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Man who took Rockefeller name faces murder charge

By Linda Deutsch
AP Special Correspondent / January 18, 2012
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ALHAMBRA, Calif.—Evidence in the California murder case against a German man who posed as an heir to the Rockefeller fortune includes a fractured skull and bones wrapped in a bag from a university in Wisconsin, where the defendant was married in 1981.

Los Angeles County prosecutors called forensic witnesses Wednesday to testify about the bones in a hearing to determine if Christian Gerhartsreiter (GAYR'-hahrtz-ry-tur) will stand trial for murder.

Authorities say the bones have been matched to John Sohus, a computer engineer who disappeared in 1985. They were unearthed in 1994 in wealthy San Marino, where Gerhartsreiter allegedly lived under the name Chris Chichester.

Gerhartsreiter was previously convicted of kidnapping his own daughter in Boston, where he had lived as Clark Rockefeller.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

A man who once masqueraded as American aristocracy came to court Wednesday in a baggy prison jumpsuit to face a murder charge and was told he could not be referred to as Clark Rockefeller.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Jared Moses appeared taken aback when lawyers for Christian Gerhartsreiter asked if he could be referred to in court as Clark Rockefeller because that is the name many witnesses would know him by.

Moses said he realized the defendant had many aliases, but he said Gerhartsreiter would be called by his true name in court.

The German immigrant is charged with the murder of a San Marino man who disappeared in 1985 and whose bones were unearthed in the wealthy Los Angeles suburb in 1994. Gerhartsreiter was brought to California after being convicted of kidnapping in Boston, where he had masqueraded as an heir to the Rockefeller oil fortune.

Moses allowed TV and still cameras in court but barred audio recording of the preliminary hearing, which will determine if there is enough evidence to put Gerhartsreiter on trial for murder.

"There will likely be a trial, and I'm not comfortable with previewing the testimony of witnesses to a jury pool," the judge said.

In 1985, Clark Rockefeller did not exist. The pseudonym, one of many fake identities assumed by Gerhartsreiter, would surface years later when he began cutting a swath across high society claiming to be an heir to the Rockefeller fortune.

As a world-class impostor, he conned people into believing he was a physicist, an art collector, a ship captain and a financial adviser who renegotiated debt for small countries. Even his wealthy wife was unaware of his true identity.

But when Gerhartsreiter entered court Wednesday he was finally himself: a convicted kidnapper facing a charge of murdering the son of his former landlady a quarter-century ago, when he lived in California under one of his many pseudonyms. He is famous now; his story has been told in a TV movie.

Like most cold cases, the murder charge stemming from the death 26 years ago may be tough to prove. Evidence deteriorates, and witness memories fade over years. But prosecutors have had time to develop theories, and the science of forensic analysis has advanced.

Much of the prosecution's case will hinge on three plastic bags of human bones found during the excavation for a swimming pool at a San Marino home in 1994. At first, it was not certain that the bones were even human. But through extensive testing, they were linked to John Sohus, 27, a computer engineer who disappeared in 1985. It was a difficult match because Sohus was adopted and DNA from relatives was not readily available.

As Gerhartsreiter sat handcuffed to a courtroom chair, one of the first witnesses called in the preliminary hearing was the apparent half-sister of Sohus.

Lori Moltz identified a birth certificate and adoption papers signed by her mother for a baby boy she said was the brother she never knew she had. Authorities have said the discovery of Moltz and a DNA sample from her helped identify the bones.

Also taking the stand was a construction worker who told of digging up a box containing bones including a skull and jawbone. The witness also identified photos taken of the scene that day.

Sohus' wife, Linda, also disappeared in 1985. No trace of her was found, though postcards purportedly written by her were sent to friends and relatives after she disappeared. The postcards were supposedly mailed from France, but the handwriting was never authenticated. Authorities presume she is dead, but they have not charged Gerhartsreiter with her death.

The other person who disappeared from San Marino at about the same time was a tenant then known as Chris Chichester, another of Gerhartsreiter's identities.

Police explored various possibilities, including that Chichester had been in love with Linda Sohus and murdered her husband in a fit of jealousy. Authorities came close to finding him in the late 1980s when he was pulled over in Greenwich, Conn., driving Sohus' truck. But by the time the Department of Motor Vehicles had confirmed it was Sohus' truck, Chichester and the vehicle had vanished.

The man at the center of the mystery eluded authorities for years, moving to New York and then Boston where he hobnobbed in high society. He claimed to be an heir to the fabled Rockefeller fortune, marrying a woman with whom he had a daughter. She divorced him when she found out he had duped her.

Last year he was convicted of kidnapping his daughter in Boston during a bitter custody dispute. Gerhartsreiter is serving a four- to five-year prison sentence. He would be eligible for parole this year if he was not facing the California charge, which could bring him 26 years to life in prison if convicted.

Prosecutors have 30 to 40 witnesses ready for the two-week preliminary hearing, many of whom are forensic experts. They are seeking to convince a judge there is probable cause to believe that Gerhartsreiter is a killer and should be held for trial.

One of Gerhartsreiter's Boston attorneys, Jeffrey Denner, said it was unlikely that the defense will put on a case at this stage of the proceedings. He said that Gerhartsreiter is "appropriately somber" as he faces the court hearing.

At the kidnapping trial, Denner claimed his client was suffering from a delusional disorder and was legally insane when he snatched his daughter during a supervised visit. Prosecutors portrayed him as a master manipulator who used multiple aliases and told elaborate lies about his past since moving to the United States in the 1970s.

The complaint against him lists five different aliases: Christopher Chichester, Clark Rockefeller, Christopher Crowe, C. Crowe Mountbatten and Charles "Chip" Smith.

Denner has said Gerhartsreiter is not a violent man, and prosecutors have not yet offered a motive that might have led him to murder. The motive and other details of the case could be disclosed at the preliminary hearing.

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