Defense: Rockefeller impostor was a con man but not a killer

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter listens Monday during final arguments in his trial.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

A defense attorney for a man accused in the 1985 slaying of his San Marino landlady’s grown son called his client a “con” and an “impostor” who hid from authorities because he had committed immigration fraud and other white-collar crimes, not because he was a killer.

Attorney Jeffrey A. Denner told the jury Monday in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom that Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was an intelligent man who defrauded well-educated people from coast to coast, including his Harvard-educated wife and daughter.

The German native also had a sham marriage to a Wisconsin woman to get his green card, fraudulently used other people’s Social Security numbers and lied on legal documents, Denner said.


“He had quite a portfolio of illegal behavior that was following him around, so it was not surprising that he would try to stay under the radar,” Denner said in his closing arguments.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Habib Balian has argued that Gerhartsreiter killed 27-year-old John Sohus by bludgeoning him over the head. Balian has said Gerhartsreiter went to extreme lengths after the killing to hide his true identity from authorities, particularly when detectives wanted to question him about Sohus and his wife, Linda, who disappeared in early 1985.

Balian argued that strong circumstantial evidence pointed to Gerhartsreiter as the killer, noting that he was staying in a guest house on the property where the Sohuses lived. John Sohus’ remains were found in 1994, buried behind the guesthouse, out of sight from the property’s main home.

Gerhartsreiter, who called himself Christopher Chichester while living in San Marino, disappeared months after the Sohuses. He resurfaced on the other side of the country as Christopher Crowe and, later, Clark Rockefeller, convincing even his wife that he was a scion of America’s famous wealthy family.

Denner noted that there were no witnesses to the killing or burying of John Sohus, nor was there DNA or other strong forensic evidence linking Gerhartsreiter to the killing.

Around the victim’s skull were two plastic bags used during the early 1980s. One was from the bookstore at USC, where Gerhartsreiter attended classes. The other was from the bookstore at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where Gerhartsreiter was enrolled from spring 1980 to spring 1981.

Denner suggested that a sophisticated con man like Gerhartsreiter would have been too smart to bury the body with his “signature” bags attached to it and to bury the body next to his home. His client, he said, would not commit “one of the stupidest murders in the history of California.”

Rather, Denner argued, Linda Sohus -- who was bigger than both her husband or Gerhartsreiter -- was the more likely killer. Denner said Linda Sohus had a reason for killing her husband: She hated that the couple lived with his mother, whom she despised. Gerhartsreiter, Denner said, had no reason to want to kill John Sohus.

Gerhartsreiter, 52, wearing a blue blazer and slacks, kept his head down in the packed courtroom, writing continuously as both sides gave their closing arguments.

Balian is expected to give his rebuttal of the defense’s statements early Tuesday.


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