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Rockefeller impostor trial focuses on handwriting evidence

Lawyers for Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter point to Linda Sohus as her husband's likely killer. Experts say postcards sent after the couple vanished match Linda's script.

April 03, 2013|By Jack Leonard and Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times
  • Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter enters the courtroom in Los Angeles. His defense wrapped up their case after calling two handwriting experts to testify.
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter enters the courtroom in Los Angeles. His… (Walt Mancini / San Gabriel…)

Defense attorneys for a man charged with the cold-case murder of his San Marino landlady's adult son wrapped up their case Wednesday by focusing on an enduring mystery in the nearly 30-year-old whodunit: What happened to the victim's wife?

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter's lawyers called only two witnesses in his defense: a pair of handwriting experts who testified that they were all but sure Linda Sohus was the person who wrote several postcards mailed to her friends and family weeks after she and her husband went missing in early 1985.

The postcards, which were mailed from France, have played a key role in the defense argument that Gerhartsreiter had nothing to do with Linda and John Sohus' disappearance, and that there is as much evidence pointing to Linda as her husband's killer.

The couple had been living with John's mother when they vanished. Gerhartsreiter — then known as Christopher Chichester — had been renting a guesthouse on the property and left town soon afterward, reappearing on the East Coast using a series of different names, including Clark Rockefeller. John's body was discovered in 1994, buried in the backyard. Linda Sohus has never been found.

Barbara Torres, a forensic document examiner for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, testified that the handwriting on the postcards from France matched examples of Linda's handwriting, including a Halloween card and a letter to a man who had purchased some of her fantasy artwork. Another handwriting expert, Sheila Lowe, said she had a "high degree of professional certainty … that the handwriting on the postcards is authentic."

The three postcards — each with a short message scrawled on the back — were mailed to Linda's mother, her best friend and her boss several weeks after she was last seen. Defense attorneys have said she acted strangely, and told varying stories about her and her husband's plans and where they were going. She told some people that she and John were headed to New York for a secret government job for her husband, but never mentioned a trip to France.

Her boss, who ran a Sherman Oaks bookstore, testified that Linda did not have the money to travel abroad and had promised to open up the bookstore in the coming days before she disappeared.

Linda's best friend, Susan Coffman, testified that she last heard from Linda when her friend called to explain she was taking a two-week trip to New York because John had been given a job with the government that she couldn't say much about. Linda promised they would be back in time to go on a planned trip with Coffman to a science-fiction convention in Phoenix in March 1985, but Coffman never saw them again.

Then, out of the blue, a card with a photograph of the Eiffel Tower and an April 1985 postmark arrived. The message read: "Hi Sue — Kinda missed New York (oops) — but this can be lived with — John & Linda." There was no explanation or follow-up, something Coffman said was uncharacteristic of her friend.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Habib Balian has suggested that Linda may have written the cards while being tricked or under duress. He accused Gerhartsreiter of using someone to mail them from abroad to throw off police investigating the couple's disappearance.

"She did not write these postcards under normal circumstances," Balian told jurors earlier in the trial.

Gerhartsreiter's attorneys have noted there is no DNA or forensic evidence tying the postcards to their client. A Los Angeles County sheriff's criminalist testified last week that DNA tests showed that an unknown man had licked the stamps on two of the postcards and that the tests showed neither Gerhartsreiter nor Linda Sohus licked the stamps.

Defense attorney Brad Bailey suggested earlier in the trial that Linda had created a "smoke screen" to cover the killing of her husband.

Both sides agreed Wednesday that there is no record of John or Linda Sohus entering or exiting the United States since the beginning of 1985 and that neither ever applied for a passport.

Gerhartsreiter, who has shown little emotion throughout the trial, declined to testify in his own defense.

Closing arguments in the case are scheduled for Monday.

jack.leonard@latimes.com

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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