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Rockefeller impostor ordered to stand trial in 1985 killing

Christian Gerhartsreiter is accused of murdering John Sohus, whose decaying remains were unearthed in San Marino in 1994. Many new details of the mystery were revealed in an Alhambra hearing.

January 25, 2012|By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times
  • Christian Gerhartsreiter, who called himself Clark Rockefeller among other aliases over the years, appears for the fifth and final day of his preliminary hearing in the slaying of John Sohus.
Christian Gerhartsreiter, who called himself Clark Rockefeller among… (Pool photo )

The tale of the brazen con man known as Clark Rockefeller who lied and charmed his way into New England high society has captivated the nation, so much so that it was made into a book and a Lifetime movie.

But a hearing that came to a close Tuesday asked if the man was capable of something far more sinister: Did he bludgeon a man to death, hack his body to bits, possibly with a chain saw, carefully wrap the pieces in plastic bags, then bury them all in the backyard of his victim's mother's home, all before setting out on his trail of deception from coast to coast?

After listening to five days of testimony, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Jared Moses late Tuesday ordered German-born Christian Gerhartsreiter to stand trial for the death of John Sohus, whose decaying remains were unearthed in San Marino in 1994. He ordered Gerhartsreiter to remain in custody in lieu of $10-million bail.

In the convoluted story told in an Alhambra courthouse, many new details of the three-decade-old murder mystery emerged — bloodstains, putrid black smoke, skull fractures, possible stab marks. Still, the prosecution's case was plagued by long-faded memories, gaps in forensic technology and allegations about a second victim whose body was never found.

One of the strongest pieces of evidence connecting Gerhartsreiter to the killing was presented at the very end of the hearing in a stipulated statement between the attorneys. A plastic bag that enveloped the skull, they said, bore a logo of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee that was in use from 1979 to 1982 only. Gerhartsreiter, they said, was a student there from 1980 to 1981.

Testimony jumped around in time and place but began with the description of a grisly discovery: A construction worker testified that he found the dismembered skeleton, encased in a fiberglass box and several feet underground, while digging a backyard pool.

The victim — DNA showed it was probably John Sohus — died of at least three strong blows to his head with a blunt object, leaving his skull cracked like an egg shell, a forensic medical examiner said. Body parts had been separately wrapped in plastic bags — spine and ribs still encased in a T-shirt, foot bones in socks and boots.

At the time his remains were found, witnesses said, John Sohus had not been seen or heard from since early 1985. He was then newly married to his wife, Linda. Witnesses said the couple were in love but struggled with money problems and Linda's desire to move out of the home of John's alcoholic mother, Ruth "Didi" Sohus.

A number of witnesses said they were baffled by the couple's abrupt disappearance — especially in the case of Linda, who left behind her treasured artwork and animals. Although her body was never located, authorities have said they presume her to be dead.

Some things about the man who lived in Didi's guesthouse around the same time were distinctive enough that they had stuck in the witnesses' minds through the years.

One couple testified that Gerhartsreiter, then using the name Christopher Chichester, tried to sell them an Oriental rug with what looked like a bloodstain on it and didn't deny that the spot was blood when they pointed it out.

Judge Moses said he would consider Gerhartsreiter's lack of a denial to be a so-called adoptive admission that the stain in fact was blood.

Another witness, a church acquaintance, remembered lending Gerhartsreiter a chain saw.

Gerhartsreiter vanished shortly after John and Linda went missing. When he emerged in Connecticut as Christopher Crowe, witnesses said, he acted like a man with something to hide.

A New York woman who dated him for seven years, living with him for most of that time, testified that when a Connecticut detective called looking for him, Gerhartsreiter said he had to go into hiding and began taking precautions.

She said he dyed his hair and eyebrows blond, grew a beard and insisted on shredding documents and throwing away trash at public shopping malls. As Crowe, he gave an acquaintance a white Nissan pickup truck — a vehicle registered to John Sohus, according to testimony.

The passage of time since the 1985 homicide proved to be the biggest obstacle for prosecutors.

Two witnesses failed to recognize Gerhartsreiter in court, and one of them, an 81-year-old woman, repeatedly picked out a television cameraman as the young man she knew in the 1980s.

A criminalist testified that she found four bloodstains in the backyard guesthouse where Gerhartsreiter once lived, but technology to identify whom the blood belonged to did not exist at the time she examined the scene.

A San Marino neighbor testified that she saw black smoke from the man's chimney, which he told her was from burning carpet, but had trouble recalling when the incident occurred.

During testimony, Gerhartsreiter, now balding and pasty, sat hunched over between three Boston defense attorneys, occasionally taking notes and at times resting his chin on his hand.

After the judge's order, attorney Jeffrey Denner said his client was "somber."

"He's always maintained his innocence," he said. "At the end of the day he believes he will be vindicated."

Gerhartsreiter is due back in court Feb. 9 for arraignment.

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