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Postcard is key evidence in Rockefeller impostor murder trial

Prosecutor accuses Christian Gerhartsreiter of using someone to mail postcards from France in a ruse to cover up the disappearance of John and Linda Sohus from San Marino in 1985.

March 21, 2013|By Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times
  • Christian K. Gerhartsreiter, left, jots down notes while two of his attorneys confer during opening statements of his murder trial. He is accused of killing John Sohus, who vanished with his wife in the spring of 1985.
Christian K. Gerhartsreiter, left, jots down notes while two of his attorneys… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

The postcard from France was unexpected, its message brief:

"Mom, I think we need a geography lesson but not too bad — Linda & John."

Linda Sohus had told her mother she and her husband, John, were going on a two-week trip to Connecticut for an interview John had for a job working with computers. She made plans to see the play "Cats" with her mother when she returned.

So when the postcard came in from Paris a few months later, her mother, Susan Mayfield, was confused, she testified Thursday. Linda had no passport, had never talked about leaving the country and lived "paycheck to paycheck," Mayfield said.

The postcard — one of three from the couple that appear to have been written by Linda and mailed to family and friends from France — is a key piece of evidence in the case against Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, who is being tried in John Sohus' killing.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Habib Balian this week accused Gerhartsreiter of using someone to mail the postcards for him in an elaborate ruse to throw off police investigating the couple's abrupt 1985 disappearance from San Marino. Gerhartsreiter "was creating an illusion that John and Linda were away," Balian told jurors

But defense attorneys say the postcards could have indeed been sent from abroad by Linda Sohus, who was never located and could have killed her husband, whose decomposed body was discovered buried in their backyard in 1994.

Shortly before vanishing, John and Linda Sohus lived with John's mother, while Gerhartsreiter — then known as Christopher Chichester — lived in the guesthouse. Gerhartsreiter also disappeared in 1985, surfacing on the East Coast under a series of new names, including Clark Rockefeller.

During her testimony Thursday, Mayfield said the postcard was out of character for her daughter, who "would have been a little more excited" about going to France than the "bland message" on the postcard suggested. Mayfield never received any other mail or calls from her daughter.

Another prosecution witness said she received an unexpected postcard years earlier from Gerhartsreiter.

Elaine Siskoff met Gerhartsreiter — whom she knew by his true name — while both were students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the early 1980s. They had dated for a few months before he left Wisconsin, saying he was going to California to pursue an internship with director George Lucas.

The postcard, which was displayed for jurors, bore an image of the queen of England and was mailed from England, which, he wrote, "is just great!" He wrote that he was teaching a Sunday school class in England and would soon be traveling to Africa. Prosecutors have said Gerhartsreiter was in San Marino when the card was mailed.

Also Thursday, Linda Sohus' half-sister Katherine L. Jacoby testified that she became suspicious about the Sohuses' absence when a pet boarder called about Linda's cats, which she had never picked up after leaving town.

"She was crazy about them, and she wouldn't leave them behind," said Jacoby, who filed a missing persons report.

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