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Accused killer tried to sell stained rug, witness says

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter rolled up the Oriental carpet and left, a former neighbor testifies. Another witness who complained about foul-smelling smoke says Gerhartsreiter claimed he was burning a carpet.

March 26, 2013|By Hailey Branson-Potts and Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times
  • Bettie Brown said that Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter tried to sell a rug in 1985 and that she told him there was a rust-colored spot that looked like blood.
Bettie Brown said that Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter tried to sell a rug… (Walt Mancini / Associated…)

A man charged with the cold-case murder of his San Marino landlady's adult son in the mid-1980s tried to sell an Oriental rug that appeared to have a bloodstain on it around the time the victim and his wife disappeared, witnesses testified Tuesday.

Bettie Brown told the court that Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, whom she knew as Christopher Chichester, tried to sell the rug sometime in 1985 and that she told him there was a rust-colored spot that looked like blood.

"He just rolled it up, rolled up the rug and left," Brown testified.

Her husband, Robert, also testified that Gerhartsreiter did not deny the stain was blood.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Habib Balian has argued that the lack of denial was a tacit admission by Gerhartsreiter that the stain was blood. But a defense attorney noted that Gerhartsreiter never verbally identified the stain as blood.

"You don't know that that was blood, do you?" attorney Brad Bailey asked Bettie Brown.

"Not absolutely," she replied.

The prosecution contends that Gerhartsreiter killed John Sohus, whose decomposed body was dug up in a San Marino backyard in 1994, nearly a decade after he and his wife, Linda, vanished.

Soon after the remains were discovered, forensic experts identified blood on the concrete floor of a guest house on the property owned by John Sohus' mother, with whom the couple lived. The prosecutor told jurors last week that the stains would have been caused by a significant amount of blood — or cleaning solution on blood — soaking through the carpet padding. One expert testified that she could not tell how long the blood had been there, to whom it belonged or whether it was human blood.

Gerhartsreiter had been living in the guest house until he disappeared shortly after the Sohuses did in 1985. He resurfaced soon afterward on the East Coast under a series of new names, including Clark Rockefeller. Linda has never been found, and Gerhartsreiter's legal team has argued that she could have killed her husband.

Linda was working at Dangerous Visions, a fantasy science fiction bookstore in Sherman Oaks, and had agreed to help her boss by opening the store for a few days when she disappeared, the store's owner, Lydia Marano, testified.

Adding to the mystery was that sometime after Linda's disappearance, Marano received a phone call from someone saying Linda had listed her as a job reference and another call from someone who said she was listed by Linda as a credit check reference.

Marano also received a postcard from France that said: "Hi Lydia — Not quite New York, but not bad — See you later — Linda & John." Marano said the postcard's message made little sense because Linda had never mentioned going to New York and did not have the money to travel to Europe.

The postcard was one of three mailed to Linda's family and friends in the spring of 1985. Balian told jurors last week that Linda probably wrote the cards but said it was unclear under what circumstances. He accused Gerhartsreiter of using someone to mail the postcards from France to throw off police investigating the couple's disappearance, while defense attorneys say Linda could have sent them from abroad.

A neighbor of the Sohuses on Lorain Road also testified that she noticed a foul-smelling dark smoke coming from the chimney of the guest house next door. Mary Cologne told the court that she phoned Gerhartsreiter to ask what was going on.

"I'm burning carpet," she said he told her. "I said, 'You don't burn carpet. You throw it away. Please stop! You're reeking up the neighborhood.' "

Cologne could not recall exactly when she saw the smoke and estimated it was in the fall of 1984 or early spring of 1985. Friends and relatives of the Sohuses last saw the couple in February 1985.

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