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Couple's relationship a focus in trial of Rockefeller impostor

Prosecutors say John and Linda Sohus were a couple in love and that Christian Gerhartsreiter murdered John. His attorneys argue that Linda may have killed her husband, noting she has never been found.

March 26, 2013|By Jack Leonard and Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times
  • Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, center, sits with his lawyers as a photo of Linda and John Sohus is projected onto a screen in the downtown L.A. courtroom where his murder trial is taking place. Susan Coffman, a close friend of Linda, described the Sohuses as “two contented puppies” who were “happy to be in each other’s presence.”
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, center, sits with his lawyers as a photo… (Walter Mancini, Associated…)

John and Linda Sohus told friends they wanted to move out.

They had been married a little over a year and talked about leaving the house they shared with John's mother in San Marino.

When Linda's close friend Susan Coffman visited the home in the mid-1980s, she asked why the Sohuses did not live in the property's guesthouse in the backyard.

"There's a renter who lives there, and we don't talk to him because he's kind of creepy," Linda told her, Coffman testified Monday.

Prosecutors contend that the renter, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, murdered John Sohus, whose decomposed body was dug up in 1994, nearly a decade after John and Linda Sohus vanished. Gerhartsreiter — then known as Christopher Chichester —disappeared shortly after the Sohuses in 1985, surfacing on the East Coast under a series of new names, including Clark Rockefeller.

The relationship between John and Linda Sohus has become a crucial theme of the trial, which entered its second week Monday. Deputy Dist. Atty. Habib Balian has portrayed them as a young couple in love, while Gerhartsreiter's attorneys argue that Linda may have killed her husband, noting that she has never been found.

Coffman described the Sohuses as "two contented puppies" who were "happy to be in each other's presence." Coffman was the maid of honor in the Sohuses' Halloween 1983 wedding, which was at her house, she said.

Defense attorneys questioned how much Coffman — who said she saw the couple only a few times in the year before their disappearance — knew about their relationship.

In early 1985, Linda made plans to attend a science fiction convention in Phoenix in March with Coffman. Shortly afterward, Coffman said, Linda phoned to say she and John were taking a two-week trip to New York because he'd gotten a job with the government that she couldn't say much about. Linda promised they would be back in time for the convention.

Coffman never saw them again.

Coffman received an unexpected postcard from Linda and John around April 1985 with a photo of the Eiffel Tower. Its message was short: "Hi Sue — Kinda missed New York (oops) — but this can be lived with — John & Linda."

The postcard was one of three that appears to have been written by Linda and mailed to family and friends from France. Balian has 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 Los Angeles County sheriff's criminalist testified that DNA tests showed that an unknown man had licked the stamps on two of the postcards. The tests show that neither Gerhartsreiter nor Linda Sohus licked the stamps, she said.

Patrick Rayermann, a close childhood friend of John Sohus, also testified that he never saw the couple fight. "They seemed very much in love with each other," Rayermann said.

Rayermann acknowledged, however, that Linda felt frustrated about living with John's mother, whom Rayermann described as surly and difficult to get along with. Linda, he said, was more eager to move out, while John also worried about his mother's welfare and how she would react.

The prosecutor told jurors that Linda told another witness around late January or early February 1985 that she and her husband were going to New York because they had "top-secret jobs" and that John would be working with satellites. Linda said her husband had already departed and that she would follow him.

jack.leonard@latimes.com

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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