LOS ANGELES (AP) — In his world of pretense, the little man in spectacles became many fabulous people from royalty to a Rockefeller until his charades finally ended with a conviction under his true name — Christian Gerhartsreiter — a German immigrant guilty of a cold case murder.
A jury found Wednesday that the past had caught up with him. He was no longer Clark Rockefeller, heir to a fabled oil fortune, or Chris Chichester, the 13th baronet of England or even Chris Crowe, a producer of an Alfred Hitchcock mystery TV show.
“I’ve never known anyone with the ability to become so many people,” said jury forewoman Kristen Lee, an attorney. “But his character was his character. We were more concerned with the evidence.”
She and other jurors found that Gerhartsreiter, who lived briefly in California in the 1980s, killed John Sohus, a 27-year-old computer programmer who was the son of the defendant’s landlady. Sohus and his new wife, Linda, vanished under strange circumstances in 1985. No trace of her has been found.
But the discovery of a bag of bones in a pit being dug for a swimming pool at his former residence gave new life to the missing persons case in 1994. It took another nine years for authorities to put together the pieces of the baffling circumstantial case.
Gerhartsreiter, 52, was convicted by a jury which needed a mere six hours to find him guilty.
Much of the prosecution’s evidence focused on the strange behavior of the man who went by many names, including Clark Rockefeller. The prosecutor, who had little direct evidence and was dealing with a 28-year-old case wondered if the defendant would escape justice.
“Sometimes you’re afraid that this guy’s conned so many people for so many years that this will be the one last time he pulls off his last con,” Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian said after the verdict. “But that didn’t happen.”
In the courtroom, Gerhartsreiter kept up appearances just as all of his alter-egos would have. He was all smiles when he entered and his lawyers said he believed he would be acquitted.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Denner said in the end his client may have been his own worst enemy.
“The way he went through life deceiving people did not make him very likable to the jury,” Denner said. “But that doesn’t make him a killer.”
He said there was reasonable doubt of his guilt.
Ellen Sohus, the victim’s sister, said later that she was unsure if the verdict brought closure after so many years of uncertainty about the fate of her brother and his wife.
“I don’t know if you can really have closure with something like this,” she said. “What I have now are a lot of answers that I never believed I was ever going to have.”
Juror Salvador Ruiz, a retired truck driver, said the panel’s first two votes were split 10-2 in favor of conviction. When the panel reconvened on Wednesday, the two dissenters agreed with the majority.
Ruiz said jurors discussed the fact that Linda Sohus remains missing, and he suggested that authorities should encourage Gerhartsreiter to lead them to her body.
Denner and Brad Bailey, his partner on the defense team, said their client maintains he knows nothing about the woman’s disappearance. They suggested that Linda Sohus, not their client, killed her husband, but no evidence was provided to prove that theory.
Superior Court Judge George Lomeli set sentencing for June 26.
Prosecutors did not pursue the death penalty, so Gerhartsreiter could face a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison for the murder conviction, plus two additional years because the jury also found that he personally used a blunt object and a sharp instrument as weapons.
His lawyers said he is looking forward to an appeal.
Prosecutors pieced together the defendant’s history after he arrived in the ritzy Los Angeles suburb of San Marino. It was a story worthy of magazine articles, true crime books and TV movies.
He was known back then as Chris Chichester and intimated he was of royal lineage. He joined a church, befriended residents, and told some he was a film student.
A friend said Linda Sohus once described the tenant in her mother-in-law’s cottage as creepy and said she and her husband never spoke to him.
Residents didn’t connect Gerhartsreiter with the 1985 disappearance of the Sohus couple. They were never seen again and he vanished soon after they did.
Across the country, a man variously known as Chris Crowe, Chip Smith and Clark Rockefeller was inventing new lives for himself.
This impostor wormed his way into high society and talked his way into important jobs. He married a wealthy woman and controlled her funds, but his identity unraveled when he kidnapped their daughter during a custody dispute.
The resulting publicity led California authorities to revisit the Sohus disappearance. They realized the man in custody in Boston was not Clark Rockefeller but was the man who had lived in San Marino decades ago. And they looked again at the bag of bones that had been found under the former Sohus home in 1994.
Already serving time in Boston for the kidnapping of his young daughter, Gerhartsreiter was close to the end of his sentence and headed for freedom when he was charged with murder.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.