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Prosecutor urges jury to convict Rockefeller impostor in killing

In closing arguments, Deputy Dist. Atty. Habib Balian calls Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter a 'master manipulator,' while defense counters that he was merely a con man and not a killer.

April 09, 2013|By Hailey Branson-Potts and Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times
  • Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, center, listens along with one of his attorneys, Brad Bailey, left, during closing arguments in his murder trial in Los Angeles.
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, center, listens along with one of his attorneys,… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

A prosecutor urged jurors Monday to find a man who pretended to be a member of the Rockefeller family guilty of murder, saying he was a "master manipulator" who buried the victim's body in a San Marino backyard nearly three decades ago.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Habib Balian told the jury in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom that strong circumstantial evidence pointed to Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter's guilt, noting that the German native was staying in a guest house on the property where John and Linda Sohus were living when the couple disappeared in 1985. Years later, John's remains were found buried behind the guest house in an area out of sight from the main home on the Lorain Road property and from next-door neighbors.

Two plastic bags from the early 1980s were around the victim's skull. One was from the bookstore at USC, where Gerhartsreiter attended film classes at the time. The other was from the bookstore at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where Gerhartsreiter was enrolled from spring 1980 to spring 1981.

Balian told jurors that Gerhartsreiter made several mistakes, particularly when the body was buried.

"Did he leave any evidence in the grave?" the prosecutor asked during his closing argument. "The defendant's bags are covering John's head."

But defense attorney Jeffrey Denner pleaded with jurors to avoid using what he called "rank speculation" to convict his client, arguing that there was as much evidence, if not more, implicating the victim's wife. He said Linda, who has never been found, was far from the contented wife the prosecution portrayed and disliked living with her husband's mother, who was controlling and drank too much.

"If you look beyond this paradise, I think you'll find a much darker picture," Denner argued.

Gerhartsreiter — who while living in San Marino introduced himself as a British aristocrat named Christopher Chichester — disappeared months after the Sohuses. He resurfaced on the other side of the country as Christopher Crowe and, later, as Clark Rockefeller, convincing even his wife that he was a scion of America's famous wealthy family.

His journey from teenage German immigrant to member of the New England social elite to accused murderer has spawned several books and a television movie.

But in the packed downtown courtroom, there was little of the showmanship that Gerhartsreiter, 52, had displayed during the previous three decades. Wearing a blue blazer and slacks, he kept his head down, writing continuously as attorneys sparred over evidence.

The prosecutor argued that Gerhartsreiter was an intelligent criminal who slipped up at various times. In 1988, he gave the Sohuses' truck to a friend who tried to obtain its title from California, alerting police that Gerhartsreiter and the missing couple's vehicle were in Connecticut.

Although Gerhartsreiter had lied about himself before, he went to more extraordinary lengths to hide his true identity after the killing of John Sohus, particularly when a detective began seeking him in connection with the missing couple, Balian told jurors. Witnesses testified that Gerhartsreiter changed his address, dyed his hair, used post office boxes and kept records out of his name for the next 20 years.

Balian mocked the suggestion that Linda had the sophistication to carry out the killing and successfully go underground for nearly 30 years. She had left school in 10th grade and at 29 was beginning to experience success as a fantasy artist. Her friends testified during the trial that Linda was happy in her marriage and that she and John were planning for the future. Balian said the evidence suggests that Gerhartsreiter killed Linda as well as her husband.

"Not only did he end these two people's lives, but it's sad that they have the gall to come in here and blame the very woman he killed," Balian told jurors. "If not liking your mother-in-law … is motive to kill, then many of us might be in trouble."

The prosecution has not suggested a motive for Gerhartsreiter to have killed Sohus.

Denner said his client was no killer but instead a petty criminal with good reason to duck the police. Gerhartsreiter, he said, had engaged in a fraudulent marriage to obtain a green card, falsely signed documents under oath and committed minor thefts.

"Clearly this is an individual who is a con," Denner told jurors. "He had quite a portfolio of illegal behavior that was following him around, so it's not surprising that he would try to stay under the radar."

The defense lawyer emphasized that there is no DNA, fingerprints or other concrete forensic evidence connecting Gerhartsreiter to the killing. When John Sohus' remains were found in 1994, authorities could not determine whether blood found on the concrete floor of the guest house where Gerhartsreiter had lived was from the victim, he said.

Denner questioned the prosecution's depiction of Gerhartsreiter as an intelligent "mastermind" who buried the victim near his home in bags that would obviously point to him as the killer. The attorney said such actions would make Gerhartsreiter one "of the stupidest murderers in the history of California."

hailey.branson@latimes.com

jack.leonard@latimes.com

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