For years, German-born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter had convinced his people, his wife included, that he was Clark Rockefeller, a member of the billionaire family and New England high society.
In a Los Angeles courtroom on Monday, he faced prosecutors’ allegations about his actions as Chris Chichester, a young man who lived in San Marino in the 1980s, claiming to be a film student and descendant of British royalty.
Gerhartsreiter, 52, is charged in the 1985 death of John Sohus, whom authorities have linked to a skeleton found buried in a San Marino backyard. Sohus and his wife, Linda, lived in the house with Sohus’s mother. Gerhartsreiter, whom they knew as Chichester, lived in the guesthouse, authorities said.
Prosecutors began their opening statements in Gerhartsreiter’s trial Monday morning, showing jurors photos of the skeleton and the yard in which it was found in 1994 by construction workers digging a pool.
John and Linda Sohus, “without explanation, without any apparent reason, in early February of 1985, just vanished… and left their family and friends behind,” Deputy District Atty. Habib Balian told the jurors.
Shortly after the Sohuses' disappearance, Chichester also disappeared from San Marino, telling people he had to leave to take care of family business, Balian said.
Gerhartsreiter, wearing a blue suit jacket, smiled as he was escorted into the courtroom. He looked at the projected photographs of the Sohuses shown to jurors and took notes. He did not look at the jurors.
After the couple disappeared, John Sohus’ mother, Ruth “Didi” Sohus, was devastated, Balian said. She “had believed her son had abandoned her at the end of her life, had taken off,” he said.
But her quiet, smart son who adored science fiction and fantasy “was buried in his own backyard,” Balian said.
The person whose skull was found in the backyard “suffered large blows to the head with a hard, blunt object,” Balian said.
Gerhartsreiter, using the Rockefeller name, was arrested in 2008 on suspicion of kidnapping his 7-year-old daughter. He was convicted in Massachusetts in that case and extradited to California while serving a four- to five-year prison term. He was charged in 2011 in connection with John Sohus' death.
During his preliminary hearing last year, Gerhartsreiter's defense attorneys asked a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge if they could continue to call him Clark Rockefeller since that was the name the attorneys knew him by. The judge denied the request.
Although Linda Sohus was never located, authorities have said they presume her to be dead.
Gerhartsreiter is in custody in Los Angeles in lieu of $10 million bail.
— Hailey Branson-Potts