Man who took Rockefeller name faces murder charge
ALHAMBRA, Calif.—Evidence presented Wednesday in the California murder case against a German man who posed as an heir to the Rockefeller fortune includes a fractured skull and bones in a bag from Wisconsin, where the defendant had ties.
Los Angeles County prosecutors called expert witnesses to testify about the bones in a preliminary hearing to determine if Christian Gerhartsreiter will stand trial for murder.
Authorities say the bones have been matched to John Sohus, a 27-year-old computer engineer who vanished in 1985. They were unearthed in 1994 in wealthy San Marino, where Gerhartsreiter allegedly lived under the name Chris Chichester.
The defendant was brought to court in a baggy prison jumpsuit and was told he could not be referred to as Clark Rockefeller, a name he used in Boston where he was previously convicted of kidnapping his own daughter.
Superior Court Judge Jared Moses appeared taken aback when lawyers for Gerhartsreiter asked if their client could be referred to as Clark Rockefeller because that is the name many witnesses know him by.
Moses said he realized the defendant had many aliases but Gerhartsreiter would be called by his true name in court.
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.
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.
Much of the murder case will hinge on three bags of human bones found during the excavation for a swimming pool at a San Marino home.
One of the bags shown in photographs in court bore a logo from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where the defense acknowledges Gerhartsreiter had links.
Forensic experts called to the witness stand said the bones in the bags were wrapped in layers of plastic and stuffed into a fiberglass box buried 3 feet to 5 feet in the ground.
Details of their discovery were outlined by Judith Daye, an anthropologist who worked for the Los Angeles County coroner and was sent to the scene.
Using pictures, she identified pieces of the body and the bag with a logo reading "UWM Bookstore." There was also the word "Milwaukee." Daye pointed to leg bones inside jeans as well as a foot stuffed in a sock. She said the hole in which the material was found also contained boots, a zipper and a man's shirt.
Records previously reviewed by The Associated Press show that in 1981 Gerhartsreiter married a 22-year-old woman at the Dane County courthouse in Madison, Wis., enabling him to get a green card. Divorce records say he left the next day.
In the opening round of the hearing, Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian did not immediately directly connect the bones to Sohus. But further forensic experts were expected to make the identification based on DNA samples.
As Gerhartsreiter sat handcuffed to a chair, 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.
Dr. Frank Sheridan, chief medical examiner for San Bernardino County, said he found that the person died of multiple fractures of the skull inflicted by a blunt object, possibly a baseball bat.
Sheridan said the skull was badly fractured and had to be sent to a U.S. Department of Defense facility in Hawaii to be reconstructed. A photo of the reconstructed skull was shown to the judge as Sheridan explained where the person was struck on the face and side of the head.
He said any of the blows would have killed the person without medical intervention and might have been fatal regardless.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Jeffrey Denner asked whether the blows could have been inflicted by a slight person or whether it would take a large individual to cause such damage. Gerhartsreiter is very slim.
The witness said a person of any size using a blunt object could inflict that level of damage.
Sohus' wife, Linda, also disappeared in 1985. No trace of her was found, though postcards purportedly written by her in France were sent to friends and relatives after she disappeared. 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 the tenant known as Chichester.
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, claiming to be a Rockefeller and 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.
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.