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Rockefeller impostor dyed hair, changed appearance, witness says

January 24, 2012 |  1:50 pm

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter
In 1988, Mihoko Manabe received a call at her New York apartment from a Connecticut detective looking for her live-in boyfriend, a man she knew by the name Christopher Crowe. She took a message for a call back, and hung up.

When she gave Crowe the message, their lives were turned upside down, Manabe recalled in court Tuesday. The boyfriend told her that the person who called wasn’t with the police, but a bad guy who was after him. He dyed his hair and eyebrows blond, grew a beard, and insisted they shred documents. They began using P.O. boxes for their mail, threw away their garbage at public shopping malls, and walked on opposite sides of the street.

Some months after, Manabe testified, he began using the name that would later gain national notoriety -- Clark Rockefeller.

Manabe testified at the preliminary hearing of Christian Gerhartsreiter, a 50-year-old man who witnesses said also went by Crowe, Rockefeller, and before that, Christopher Chichester of San Marino. The alleged con man of many identities who rubbed elbows with New England’s elite now stands accused in the three-decade-old slaying of a man whose remains were found buried in a San Marino backyard in 1994.

Manabe said the man, her boyfriend of seven years whom she loved and at one point planned to marry, told her he and his parents were in danger and that he had to go into hiding. She eventually told the Connecticut detective she didn’t know where the man was.

In fact, the detective was looking for the suspect in the 1985 disappearance of John and Linda Sohus. As Christopher Crowe, Gerhartsreiter had given an acquaintance in Connecticut a white Nissan pickup truck that was registered to John Sohus. As Chichester, he lived as a tenant in a guesthouse of John’s mother’s home, during which time he is accused of having bludgeoned John Sohus to death and burying his dismembered remains in the yard.

A neighbor testified Tuesday that sometime in 1985, she saw black smoke coming out of the chimney of the guesthouse where Gerhartsreiter was living. The smoke smelled terrible, recalled Mary Cologne, who lived next door.

Cologne said she called the guesthouse, and the man she knew as Chichester picked up. She asked what he was burning that smelled so bad.

“He said carpet,” she recalled. She said she then asked the man: “Do I need to call someone if you’re stinking up the neighborhood?” Cologne said the smoke stopped soon after.

A criminalist testified last week that in 1994, four blood stains were found on the concrete floor underneath carpeting in the guesthouse. She said she was not able to identify who the blood belonged to with the technology available at the time.

Defense attorney Brad Bailey questioned Cologne about some of the details she gave in more recent police interviews that she did not initially mention to investigators. He also noted that she previously said she could not remember what year it was that she saw the smoke.

In cross-examining Manabe, Bailey pointed out that after the detective’s call, Gerhartsreiter did not move away from New York for several years. Manabe said she never felt unsafe around him and did not think he was capable of hurting her. But she also recalled one incident in which Gerhartsreiter was furious at her and grabbed her arm because she had locked the man’s dog in the car.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Habib Balian later seized on the incident and asked Manabe about the man’s character.

“He had a temper, but not in a physically violent way. He was just very caustic, and derogatory,” she recalled. “He could be very mean.”


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-- Victoria Kim

Photo: Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter listens to testimony at his preliminary hearing in an Alhambra courtroom Monday. Credit: Walt Mancini / Associated Press