Rockefeller imposter hearing weighs possible murder charge

LOS ANGELES Thu Jan 19, 2012 8:16am EST

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter enters the courtroom for his kidnapping trial in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston, June 11, 2009.   REUTERS/Nancy Lane-Boston Herald/POOL

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter enters the courtroom for his kidnapping trial in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston, June 11, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Nancy Lane-Boston Herald/POOL

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A German man who once posed as a member of the wealthy Rockefeller family appeared in a suburban Los Angeles court on Wednesday in a hearing to determine if he should stand trial for murder in the brutal 1985 death of his landlord.

The preliminary court hearing began with an attorney for Christian Gerhartsreiter asking the judge to refer to his 50-year-old client by the last name Rockefeller.

But Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jares Moses said the defendant should be called Gerhartsreiter.

The hearing, which is expected to last several days, is meant to determine where there is sufficient evidence to hold Gerhartsreiter for trial on the murder charge.

Gerhartsreiter was sent to California last year from a prison in Massachusetts, where he was serving a four-year sentence for kidnapping and assault, after prosecutors in March charged him with murdering John Sohus in 1985 with a blunt object in the Los Angeles suburb of San Marino.

In 1985, Gerhartsreiter rented a guest house from Sohus and his wife and went by the name Christopher Chichester, Los Angeles prosecutors said. He vanished after they went missing.

On Wednesday, construction worker Jose Perez testified that in 1994 he was using a excavating machine to dig a hole for a swimming pool in the backyard of the home when he hit what he initially thought was garbage.

It turned out to be a container filled with human bones, and Perez said he called police.

Authorities later determined the bones belonged to John Sohus, but they only recently made a conclusive identification of the remains with the help of new technology not available when the bones were unearthed, according to Los Angeles Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore.

The remains of Sohus' wife, Linda, were never discovered. But investigators have said they believe Gerhartsreiter was involved in her death. He has not been charged, however, with killing her.

For at least 16 years, Gerhartsreiter passed himself off as a man named Clark Rockefeller and pretended to be a member of the Rockefeller oil dynasty, a claim the family denies. He lived in Boston at the time.

Sandra Boss, Gerhartsreiter's wife of 12 years, accused him in her 2007 divorce case of lying about being a Rockefeller.

The following year, he kidnapped the couple's young daughter in Boston, leading to a manhunt that ended with his arrest in Baltimore and the girl's rescue.

His four-year prison sentence for kidnapping and assault in that case is due to end in the middle of this year, and he is receiving credit for time served in jail in Los Angeles County while his case proceeds through the local court system, his attorney Brad Bailey said.

"Our client has maintained his innocence from the start and continues to maintain his innocence," Bailey said.

Bailey also explained his request to the judge to call his client by the name Rockefeller. "We're just telling the judge how we refer to him and how he responds to us," Bailey said.

Detectives said his fingerprints identified him as Gerhartsreiter, a German who came to Connecticut in the 1970s as a student.

The preliminary hearing in the case is expected to last at least six days, Bailey said.

His life was portrayed in the 2010 made-for-television movie "Who Is Clark Rockefeller?" starring Eric McCormack.

Gerhartsreiter faces a maximum sentence of 26 years to life in prison if convicted of murder.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Bohan)

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