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Rockefeller case: Witness recalls finding skull in backyard

January 18, 2012 |  1:17 pm

Christian Gerhartsreiter in court Jan 18 2011Jose Perez had dug into hundreds of backyards for his father’s swimming pool business, many of them in the ritzy San Marino neighborhood with its tough soil of clay and rock.

One day in May 1994, he felt the shovel of his Bobcat bulldozer hit something unfamiliar. Thinking it was perhaps decades-old trash, his father peered inside a fiberglass box and sifted through its contents with rebar, Perez recalled Wednesday in an Alhambra courtroom.

His father pulled something out, and held it up.

PHOTOS: Clark Rockefeller investigation

“It was a skull,” Perez said, chuckling as if still in disbelief at the memory.

“He thought it was a dog, but it didn’t look like a dog,” the witness said. “I told him to drop it.”

Nearly two decades after Perez and his father’s discovery, German-born Christian Gerhartsreiter appeared in court Wednesday for a hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence for him to stand trial for the murder of John Sohus.

Authorities say Gerhartsreiter is a con man of numerous identities who for many years pretended to be a Rockefeller and is allegedly the elusive killer of Sohus, who disappeared in 1985.

In an indication of the man’s chameleon-like history, his defense attorneys asked Superior Court Judge Jared Moses whether they may continue to refer to him as Clark Rockefeller.

Attorney Brad Bailey said that was the name the attorneys of his firm -– who represented him in a Boston kidnapping case -– knew him by.

Moses denied the request, noting: “I honestly have never seen a circumstance where a defendant is referred to in court by one of his AKAs.”

The prosecutor, Habib Balian, told the judge there may be witnesses who knew Gerhartsreiter by various names from different periods of the man’s life and may call him by those names.

The many aliases allegedly used by the man include Christopher Chichester, Christopher Crowe and Chip Smith. Gerhartsreiter came to the attention of authorities after he kidnapped his 7-year-old daughter in 2008. He was convicted in Massachusetts in that case and was sentenced to four to five years in prison.

Identifying the remains discovered by Perez, authorities have said, was complicated by the fact that Sohus was the adopted son of Gerhartsreiter’s one-time landlady, Ruth “Didi” Sohus.

Prosecutors on Wednesday moved toward establishing that the skeleton was Sohus’, calling to the stand a half-sister who said she never knew of the man’s existence.

Lori Moltz, 55, said in brief testimony that a sheriff’s deputy came to her home in late 2008 to take a swab from the inside of her mouth. She also testified that she recognized her mother’s handwriting on John Sohus’ birth and adoption records.

Perez testified that as soon as he realized the bones may be human, he stoped digging and called the police. He also said, responding to the prosecutor’s questioning, that hand-digging a hole deep enough to bury the box in the San Marino soil would be “extremely difficult” and would take six to seven hours, based on his experience.

Testimony in the hearing is expected to continue Wednesday afternoon and last six days.


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-- Victoria Kim


Photo: Christian Gerhartsreiter in court Wednesday. Credit: Walt Mancini / Associated Press