Have you ever heard of Michael Rockefeller?
Yes, Rockefeller was from that famous, incredibly rich family with Ohio roots. He was also the subject of a massive manhunt when he disappeared in the autumn of 1961 along the coastline of southeast Asia.
Decades later and he’s still the subject of one of the most famous cold cases of all time. Even Leonard Nimoy, of Star Trek fame, narrated a segment on him during his intriguing In Search Of series in 1978, 17 years after the disappearance.
Some say Michael Rockefeller was killed by headhunters in New Guinea and they ate his body and brains afterwards.
Some say he was devoured by sharks or saltwater crocodiles swimming to shore.
Some say he was swallowed by quicksand.
Some say he was kidnapped by pirates.
Some say he was living among the Indigenous people.
Some say he simply drowned.
But to this day, there’s not a lot of evidence to support any of those theories.
Michael Rockefeller was the son of then New York Governor and former U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, and the great grandson of the oil tycoon and then richest person in the world, Ohio’s John Rockefeller.
So when Rockefeller went missing in southeast Asia, it made world news. Although there was an extensive search and quite a cult following in the cold case world, not a single trace of him has been found.
Here’s an overview and breakdown of the leading theories:
After graduating from Harvard, the next spring in 1961, Rockefeller joined a documentary crew, organized through The Peabody Museum, to film the Dani/Hubula Indigenous people in western Netherlands New Guinea (the islands just north of Australia), pictured below.
When Rockefeller had a break from the project, he ventured south to the Asmat people, where he discovered their amazing works of art like the Asmat “bisj or bis poles.”
The poles were immaculate wood carvings of their ancestors, stacked on each other, some over 24 feet high.
Inspired by what he saw, in the fall of 1961, Rockefeller returned to New Guinea to gather as much native art as he could for a new museum in New York City.
Partnering with Dutch anthropologist René W. Wassing and two young “native boys,” they procured a fashioned catamaran-type boat and stuffed it with Asmat art over three weeks, meandering the jungle inlets of now Indonesia, through a series of rivers.
Walking on the land would have been a swamp bog death march. Also, they covered far more of the grid in their catamaran. They traded tobacco and ax heads for skulls and spears along the way.
On Nov. 17, 1961 the party of four set off from Asgats, a little fishing village, and went down the coast and towards the more remote tribes of the Asmat in the south.
Remember, modern medicine, gunpowder, the White man, were all still foreign concepts to some of the isolated Asmat villages until the mid 20th century.
Not long into the southern voyage on that day, their makeshift outrigger canoe hit the outpouring inlets of the Pulau River, and with the Betsj River colliding with the Arafura Sea they found themselves dealing with waves that the craft could not handle.
The current began carrying the boat out to sea and the two native boys that were helping, wisely jumped ship and swam to shore. There was time for Rockefeller and Wassing to do the same, but they had accumulated so much art, they refused to leave it behind.
The sea laughed at what they valued and eventually flipped the vessel over completely – wood sculptures once glowing like neon ivory rapidly descended and disappeared into the dark hollow sea.
Night fell and on they drifted, clinging to the side of the catamaran.
At dawn, according to later reports, land could barely be seen on the horizon – it was unknown how far they would have floated. Being strong in the water, Rockefeller decided he was going to swim for land.
“I think I can make it,” was the famous quote eventually relayed to the rescuers.
Tying two empty gas cans to his waist to serve as a floatation device, Rockefeller dove in and freestyled toward shore.
One gas container would later be discovered on the beach, and that’s the only proven physical evidence tied to this cold case.
Suspect One: The Ocean
A pilot involved with the search team wrote in his report that he’d never seen waters so infested with sharks. Estimates have Rockefeller and Wassing anywhere from 3, to 5, to 10 and beyond miles offshore. Any one of those distances would be enough to get the attention of sharks. It’s not just blood that would have attracted them, but sound.
Did the gasoline cans make Rockefeller a giant fishing lure?
Drowning was always a possibility, too. There’s no guarantee the body would float to the top, and even so, the Coral Sea is really just the Pacific Ocean. Finding a corpse needle in that haystack would be a massively understated analogy.
Wassing said he saw Rockefeller’s head “close to shore” before he lost sight of him completely. Moments later, the sound of airplanes could be heard overhead. The overturned vessel was quickly spotted and Wassing was rescued.
Hours earlier, the two native boys made it to shore, walked along the mud jungle coast back to Asgats and alerted Dutch officials of the situation. Rockefeller and Wassing had no idea that while they drifted in the night, a rescue team was being assembled north of them.
Trauma face – you’ll see it enough times on the wrong sub Reddit, photos of avalanche and fire survivors – their complete look of having been defeated, even though they were rescued. Alive, safe, but still wearing the torture on the brow, the survivor’s guilt. That eerie video clip when they got Wassing on the boat, his eyes looking ever-upward, his mouth and cheeks stuck in a catatonic indented line like a veteran smoker’s pull or trying to suck up an overly frozen milkshake from the straw.
One could entertain Wassing drinking salt water and going crazy or blaming Rockefeller for the pickle they were in and turning on him and killing him, but he doesn’t make the suspect list based on evidence, motive and logic.
We should also list crocodiles and quicksand in this category of suspects as Rockefeller could have made it to the shallows, only to be barrel-rolled and devoured by beast or mud.
Suspect Two: The Asmat People
OK, yes, it’s easy to point to the tribe of headhunting cannibals that simply could have slaughtered him for culture, food or revenge. It’s the prominent theory and was outlined in Carl Hoffman’s book, “Savage Harvest.”
Quick visual overview of the Asmat: mostly naked, spears and long shields, grass huts and dirt camp spots, decorated human skulls throughout the village.
A number of historians and even Hoffman, who lived with them for a time, have described the Asmat as a generally understanding and caring people, with amazing oral histories. But, they engaged in blood feuds and pretty much the only way to get revenge is by killing your enemy and eating his soul and making their skull into a cool nightstand piece.
Rockefeller had traded with other Asmat natives from a separate village, so he would have had some familiarity in terms of trying to explain what happened, who he was, etc., if he made it to shore.
In one report, the Dutch Deputy Governor assigned to New Guinea was upset that Rockefeller was trading for skulls. Ten steel hatchets would fetch you one head and the Governor thought Rockefeller was creating a demand for skulls.
There’s no record of Rockefeller having had previous contact with the Otsjanep tribe of the Asmat, the tribe whose beach he would have washed up on, where the gas can was found.
Either way, the Otsjanep would have had plenty of motive for revenge.
The Dutch colonizers wanted to end the practice of headhunting and sent a full force of appraiser officers to ensure the Asmat got the message.
The result? The infamous 1958 “Max Lapré Massacre,” where the five most important leaders of the Otsjanep village were gunned down. And there was only one way for that to be forgiven: with skulls and fine dining on flesh.
However, there are flaws in that theory.
Rockefeller wasn’t Dutch, but American. Also, why would they have waited three years for revenge? There were other White priests and officers and scientists roaming the area, it would not have been an impossible task to burn one of them in their fires, right?
Hoffman was contacted for insight but did not respond to inquiries.
Perhaps it came down to simple opportunity – a White man washed up on their coastline, a revenge gift from the gods.
Despite weeks of combing and searching, nothing existed of Rockefeller and eventually, there were no more planes in the sky. Every village had been questioned, ground searches came back with no trace. He had vanished.
Not long after the prop sound from the last plane turned blue sound wavelengths red, did the local missionaries begin to hear rumors.
Father van Pie reported in his correspondences to the Netherlands that a few Asmat people told him Rockefeller had been killed and eaten. According to Hoffman, van Pie asked around and was told that Rockefeller’s skull “hangs in the house of Fin (an Asmat tribesman).”
Hoffman also tracked down a man in the Canary Islands that used to live with the Otsjanep. He said they told him they killed Rockefeller with a fishing spear.
Father Anthony Van Der Wouw of the Sacred Heart Missionary noted in his report, “And the chiefs, there was Fin and Pep and Ajam. They were by the shore fishing and Fin stabbed Michael with his spear. Took him to shore and Ajam killed him.”
Father van Kessle started to investigate and listed in his correspondence that he was told the Asmat killed Rockefeller.
Dr. Ken Dresser, also on the ground at the time, left a note for van Kessle: “It is possible that Otsjanep killed Michael.” Dresser claimed that a nearby village had heard it from the Otsjanep people themselves.
Plenty of things were being told to priests and Dutch officials. But again, it was all second-hand accounts. No first-hand confessions.
Anthony van Kampen, however, believed Rockefeller didn’t die. Based on what he was told and his investigation, he concluded in his report that Rockefeller drowned or was held as a White idol.
Dep. Gov. A. Boendermaker, in a letter to Gerard Delloye, wrote: “Bones were looked at, not caucasian.”
Adrian Gerbrands, an anthropologist in the area, insisted that one should not trust the tales of the missionaries and asserted, “these people don’t kill Whites.” One would need to know his name to kill him, Gerbrands suggested.
Suspect Three: Pirates / He’s still alive / Is a captive)
Fraser C. Heston, son of “The Ten Commandments” star Charleton Heston, did a documentary on the cold case titled, “The Search for Michael Rockefeller.” While researching for his film, Fraser Heston found footage from a separate 1969 documentary that was shot in New Guinea eight years after Rockefeller went missing.
In one of the reels, there was a clip of long canoes with natives paddling across a river. They were all dark-skinned, cleanly shaven and naked, but in one of the canoes, there was a caucasian-looking man with a beard paddling like everyone else.
I spoke with the super helpful and friendly Paul Hudson of Outsider Pictures, which served as the distribution company for Fraser Heston’s film, about the project and he passed along my inquiry to his friend Heston. But Fraser Heston could not be reached for comment.
The doc examined whether or not the White man in the canoe could very well have been Michael Rockefeller. It’s a great deep dive and worth a watch for sure.
If that was Rockefeller, he didn’t have glasses on and would have been severely sight limited among the Asmat or another Indigenous group. Could they really have kept him a secret?
It’s easy to formulate a theory around a rich White kid from New York wanting to go his own way, abandoning all the first-world possessions and living with the natives.
Keep in mind, however, that many more “White men” were in the area by 1969.
The documentary further explored the case of Milt Machlin of Argosy Magazine. On Oct. 12, 1968. A man came into Machlin’s office and claimed to be a South Pacific smuggler, and said he ran into a White man on a secluded island that claimed he was Michael Rockefeller.
He gave coordinates of 150 degrees, 10 minutes east longitude, 8 degrees, 20 minutes south latitude. And those coordinates actually aligned with a Kanapu island and not terribly far from the Asmat people (boat voyage would have been required to relocate Rockefeller. The mystery man claimed “the argonauts of the Western Pacific,” the Trobrianders of the Trobriand Islands, may have come across him swimming to shore and captured him).
Machlin bought into the story and organized an expedition to explore the claim himself. I won’t spoil the journey or what Machlin finds, you’ll have to watch the film or read Machlin’s stories from Argosy Magazine.
I believe that Micheal Rockefeller never made it to shore. He drowned or was devoured. That’s why there’s only one gas can on the coast. That’s why there’s not a single shred of physical evidence in the Otsjanep village, no clothes, glasses, etc.
There’s a report that the Dutch government examined the bones thought to be Rockefellers and they were “not of a White man.”
If the skull of Rockefeller “hangs in the house of Fin,” where did it disappear to?
Why would the Otsjanep wait three years for blood revenge and how could they kill Rockefeller without knowing his name?
Why are there so many conflicting reports from the Dutch ambassadors and priests about rumors and investigations?
Using sonar, the search parties went over the ocean and concluded, based on that technology and even in such a massive search area, that Rockefeller wasn’t in the sea. More needs to be explored in that category.
What was the tide really like that morning? Ocean swimming is all about the tides, undertow, rip currents, etc. — not to mention jelly fish and kelp.
Cannibals and revenge and human skulls all make for a great story, but that may be all it is.
Rockefeller’s legacy lives on, however, with The Michael C. Rockefeller wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (“the Met”) in New York City. Also in The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, which was kind enough to give photo usage rights for this story.
Adam Doc Fox is the Director of Digital Marketing for Source Brand Solutions (SBS) and has investigated different cold cases over the past decade, including the Dyatlov Pass story which landed him on the History Channel. Want local unsolved and true crime? Check out the “Where’s Ben Brubaker?” series, reporting on Amy Mahalovic or the podcast, Chalk Murder to Me