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A years-long search in vain

Friends and family tried but couldn't find missing San Marino couple

August 21, 2008|Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

Kathy Jacoby knew something was wrong soon after her half-sister Linda Sohus disappeared along with her husband Jonathan in the spring of 1985.

Sohus told Jacoby they were going on a job-hunting trip to Connecticut. But they never returned to their San Marino home. Linda Sohus abandoned her job at a bookstore as well as her four cats.

Jacoby, then 22, lacked the money to hire a private investigator. So she became her own detective. That April, she called her sister's boss, mother-in-law and friends and filed a missing-persons report with San Marino police. Jacoby eventually received a postcard purportedly from her sister postmarked from France, but that only heightened her concern.

Nothing came of her detective work, and her sister's case languished for decades. Jacoby looked for Sohus in crowds, stopping each time she saw the back of a tall, stocky blond, waiting until the woman turned, hoping that it might be her sister.

It never was.

The case of the young couple was largely forgotten until this month, when investigators named a Boston man who is being held there on unrelated kidnapping charges as a "person of interest" in the disappearance and suspected killings of Linda, 28, and Jonathan Sohus, 26. Authorities believe that the man, Clark Rockefeller, lived in the Sohus' guest house as Christopher Chichester at the time the couple disappeared. Rockefeller has denied any involvement with the disappearance.

The reopening of the long-cold case has forced friends and family to reexamine memories of the couple's disappearance.

John and Linda Sohus were both avid science-fiction fans, and their disappearance fueled rumors and speculation among those who knew them from the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society and Dangerous Visions Bookstore in Sherman Oaks, where Linda Sohus worked. Friends believe they met either at a society meeting or at the bookstore.

The bookstore's owner, Lydia Marano, 56, of Northridge, received a postcard from France similar to Jacoby's after the couple disappeared, which made no sense, she said. Linda Sohus was a clerk at the bookstore, and John Sohus had a low-level job working with computers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. They could not afford a trip to France, Marano said.

Marano said she wondered at the time how the couple could have gotten the money for the European trip.

"They were both very naive," she said.

Linda Sohus was well-known within the society as a fantasy artist who drew mystical cover art for society publications under the name "Cody," and friends said she sold a small illustration to the New Yorker magazine for $700.

Galen Tripp, a member of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society who worked with Sohus at the bookstore, described her as a strong, outgoing woman -- no pushover.

"She was very self-assured," Tripp said. "The idea that anyone could con her doesn't seem right to me."

Some of the couple's friends in the society also received postcards from France, fueling the mystery.

"I think the handwriting on the postcard I've seen isn't the same as Linda's handwriting," said a 49-year-old computer engineer and science fiction fantasy art collector, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because he didn't want to become embroiled in the case. "It is someone trying to pretend to be Linda."

The collector said he met Sohus in 1984 at a science-fiction convention in Los Angeles. He commissioned her to do a piece of art featuring centaurs -- but then she disappeared without a word after conversations in January 1984.

"Then all of a sudden I cannot reach her," he said. "I have dealt with a lot of artists. She wasn't a flaky artist. She wasn't anything like that. She was very quick about sending stuff. She was very excited to be doing the work."

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Married on Halloween

The couple married on Halloween 1983 and moved in with John Sohus' mother, Ruth "Didi" Sohus, whom they cared for at her home on Lorain Road.

Martha Harvey, 77, a former neighbor, remembered Jonathan "Johnny" Sohus as an undersized child, a quiet, creative outsider who struggled in school and had few friends. He grew into a science fiction fan who volunteered at the local library as an adult and often went to see Ray Bradbury speak, she said.

After the couple disappeared, Didi Sohus did not initially believe they were missing. Former San Marino police detective Tricia Gough, who worked the case, said Didi Sohus told investigators that her son and daughter-in law disappeared in February 1985, but she did not initially report them missing because the man staying in the guest house, Chris Chichester, told her that they were on "a secret mission" in Europe.

Didi Sohus later sold the house, moved to a trailer park and died of a heart attack in 1988.

Meanwhile, her ex-husband, Robert Sohus, John Sohus' adoptive father, suspected that John had come to harm.

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