LOS ANGELES — A German immigrant who spent decades posing as an heir to the fabled Rockefeller oil fortune and using other identities was found guilty Wednesday of first-degree murder in the death of a man whose bones were found buried nearly 20 years ago at a suburban home.
Christian Gerhartsreiter, 52, was convicted in the heavily circumstantial case that went to trial 28 years after the disappearance of newlyweds John and Linda Sohus.
Much of the prosecution’s evidence focused on the strange behavior of the man who went by many names, including Clark Rockefeller.
“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.”
Balian said the passage of time always makes cold cases difficult.
“But the circumstances never change,” he said. “Every piece of evidence was important.”
The jury reached the verdict after deliberating for less than six hours over two days.
Before it was read, Gerhartsreiter entered the courtroom smiling, and his lawyers said later he was hopeful and optimistic. He did not show any reaction when a court clerk read the decision convicting him of killing John Sohus.
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.”
Defense attorney Jeffrey Denner told jurors during his closing argument on Monday that there was reasonable doubt of his client’s guilt. After the conviction, he said Gerhartsreiter might 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.”
Jurors said they were less interested in the defendant’s life as an impostor than they were in the evidence.
“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.”
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.
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.