The German national who called himself a Rockefeller and created an international sensation five years ago when he abducted his young daughter in Boston faces a far more serious charge of murder when his trial opens this week in a downtown Los Angeles courthouse.
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter fabricated much of his past, telling friends and romantic interests that he came from a life of wealth and privilege, tales that unraveled after he snatched his 7-year-old daughter from a Back Bay street and brought her to Baltimore, where he was arrested six days later. He was going by the name Clark Rockefeller at the time, passing himself off as a relative of the famous industrialist.
But before he arrived in New England, he had lived in southern California, under the name of Christopher Chichester.
On Monday, opening arguments are expected to be held in the trial of Gerhartsreiter on charges that he killed John Sohus, the son of his landlord in upscale San Marino in the mid-1980s, dismembering the body and stuffing the remains in plastic bags before burying them in the backyard of the property. John Sohus’ wife, Linda, also disappeared around the same time and is presumed dead. Gerhartsreiter is a suspect in her disappearance but has not been charged in that case.
In Massachusetts, Gerhartsreiter is scheduled to finish serving a maximum five-year sentence this summer for the 2009 abduction conviction by a Suffolk County jury for taking his daughter during a supervised visit.
He is being held on $10 million bail in California, where he faces 26 years to life in prison if convicted on the murder charge.
Brad Bailey, the defendant’s co-counsel, said in a phone interview Friday that his client is eager to prove his innocence.
“He’s holding up under the circumstances and looking forward to the trial getting underway,” Bailey said.
The witness list has more than 50 names, Bailey said, but it is not certain whether all those people will testify during the trial, which is expected to last as long as six weeks.
Bailey declined to comment on any defense strategy but said of the evidence against his client, “A lot of it can be characterized as circumstantial, as they presented during the pretrial, and we don’t expect much different or any surprises in the trial.”
After the Boston case garnered widespread media attention in 2008, California authorities began looking at Gerhartsreiter in connection with the death of Sohus, whose remains they discovered buried in the plastic bags in 1994 when new owners began excavating the backyard to construct a pool. One of the bags carried a logo used by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee from 1979 to 1982. Gerhartsreiter was a student at the university in 1981, authorities say.
Gerhartsreiter moved to San Marino around 1983 and began living in the guest quarters of the house owned by Sohus’ mother, Didi Sohus, who has since died. Sohus and his wife, Linda, were also living at the residence. Both disappeared in 1985.
Gerhartsreiter left California that year and moved to New York, then New Hampshire, and eventually Boston. He was able to ease into wealthy circles and move among the elite of New England high society.
He married Sandra Boss, a Harvard Business School graduate and partner at a consulting firm with a $2 million annual salary, in 1995. They had a daughter, Reigh, in 2001 before they divorced in December 2006.
Boss testified at the kidnapping trial that during the time they were together, she never saw Gerhartsreiter with any identification cards, never viewed any childhood photos of him, and never met any business partners from a jet-propulsion start-up company he claimed to manage.
Boss said she accepted many of her former husband’s fantastic stories, including that his mother had been a movie star as a child and that he had been mute as a child. He was emotionally abusive and controlled her finances, she said, but she stayed married to him for years because she feared losing her daughter.
Her fears were realized with the abduction just months after the divorce.
Several movies and books have been generated from the life of Gerhartsreiter, who was born in a small village at the edge of the Bavarian Alps, and Bailey said the publicity surrounding his defendant made the jury selection process a challenge. It took a week but they were able to complete it by Friday.
“It’s pretty common in these types of high-profile cases that a jury will contain people who have been exposed, but if there is something in their response during the selection process that may indicate they’ve already formed an opinion, then that would disqualify them,” Bailey said as he and co-counsel Jeffrey A. Denner were still seeking the 12 jurors and four alternates. “We’re looking for jurors who would retain an open mind if they’ve heard about our client.”
Investigators in the case and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office declined to comment on the trial.
Ellen Sohus, John Sohus’ stepsister, could not be reached for comment, but she has said previously that she would attend the trial.