Old killing remains mysterious near trial’s end
LOS ANGELES (AP) – Prosecutors are close to wrapping up the murder trial of a Rockefeller impostor in the 1985 killing of a California man, and the cold case mainly rests on circumstantial evidence, the strange behavior of the defendant and the grim discovery of a bag of bones.
With no witnesses to the crime, little forensic evidence and no explanation for why the German man masquerading as Clark Rockefeller would have killed his landlady’s son, it’s a tough case to prove.
“When a case is very old you have potential deficits on information you can gather to bring into trial,” said James A. Cohen, associate professor and director of a trial advocacy program at Fordham University School of Law in New York. “Memories fade. Leads grow very stale. Witnesses disappear. They die or move on. And evidence deteriorates.”
It was chance that provided the biggest break in the case. Bones were unearthed in the yard of the home where Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German immigrant who lived under several alter egos before pretending to be an heir to the Rockefeller dynasty, rented a cottage from the mother of victim John Sohus.
About a decade after the mother died and Sohus, his wife and Gerhartsreiter all disappeared, the new home owner was digging up the yard for a swimming pool.
While there is no DNA to link the bones to the defendant, the plastic bag they were found in bore the logo of a Midwest university Gerhartsreiter once attended.
In the two week old trial that resumes Tuesday, white haired residents of wealthy San Marino came to the court, some requiring assistance to the witness stand, and testified about their long ago friendships with the man then known as Chris Chichester.
Asked to identify his picture from 1984, one woman in her 80s sighed and said, “He was younger, but we were all younger then.”
It was clear that the stranger brought a whiff of glamor to the staid San Marino neighborhood. He told stories of having royal lineage and being involved in filmmaking. Those who met him liked him.
Ironically, he often said he was a producer of the Alfred Hitchcock TV series, which focused on crimes as mysterious as the one in which he now stands charged.
Gerhartsreiter didn’t stay long and when he vanished that too was mysterious.
Defense attorneys claim that victim John Sohus was not killed by their client but by his wife, Linda, who vanished at the same time he did. No trace of her has been found.
There has been no evidence of a motive for either Gerhartsreiter or Linda to kill John Sohus.
The newlywed Sohuses were described as very much in love “like contented puppies.” A witness recalled Linda Sohus referring to the tenant in her mother-in-law’s guest cottage as “creepy” and said they never talked to him.
Recent testimony focused on Gerhartsreiter’s behavior after police came looking for him years after he left San Marino. He changed his appearance and went into hiding. Prosecutors will claim that’s a sign of guilt.
The defendant’s disguises, going into seclusion and tendency to exaggerate his life story may hurt his case, but the defense could use his odd behavior to its advantage.
“The defense says it’s not proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Cohen said. “He’s just a weird guy and if we convicted everyone who’s weird in this country there’d be few people on the streets.”
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