Prosecutors in the murder trial of a German national who claimed to be a member of the wealthy Rockefeller family called the defendant — Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, 52 — a con artist who changed his name several times, hopped cities, switched jobs, changed appearances and fooled people and ex-lovers in order to evade authorities.
“The evidence is going to show you the defendant was not hiding who he was before John Sohus’ murder,” Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian told jurors Monday in the Los Angeles Superior Court criminal trial of Gerhartsreiter on charges he murdered his former San Marino landlord, 27-year old Sohus, in 1985. Judge George G. Lomeli is presiding over the hearing.
“He told people he wanted to make it big in Hollywood,” Balian said in opening arguments. “The defendant experimented with different personalities.”
Gerhartsreiter is a German native who moved to the U.S. when he was a teenager and took on a handful of aliases, one of them being Clark Rockefeller.
He came to the attention of authorities investigating the nearly 30-year-old murder case as the man who rented a guesthouse from Sohus in the wealthy suburb of San Marino.
In 1985, Sohus and his wife, Linda, went missing. The couple had been living with the victim’s mother, Ruth Sohus, who eventually sold the house to another person.
In 1994, a contractor digging out a backyard pool for the new homeowner hit a fiberglass container with human bones inside. The L.A. Coroner’s office identified the bones as belonging to John Sohus.
“That body was the boy that Ruth thought had abandoned her,” Balian said on Monday. “John Sohus was buried in his own backyard.”
Gerhartsreiter's name was linked to the 1985 murder when he was arrested in Boston in 2008 for the kidnapping of his daughter. Investigators unraveled his true identity.
Gerhartsreiter has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and on Monday, his defense attorneys argued that there was no motive for Gerhartsreiter to murder his former landlord and that there is a lack of hard evidence to prove the killing.
Defense attorney Brad Bailey asked the jurors to be skeptical. Bailey said the prosecution’s case was circumstantial and based on Gerhartsreiter’s odd character and social manners.
“Does any of that really prove he committed a murder that nobody witnessed?” Bailey asked the jurors. “Or is it merely suspicious or quirky or odd behavior?”
Bailey argued that Gerhartsreiter’s aliases and lies about being famous or of British royalty or throwing public trash away in public places amounted only to who he was and how he acted.
The defense then shifted its argument to Linda Sohus, the victim’s wife, who has never been found, dead or alive.
“John Sohus’ wife, Linda, also the evidence will show you, exhibited her own similarly odd and strange and bizarre behavior,” Bailey said.
At the beginning of the court session, the prosecution team told jurors it took a long time to gather all the witnesses for the trial because the case spanned more than 25 years and two continents.
Gerhartsreiter was close to the end of a prison term for the kidnapping of his young daughter in a Boston custody dispute when the murder charge interrupted his chance to regain his freedom, the Associated Press reported.