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Rockefeller impostor convicted of murder

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was accused of murdering John Sohus of San Marino in 1985. His attorneys said he was a con man, but not a killer.

April 10, 2013|By Jack Leonard and Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times
  • Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, 52, is shown just before he was led away by a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy after the jury in his murder trial found him guilty of the slaying of John Sohus, whose remains were found in the victim's San Marino backyard.
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, 52, is shown just before he was led away… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

The mystery behind the body buried in a San Marino backyard, defense attorneys argued, came down to this: The victim's wife did it.

Linda Sohus had vanished in February 1985 around the same time as her husband, John. She was frustrated living with a mother-in-law who was controlling and drank too much. Two months after she disappeared, several postcards written by Linda were sent to loved ones from France.

Lawyers for Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter acknowledged that their client was a notorious con man who once masqueraded as a member of the Rockefeller family, but said that he was not a killer.

For jurors, that story — like so many involving Gerhartsreiter — unraveled under scrutiny.

After more than three weeks in trial, it took a day for the downtown Los Angeles jury to convict Gerhartsreiter of first-degree murder on Wednesday, capping a nearly three-decade-old whodunit and ending the strange odyssey of a man who went from teenage German immigrant to member of the New England social elite to now-convicted killer.

Several jurors said they quickly dismissed any notion that Linda murdered her husband, believing that Gerhartsreiter was also responsible for her disappearance.

"That was crazy," said Gema Vasquez, a 38-year-old nurse. "They need to let her rest. We don't know where she's at. We don't know where he put her. We don't know what he did to her."

Juror Salvador Ruiz, a retired truck driver from Norwalk, cited the lack of evidence suggesting that Linda was still alive. Authorities found no trace of her despite checking databases containing 30 billion records for some sign that she had opened a bank account, obtained a phone, used a utility, started a business, received mail or been involved in a host of other activities that would create a paper trail.

"We couldn't get her to disappear like that," Ruiz said.

Gerhartsreiter, 52, was accused of bludgeoning John Sohus, his landlady's 27-year-old son, with a blunt object. The body was buried behind a guest house where Gerhartsreiter had been living on the Lorain Road property, where the couple lived with John's mother in the main house.

More than 40 witnesses testified, with many recounting stories about Gerhartsreiter's audacious frauds.

In San Marino, he introduced himself as British aristocrat Christopher Chichester. In Connecticut, he pretended to be television and film producer Christopher Crowe before persuading 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.

While enjoying the high life, Gerhartsreiter remained a suspect in the disappearance of the Sohuses. The case took a macabre turn in 1994, when John's remains were discovered by a construction crew building a swimming pool for the new owner of the Lorain Road property. But homicide detectives were unable to find the elusive German immigrant, who had arrived in the country as a 17-year-old.

It took more than a decade before investigators caught up with Gerhartsreiter when he made news by kidnapping his 7-year-old daughter in 2008 during an ugly custody dispute with his ex-wife. He was eventually extradited to California to face trial for murder.

"Sometimes, you're afraid that this guy has conned so many people for so many years that this will be the one last time that he pulls off his last con," Deputy Dist. Atty. Habib Balian, who prosecuted the case, said. "But that didn't happen and the system worked."

In court Wednesday, the victim's half sister dabbed her eyes with a tissue after the verdict was read.

"It's finally over," Ellen Sohus said.

Sohus, who described her late half brother as gentle, fun-loving and "the original nerd" who loved gadgets and electronics, said he "would be so overwhelmed by how many people loved him and how many people were fighting for him."

Defense attorney Brad Bailey said his client had been hopeful of an acquittal moments before the verdict but remained optimistic that the conviction would be overturned on appeal.

"He's disappointed and continues to maintain his innocence," Bailey said. "Tomorrow is a new day and new chapter in this case."

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 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's case revolved around circumstantial evidence pointing to Gerhartsreiter.

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