Published on March 13th, 2013 | by Daniel R. Perlman0
Murder trial of phony Rockefeller to begin in Los Angeles with jury selection
The only-in-America story of Clark Rockefeller begins on a lonely stretch of tree-lined German autobahn just outside the tiny Bavarian town of Siegsdorf – a midpoint between Munich and Salzberg in the shadow of the Alps during the summer of 1978.
It will approach its end Monday in the confines of a maximum security downtown Los Angeles courtroom. There, jury selection will begin in the murder trial of Christian Gerhartsreiter, 52, a German national who once posed as a Rockefeller and moved among the elite of New England high society.
“This is the part of the story we’ve all been waiting to see,” said Jan Eldnor, the San Marino barber known as Jann of Sweden. “The people I know, we all talk about it.”
Before he was a Rockefeller, Gerhartsreiter was a German exchange student who lived in San Marino and called himself Christopher Chichester, XIII baronet. He found his way to California after stops in Connecticut and Wisconsin. When he arrived in 1982 it was with grand ideas of getting into the film business.
What he got himself into was a murder case and a role in a mystery that has intrigued the wealthy suburb of Los Angeles for several decades. Gerhartsreiter is accused of killing John Sohus, trisecting his body with a chainsaw and burying it in the backyard of a house on Lorain Road.
He’s also suspected in the disappearance of Sohus’ wife Linda, who hasn’t been seen since 1985.
Over the course of several years, Joe Perez and his father had dug pools in the backyards of hundreds of Southern California houses without incident. The job in the 1900 block of Lorain Road in San Marino would be one neither man would ever forget.
At a depth of about 4 feet, Perez – driving a small tractor – encountered what appeared to a fiberglass box and some tattered plastic bags.
Perez’s dad fished through the bags with a piece of rebar and pulled out what remained of a human skull. Someone at the scene called the police. By day’s end neighbors gathered in the street outside what was now a crime scene recalled Ruth “Didi” Sohus, the home’s former owner, and her strange tenant Chris Chichester.
They remembered that Didi’s son John and his wife Linda disappeared – vanished without a trace actually – in 1985. Chris left town shortly after that and Didi had moved away and died suffering from a broken heart.
Detectives suspected the bones were all that remained of John Sohus. They named Chris Gerhartsreiter, whom they identified as a pretender with multiple aliases, as a person of interest in the death of John and the disappearance of Linda.
Little did anyone think it would be nearly 25 years before Chris turned up. When he did, he was no longer a Gerhartsreiter or even a Chichester – he was a Rockefeller. And, he was a suspect in a parental abduction that gripped the East Coast news media in the summer of 2008.
Court documents from Suffolk County show the kidnapping of Reigh Boss, Gerhartsreiter’s daughter, had been elaborately planned. In the midst of a contentious divorce with Reigh’s mother Sandy Boss, Gerhartsreiter – using the name Rockefeller – lost joint custody of the little girl and was only allowed to see her in a supervised setting.
In 2009, a jury convicted Gerhartsreiter of parental abduction and sentenced him to four-to-five years in state prison. It was about that time prosecutors and detectives in California began to put together the Sohus case.
Among the puzzle pieces were postcards from Paris sent to friends of Linda Sohus in April 1985, a couple of months after she vanished.
Among them was one addressed to Linda’s good friend Sue Coffman. It read: “Kinda missed New York (oops) – but this can be lived with – John and Linda”.
Another showed up at Dangerous Visions, a quirky science fiction bookstore in Sherman Oaks that employed Linda, an aspiring artist.
“Not quite New York, but not bad. See you later, Linda + John.”
There was also the story cops heard from Didi when Linda’s sister filed a missing persons report and they came looking for the big-boned redhead a few days after she vanished.
Didi told then-San Marino police Officer Thomas LeVeque that the couple were OK and had taken off on a secret mission at the behest of a shadowy government agent.
“She said she could get in touch, but would not furnish information,” LeVeque, now with the Arcadia Police Department, said. “She said she had written to them and could contact them and the unknown source could reach them.”
An examination of the postcards in 2008 by handwriting experts garnered mixed results. While two respected experts said there was no way Linda addressed the postcards, a third said it was likely she had.
Before they had a body or even knew that a crime had been committed back in San Marino, police nearly caught up with Gerhartsreiter in Greenwich, Connecticut. He’d arrived there in the summer of 1985 and soon became a fixture in the Episcopal church. He told acquaintances his name was Christopher Crowe.
Court documents and testimony indicate that Chris said he grew up the scion of a wealthy Pasadena family and attended USC film school. He explained that although he had directed episodes of “The New Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” he found film tedious and sought work on Wall Street.
In `88 Gerhartsreiter allegedly sold a Datsun pickup truck to John Bishop, son of the Christ Episcopal Church’s rector and an aspiring film student. When Bishop went to register the car, he learned from Greenwich police that California authorities had placed a hold on the Datsun.
Bishop explained that he bought the car from an acquaintance named Chris Crowe. He told Greenwich police Sgt. Dan Allen that Crowe was a broker who recently moved to a Tudor City apartment in New York City. Allen said he made a few attempts to speak with Crowe, but when the subject disappeared for good and the San Marino Police Department didn’t follow up, Allen moved on.
It wasn’t too long afterward that Chris became Clark. His girlfriend at the time, Mihoko Manabe, said Chris hit upon the name when making a dinner reservation at a honeymoon resort in Maine. It stuck and he stuck with it.
In 1994, Clark and Mihoko split up and he soon started dating Sandy Boss. She was a Harvard business grad and soon-to-be partner with McKinsey & Company, a London management constituency. The couple were introduced by Sandy’s sister and met at a party where everyone came dressed as characters from the game Clue.
Clark came to the party as Professor Plum. Sandy dressed as Miss Scarlet.
Eventually the couple bought a place on Boston’s Beacon Hill and a home in Cornish, New Hampshire. When they split up, both went on the market and Clark took to living in a guest room at Boston’s Algonquin Club, where he had been elected to the board.
It was there he hatched the kidnapping plot that led to his arrest.
Because the murder mystery has garnered international attention, attorneys for both sides expect to question 100 potential jurors. Ultimately they will seat a panel of 12 men and women and four alternates.
They will hear from a host of witnesses who knew Gerhartsreiter, including Elmer Kelln, a retired professor of dentistry at Loma Linda University.
Kelln and his wife were on vacation in Bavaria in 1978 when they first met the young man they knew as Chris. Court documents indicate Chris used their name without permission on his visa application to the country.
Throughout the process, Jeffrey Denner and Brad Bailey, attorneys for Gerhartsreiter, have vigorously maintained their client’s innocence. Their team, which includes Danielle Menard, a member of the California bar, will be allowed to argue the possibility that Linda Sohus might have played a role in her husband’s demise.
Gerhartsreiter, who is serving out the remainder of his Massachusetts sentence at Men’s Central Jail, has a $10 million bond. If convicted he could spend the rest of his life behind bars. If found not guilty, he could be free later this year.
Prosecutor Habib Balian said he expects the entire affair to last from four to six weeks.
“I hope for truth and justice,” he said.
Source: Press Telegram “Murder trial of phony Rockefeller to begin in Los Angeles with jury selection,” March 10, 2013.