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Sister of victim in Rockefeller imposter trial: 'It's finally over'

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

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter showed no emotion Wednesday as he was found guilty of murdering his landlady’s adult son nearly three decades ago.

The victim’s sister dabbed her eyes with a tissue after the verdict. “It’s finally over,” she said.

Prosecutors accused Gerhartsreiter of killing John Sohus in 1985 and burying his body in a 3-foot-deep grave in the backyard of his San Marino home.

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“The defendant wanted John Sohus dead and he accomplished his goal,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Habib Balian said minutes after the verdict. He had offered no motive for the crime during the trial.

Gerhartsreiter, 52, faces a maximum life sentence for the first-degree murder conviction

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.

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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.

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.

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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