Rockefeller impostor convicted of cold-case murder
Attorney Brad Bailey sits with Christian Gerhartsreiter, right, as a verdict was reached at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in Los Angeles Wednesday, April 10, 2013. The jury found Gerhartsreiter guilty in the death of a California man nearly three decades ago. The verdict was reached Wednesday after the jury deliberated about a day. Testimony in the cold-case trial of Gerhartsreiter focused on the discovery of the bones of John Sohus long after he and his wife disappeared from his mothers home in San Marino, a wealthy Los Angeles suburb. The defendant, a German immigrant with delusions of grandeur, rented a cottage at the Sohus home in 1985 then disappeared about the same time as Sohus and his wife Linda who was never found. (AP Photo/San Gabriel Valley Tribune,Walter Mancini ) MAGS OUT; NO SALES; MANDATORY CREDIT
A photo of swimming pool area being unearthed 1994 and finding the remains of John Sohus in the backyard of a home on Loraine Road in San Marino is shown during final arguments by prosecutor Habib Balian in the murder trial of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, at Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in Los Angeles Tuesday, April 9, 2013. Gerhartsreiter has pleaded not guilty to the killing of John Sohus, 27, who disappeared with his wife, Linda, in 1985 while Gerhartsreiter was a guest cottage tenant at the home of Sohus' mother, where the couple lived. (AP Photo/San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Pool )
A German immigrant who spent decades posing as an heir to the fabled Rockefeller oil fortune and using other identities was found guilty yesterday in Los Angeles of first-degree murder in the death of a man whose bones were found buried nearly 20 years ago at a suburban home.
Christian Gerhartsreiter, 52, was convicted in the heavily circumstantial case that went to trial 28 years after the disappearance of newlyweds John and Linda Sohus.
Linda Sohus is still missing.
Much of the prosecution’s evidence focused on the strange behavior of the man who went by many names, including Clark Rockefeller, while a resident of Cornish, N.H.
“Sometimes you’re afraid that this guy’s conned so many people for so many years that this will be the one last time he pulls off his last con,” Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian said after the verdict. “But that didn’t happen.”
Balian said the passage of time always makes cold cases difficult.
The jury reached the verdict after deliberating for less than six hours over two days.
Before it was read, Gerhartsreiter entered the courtroom smiling, and his lawyers said later he was hopeful and optimistic. He did not show any reaction when a court clerk read the decision convicting him of killing John Sohus.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Denner told jurors during his closing argument Monday that there was reasonable doubt of his client’s guilt. After the conviction, he said Gerhartsreiter might have been his own worst enemy.
“The way he went through life deceiving people did not make him very likable to the jury,” Denner said. “But that doesn’t make him a killer.”
Jurors said they were less interested in the defendant’s life as an impostor than they were in the evidence.
“I’ve never known anyone with the ability to become so many people,” said jury forewoman Kristen Lee, an attorney. “But his character was his character. We were more concerned with the evidence.”
Denner and Brad Bailey, his partner on the defense team, said their client maintains he knows nothing about the woman’s disappearance.
Superior Court Judge George Lomeli set sentencing for June 26.
Prosecutors did not pursue the death penalty, so Gerhartsreiter could face a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison for the murder conviction, plus two additional years because the jury also found that he personally used a blunt object and a sharp instrument as weapons.
His lawyers said he is looking forward to an appeal.
Authorities said Gerhartsreiter is a German immigrant who lived another life long ago, occupying a guest cottage at the home of Sohus’s mother in San Marino, a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles. He was known then as Chris Chichester and intimated he was of royal lineage. He joined a church, befriended residents and told some he was a film student.
Residents didn’t connect Gerhartsreiter with the 1985 disappearance of the Sohus couple. He vanished soon after they did.
No trace of Linda Sohus has ever been found, but the bones of John Sohus were unearthed during excavation of a swimming pool at the San Marino property in 1994. With no clues, the mystery went cold again.
Across the country, a man variously known as Chris Crowe, Chip Smith and Clark Rockefeller was inventing new lives for himself.
This impostor wormed his way into high society and talked his way into important jobs. He married a wealthy woman and controlled her funds, but his identity unraveled when he kidnapped their daughter during a custody dispute.
His wife testified that he became increasingly paranoid when the police begin inquiring about him.
When he was finally unmasked, he became the subject of magazine articles, true crime books and TV movies that sought to explore his bizarre story.
The resulting publicity led California authorities to revisit the Sohus disappearance. They realized the man in custody in Boston was not an heir to the Rockefeller fortune but was the man who had lived in San Marino decades ago.