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Defense rests its case in Rockefeller impostor murder trial

April 04, 2013|By Jack Leonard and Hailey Branson-Potts
  • The defense rested its case Wednesday in the trial of Christian K. Gerhartsreiter, center, accused of murder.
The defense rested its case Wednesday in the trial of Christian K. Gerhartsreiter,… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

Defense attorneys for a man who pretended to be a Rockefeller and is now charged with the cold-case murder of his San Marino landlady's adult son wrapped up their case Wednesday.

They focused 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.

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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 significant evidence pointing to Linda as her husband's killer.

The couple had been living with John Sohus' mother when they vanished. Gerhartsreiter — then known as Christopher Chichester — had been renting a guest house 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 Sohus' 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."

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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 in California. 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.

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

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 Sohus had created a "smoke screen" to cover the killing of her husband.

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. 

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jack.leonard@latimes.com

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