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Probe of missing San Marino couple ratchets up

March 27, 2009|My-Thuan Tran and Richard Winton
  • Linda and Jonathan Sohus of San Marino disappeared in 1985. The man they knew as Christopher Chichesterr rented a guest house from them.
Linda and Jonathan Sohus of San Marino disappeared in 1985. The man they… (Pasadena Star-News )

BOSTON AND LOS ANGELES — For more than two decades, police have suspected that something terrible happened at the tidy Spanish Colonial house in San Marino.

Jonathan and Linda Sohus, the young couple who lived there, vanished without a trace -- as did Christopher Chichester, the young man who rented the guest house.

Over the ensuing years, police have followed a complex trail that has taken them to Boston, Germany, Baltimore and beyond. They've dug up the backyard of the house twice looking for bodies.

Now, authorities may be about to finally make their case and answer the question: Did Chichester kill the Sohuses?

A Los Angeles County grand jury is interviewing witnesses in the case. Prosecutors declined to discuss their evidence -- and the man's attorneys hope the proceeding might finally remove their client from suspicion.

"It's time for the L.A. authorities to fish or cut bait on this murder charge," attorney Timothy Bradl said.

Chichester, whose real name is Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, is about to go on trial in Boston for allegedly kidnapping his daughter last year, a highly publicized case that prompted the L.A. County Sheriff's Department to reopen the San Marino investigation. He rented a guest house from the Sohuses in the early 1980s, using the name Chichester. But in 1985, the couple disappeared, and soon after, Gerhartsreiter also left.

Police investigated the disappearance, but the case didn't go far. Nine years later, though, as a new homeowner constructed a swimming pool, workers uncovered what is believed to be Jonathan Sohus' skeleton from the backyard.

But the trail again went cold until last summer, when Gerhartsreiter -- now going by the name Clark Rockefeller -- was accused of kidnapping his daughter during a supervised visit. Authorities eventually determined that Chichester and Rockefeller were the same person. They traced his roots to a small town in Germany, where he was born. L.A. County sheriff's detectives declared him a "person of interest" in the disappearance and suspected killing of the Sohuses.

Despite this, officials have made public little solid evidence they may have against Gerhartsreiter. He was ticketed driving Jonathan Sohus' truck in the late 1980s -- but Gerhartsreiter's attorney says his client simply bought the vehicle. It's unclear whether detectives made a DNA match from the bones found in the San Marino backyard.

Legal experts said that unless prosecutors have much stronger evidence, building a case against Gerhartsreiter could be an uphill battle.

"For a long time, they didn't know whether a crime had been committed and they didn't have any bodies," said Paul Bergman, a UCLA law professor who specializes in criminal law and evidence. "Without physical evidence, that is going to make it more difficult to secure a conviction."

Gerhartsreiter's attorneys insist that he played no role in the couple's disappearance and that he would speak with authorities about that only if he were granted immunity from prosecution. Bradl said he won't discuss the nature of his client's relationship with the Sohuses.

"It would be unprofessional and inappropriate to comment on evidence in California where there is a pending grand jury and we don't know what's being looked at," he said.

Gerhartsreiter's kidnapping trial is scheduled to begin in May in Boston. In a document filed in Suffolk County Superior Court this month, two experts diagnosed him with "dissociative disorder implicating issues of 'identity' and with aspects of delusion and grandiosity." They also diagnosed him with depression and bipolar disorder.

Jeffrey Denner, one of Gerhartsreiter's attorneys, said he worries that the San Marino case might taint the case in Boston.

"Perhaps being a person of interest in a double homicide does not give him the benefit of the doubt of presumed innocence," Denner said.

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my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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