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Rockefeller impostor gets 27-to-life for San Marino man's murder

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was convicted of killing his landlady's son, who went missing in 1985. The victim's body was found in 1994.

August 15, 2013|Hailey Branson-Potts
  • Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter maintained his innocence during his sentencing for murder.
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter maintained his innocence during his sentencing… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

A German-born fabulist who masqueraded as a member of the Rockefeller family was sentenced Thursday to 27-years-to-life in prison for killing his San Marino landlady's son in 1985.

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, acting in his own defense, addressed the court before sentencing and blamed the slaying of 27-year-old John Sohus on the man's wife, Linda.

"I want to assert my innocence," said Gerhartsreiter, wearing a blue jail jumpsuit with his hands cuffed in front of him. "I firmly believe that the victim's wife killed the victim, but, be that as it may … I did not commit the crime."

Gerhartsreiter, 52, was convicted in April of murdering Sohus with a blunt object. Sohus' body was found in 1994, buried three feet deep behind a guesthouse where Gerhartsreiter had been living on the Lorain Road property, where the couple lived with John's mother in the main house.

Gerhartsreiter left San Marino — where he was known as British aristocrat Christopher Chichester — shortly after the couple's disappearance in 1985.

He reemerged on the East Coast, pretending to be television and film producer Christopher Crowe before convincing some on Wall Street that he was a bond trader. He eventually began saying he was Clark Rockefeller, a scion of the wealthy family. He gained entry to exclusive social clubs and fooled many, including his Harvard-educated wife.

Linda Sohus, who disappeared at age 29, has never been found.

In an emotional speech before the judge's sentence, John Sohus' half sister, Ellen Sohus, addressed Gerhartsreiter directly.

"Why did you kill my brother?" she asked. "What happened to Linda? I believe Linda is dead and that you are responsible for her death."

She said that after John's body was discovered, she and John's father would ask her often, "Why John? He was the kindest person I have ever known."

Ellen Sohus said that in recent years she has seen photos of Gerhartsreiter and his young daughter in which they appeared to have been happy.

"It is sad that he will not be able to watch her grow up," she said. "It is sad that she will not have her father with her during life's most precious moments."

At that, Gerhartsreiter, seated at the defense table, nodded his head solemnly.

During the trial, Gerhartsreiter's team of Boston attorneys argued that Linda Sohus could have been the killer — a notion several jurors said they quickly rejected.

Gerhartsreiter dismissed his attorneys after his conviction and represented himself during his sentencing hearing, despite the judge's warnings that doing so would be difficult. Gerhartsreiter said he had taken a debate class more than 30 years ago and hoped to draw from experience while preparing for the hearing.

Gerhartsreiter filed a lengthy motion requesting a new trial. He said he believed the evidence presented during his more than three-week trial did not support the guilty verdict. He also said he thought the prosecution improperly argued that he killed Linda Sohus. Gerhartsreiter was not charged with killing her.

Gerhartsreiter asked to read his motion aloud because his handwriting is "not always perfectly clear" and because there was "public interest in the motion ... and it would also save time for the media if I get to present it orally." The courtroom was crowded with reporters and television cameras.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli refused to let him read the motion and denied him a new trial.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Habib Balian, who prosecuted the case, said he was "pleased, after all these years, to bring justice and closure to Ellen and her family." Balian has not offered any possible motive for the killing.

Sue Coffman, Linda Sohus' best friend, said she left the courtroom with a sense of relief.

"It's over for me," she said. "He can appeal all he wants to. He can be as famous as he wants."

She shook her head and whispered the number of years since the Sohuses' disappearance: "28 years."

Coffman hugged Ellen Sohus after the sentencing. They each took a deep breath and smiled.

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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