March 19, 2013

Impostor's lawyer suggests missing wife as killer

Linda Deutsch / The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — An attorney for a notorious Rockefeller impostor charged with murder has summoned up the specter of a vanished woman as the possible killer of a man slain more than a quarter century ago.

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Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter listens during opening statements in his trial in Los Angeles Criminal Court on Monday. A prosecutor told jurors he will prove a cold-case murder allegation against the German immigrant who spent years moving through U.S. society under a series of aliases, most notoriously posing as a member of the fabled Rockefeller family.

AP

Attorney Brad Bailey said if jurors believe that Linda Sohus could have killed her husband, John, in 1985, it would provide the reasonable doubt needed to acquit his client.

He suggested the wife did it in what he called "a classic who-dunnit."

But a prosecutor claims circumstantial evidence left no doubt that Christian Gerhartsreiter was the killer.

The two lawyers delivered opening statements Monday as a prelude to the start of testimony Tuesday in the long-awaited trial.

The man who called himself Clark Rockefeller has been the subject of books and TV movies focusing on his bizarre travels through high society as a man of many identities.

His true identity as a German immigrant with a checkered past was unveiled in connection with his kidnapping of his daughter and the more recent murder charge against him.

Prosecutor Habib Balian said he will prove a cold-case murder allegation against Gerhartsreiter, who spent years moving through U.S. society under a series of aliases, most notoriously posing as a member of the fabled Rockefeller family.

The prosecution's opening statement offered no suggestion of a motive for the 1985 killing. He said the case will be built on circumstantial evidence.

Bailey, one of two Boston attorneys representing the defendant, responded that every piece of circumstantial evidence could point to Linda Sohus as the killer of her husband.

She vanished at the same time that he did in 1985, but no trace of her has been found. John Sohus' bones were dug up from the backyard of a home where Gerhartsreiter lived as a tenant on Sohus' mother's property.

Bailey said there are no witnesses to the killing or burial of Sohus, and prosecutors have little more evidence than the bizarre behavior and multiple identities of Gerhartsreiter to paint him as a murderer.

"It's just as reasonable to conclude that John Sohus was killed by someone else...his still missing wife," Bailey said.

He acknowledged that the defendant was "a strange guy," but he said Linda Sohus also acted strangely and may have had a motive to kill her husband.

Gerhartsreiter, 52, has pleaded not guilty to the killing of John Sohus, a 27-year-old computer programmer.

Anticipating the defense theory, Balian told jurors: "Ladies and gentlemen, the evidence will show that John and Linda Sohus are dead."

The prosecution's case is based on a bag of bones found buried at the property and the fuzzy memories of residents of San Marino, a wealthy Los Angeles suburb. The residents knew the defendant as Chris Chichester.

A gaunt, bespectacled Gerhartsreiter listened quietly Monday as Balian connected the dots of the defendant's life.

Balian depicted him as a fabulist, a liar who made up extravagant stories about being a famous film director, the heir to a South African fortune and a descendant of British royalty. The defendant passed around business cards announcing himself as the 13th Baronet of England and once used the name Mountbatten, he said.

Bailey said that Gerhartsreiter's fabrications were not evidence of murder.

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.

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