Reyes told her of past problems in the marriage but says the couple were very affectionate with each other and appeared to be a genuine match. The only inconsistencies appeared when she asked them what they did for a living and how they knew so many Hollywood stars.

"They were pretty vague about their jobs, but Mia, as Michael called her, said she worked for Entertainment magazine and that they lived in New York." She laughs. "I guess I won’t be staying with them in New York after all. But I am worried about their son and hope he is OK."

Neil Aisenstat, owner/operator of the Savage Beagle nightclub, says the first thing he heard about Rocancourt was that he was allegedly planning to sue his club.

"He arrived here as a VIP guest from the Bear Foot after spending large there," he explains. "He had a few drinks here, champagne I think, but my staff asked him to leave because he was apparently being aggressive with a couple of local girls at the bar."

He says: "I’m sure there are some people who secretly admire the guy for getting away with so much, but I don’t think there is anything noble about lying to get people’s money. I think I would have spotted him as phoney straight away." He pauses and laughs. "Then again he sounds pretty smooth – I could be down ten grand."

Police are remaining tight-lipped as more details come to light in the case.