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A simple fabulist, or a killer clever at covering his tracks?

In the murder case of the man who once called himself Clark Rockefeller, his history of fabrications leads prosecution and defense to different conclusions. Closing arguments begin this week.

April 07, 2013|By Hailey Branson-Potts and Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times
  • Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter is accused of killing John Sohus, 27, of San Marino in 1985.
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter is accused of killing John Sohus, 27, of… (Walt Mancini, Associated…)

He mixed with the well-to-do in the upscale suburb of San Marino, proclaiming himself an English baronet who taught film at USC.

He briefly settled in a wealthy Connecticut enclave, convincing locals he was a successful television producer. He talked his way onto Wall Street, persuading one firm to let him run a bond trading desk.

But it was his fraudulent claims of being a member of the famous Rockefeller family that led to his most lucrative success — and, ultimately, his downfall.

For the last three weeks, both the prosecution and defense in the downtown Los Angeles murder trial of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter have highlighted the German native's numerous fabrications. Both are using his history of deceit to their advantage in the case, which revolves around the 1985 killing of his landlady's adult son in San Marino and the victim's missing wife.

Gerhartsreiter's use of false identities has taken on added importance to the prosecution, which is hampered by a lack of DNA or other strong forensic evidence connecting him to the killing, as well as by the faded memories of witnesses. Deputy Dist. Atty. Habib Balian has argued that Gerhartsreiter went to extreme lengths after the killing to hide his true identity from authorities, particularly when he realized detectives wanted to talk to him.

But defense attorneys point to their client's long history of fictional tales, saying they were part of a pattern that began as soon as he arrived in the United States, years before the killing.

"They've proven that he's a strange guy, an odd guy, a guy who may have tried to get things from other people, like meals and housing, but not much else," attorney Brad Bailey told jurors.

As closing arguments begin Monday, jurors have been left with two conflicting portraits of Gerhartsreiter: one as a simple fabulist, the other as a killer covering his tracks.

Gerhartsreiter was born in 1961 in the small Bavarian town of Bergen. His father was a sign-maker and his mother a homemaker, according to one witness who met them. As a teen, Gerhartsreiter talked of leaving Germany and his interest in the film industry.

He arrived in the U.S. in 1978 at 17, eventually enrolling at a high school in Berlin, Conn.

Edward Savio's family took him in. Savio said he liked the German student who wore tight jeans and claimed that his father was a wealthy industrialist who supplied parts for Mercedes-Benz.

Gerhartsreiter experimented with American accents, trying to perfect his speech, Savio said. Gerhartsreiter was kind to Savio and his sister, but he was dismissive of the rest of the family, telling Savio's mother her cooking was terrible and that he "would never live like this."

Gerhartsreiter soon enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he dated Elaine Siskoff, a student. Siskoff recalled how he asked her to be his bride in a "sham marriage" so he could get a green card. She refused, but her sister agreed.

After the wedding, Gerhartsreiter took off, telling Siskoff he was going to California for an internship with "Star Wars" director George Lucas, she testified.

He landed in San Marino, ingratiating himself with older parishioners at an Episcopal church and bragging that he was descended from British royalty. He passed out a business card with a family crest and a new name: Christopher Chichester, the 13th baronet.

He presented a friend from church with a paper bag filled with tea, saying it was from his family's plantation abroad. He hung around the USC film school, telling some he was a student and others he was a professor.

Though he boasted of wealth, he drove an old car and always seemed hungry, said a friend, Dana Farrar. Another friend said she could tell he was masking an accent and spoke like Thurston Howell III, the wealthy character on "Gilligan's Island."

Gerhartsreiter lived in a guest house at 1920 Lorain Road. The property's owner, Ruth "Didi" Sohus, lived in the front house with her son, John, and his wife, Linda.

In early 1985, the young couple disappeared. Around the same time, Gerhartsreiter lent a white truck to a USC student, the former student testified. The vehicle's description matched the truck the Sohuses had recently purchased.

There was other peculiar behavior, according to court testimony. Gerhartsreiter told a neighbor who complained about foul-smelling black smoke coming from his guest house chimney that he was burning carpet. He tried to sell an Oriental rug that appeared to have a small bloodstain.

When police followed up on the missing Sohuses, Gerhartsreiter came to the door of his guest house naked. George Yankovich, then a street cop, recalled in court that he asked the slim young man to put some clothes on.

"No, I'm a nudist," was the reply.

Within months, Gerhartsreiter had moved to the affluent town of Greenwich, Conn. He masqueraded as a television and film producer, adopting the name of a real producer: Christopher Crowe.

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