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Rockefeller imposter found guilty of first-degree murder

April 10, 2013|By Jack Leonard and Hailey Branson Potts

A German native who consorted for years with New England’s social elite by pretending to be a Rockefeller was convicted Wednesday in Los Angeles of first-degree murder, capping a nearly three-decade-old mystery involving a missing couple and a body buried in a San Marino backyard. 

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, 52, was accused of bludgeoning his landlady’s adult son with a blunt object and then digging a 3-foot-deep grave in the backyard of the victim’s home. The body was buried behind a guest house where Gerhartsreiter had been living.

The victim, John Sohus, 27, vanished in early 1985 along with his wife, Linda, who has never been found. Gerhartsreiter, who in San Marino introduced himself as British aristocrat Christopher Chichester, disappeared soon afterward, resurfacing on the East Coast under a series of ever more elaborate false identities.

FULL COVERAGE: Rockefeller imposter on trial

In Connecticut, he was television and film producer Christopher Crowe before convincing some on Wall Street that he was a bond trader. But it was his act as Clark Rockefeller, an eccentric but brilliant member of America’s famous wealthy family, that won him entry to exclusive social clubs and fooled many, including his Harvard-educated wife.

More than 40 witnesses testified during the three-week trial in downtown Los Angeles, recounting stories about the charismatic Gerhartsreiter and the missing couple, who had been married less than a year and a half when they disappeared. John’s remains were discovered in 1994 by a construction crew building a swimming pool for the new owner of the Lorain Road property.

PHOTOS: Clark Rockefeller investigation

Defense attorneys argued that their client was a simple conman who committed only petty crimes. They pointed out that the prosecution had presented no motive for the killing. The victim’s 29-year-old wife, they said, was more likely to have been responsible for the slaying.

In building a case against Gerhartsreiter, the prosecution had to overcome an array of obstacles. There was no DNA, fingerprints or other forensic evidence identifying the killer. Most of the victim’s remains were mistakenly destroyed in 1995. Witnesses had trouble remembering dates that were nearly 30 years old. The new lead sheriff’s detective had to deal with incomplete reports and missing evidence from previous investigators.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Habib Balian spent three weeks weaving together a case from circumstantial evidence.

The key prosecution evidence were two plastic bags found wrapped around the victim’s skull. Both were in use during the early 1980s. 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-Milwaukee, where Gerhartsreiter was enrolled from spring 1980 to spring 1981.

The prosecutor argued that Gerhartsreiter slipped up by taking the couple’s new truck with him when he left San Marino. 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 his identity before, he went to more extraordinary lengths to hide who he really was after the killing, particularly when a detective began seeking him in connection with the missing couple, Balian argued. 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.

“He's gotten away with it for 28 years,” Balian told jurors at the end of the trial. “He thinks he's smarter than everyone.… He thinks everyone's so stupid.”

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