In the 1970’s, a young man named Christian Gerhartsreiter left his native Germany for the new world – he would build a name for himself in the United States. For decades, Gerhartsreiter tried on and discarded names like pants in a dressing room before settling on Clark Rockefeller, an ersatz heir to the oil fortune. He made it into Time Magazine… as one of its Top 10 Imposters. Now a trial in Los Angeles will determine if Gerhartsreiter will earn a new title: convicted murderer.
Gerhartsreiter’s journey from immigrant to New England elite has spawned books and movies. After years of wandering across the US using names like Chris Gerhart, Chris Crowe, Chip Smith and others, Gerhartsreiter settled on the east coast, where he took on the Clark Rockefeller name and spun tales so outlandish (e.g., he sold his grandparents’ yacht to Mariah Carey) that people believed him.
Gerhartsreiter would ultimately gain national notoriety after using his new old-money lineage to help woo Sandra Boss, then a student at Harvard Business School. In 1983, Boss met the man she knew as Clark Rockefeller at a New York cocktail party, and the two started dating. The next year, when she graduated Harvard and moved to New York City to begin her career as a consultant at McKinsey & Co., they were engaged. They married in a Quaker ceremony (with no officient) on Nantucket in 1985, and had a baby girl Reigh Storrow Mills Rockefeller in 2001.
Over time, her husband’s strange ways — he controlled the bank accounts but never put any of the bills in his name, had no driver’s license, and was secretive about his job (he implied that he worked for the Trilateral Commission on top secret assignments) — grated on Boss and their marriage dissolved. During that time, Boss intuited that her husband was not the man he made himself out to be and hired a private investigator to look into his background. The investigator found nothing. As Boss would later testify, “They couldn’t tell me who I was married to.”
One thing was certain: he was not the blue blood he claimed to be. Their divorce settlement gave Gerhartsreiter $800,000 — but took custody of their daughter Reigh from him and allowed Boss to move Reigh to London, when McKinsey transferred her. Although he was only allowed three yearly visits—always accompanied by a social worker—Gerhartsreiter kidnapped the young girl during a visit to Boston in July 2008. He was apprehended a few days later in Baltimore, and the subsequent trial made Clark Rockefeller (and his various aliases) a household name. Despite his attorneys’ pleas that their client’s delusions of grandeur and narcissism constituted mental illness, Gerhartsreiter was convicted of parental kidnapping in 2009 and sentenced to 4-5 years in prison.
The undoing of Gerharstreiter’s web of deceit led to more legal problems – and ultimately to his appearance in an LA court on a murder charge. Back in 1985, Gerhartsreiter was living in San Marino, California under the name Christopher Chichester, telling people he was a British aristocrat who taught film at USC.
Gerhartsreiter rented the guesthouse of an older woman named Ruth “DiDi” Sohus. Sohus’ son John, 27, and his 29-year-old wife Linda lived with her in the big house. One weekend in February 1985, John and Linda Sohus simply vanished. Linda had mentioned to friends that the they were taking a trip east for a few weeks. But they never returned – and save for a few cryptic postcards to friends and family — they were never heard from again. Linda’s mother Susan Mayfield received a postcard from Paris a few months after they were last seen: “Mom, I think we need a geography lesson but not too bad – Linda & John.” Mayfield was confused because her daughter never had a passport. Later on, investigators would find no record of the Sohus’ ever leaving the country.
But with no clear proof the Sohus’ were dead and no clues to any foul play, there was little the police could do. Gerhartsreiter soon left California and headed back east. DiDi Sohus eventually died, broken-hearted that her son had abandoned her in her old age. Then in 1994, the new owners of the Sohus house on Lorain Road decided to put a pool in the backyard. The excavators found something surprising as they dug – the decomposed remains of John Sohus. Linda’s body has never been found.
By the time John Sohus’ body was found, authorities had found one clue: in 1988, John’s Nissan pickup truck was discovered abandoned in a Connecticut train station parking lot. They traced the pickup back to a Christopher Crowe, and unsuccessfully reached out to him. When Gerhartsreiter got the message police wanted to speak to him, he went underground again only to emerge as Clark Rockefeller.
When news of the kidnapping charge broke, LA authorities took another look at the case, and formally charged Gerhartsreiter with the 1985 murder of John Sohus on March 15, 2011.
Gerhartsreiter was extradited to California to stand trial, which began last month. Prosecutors rely on a mountain of circumstantial evidence showing Gerhartsreiter as deceitful man with several coincidences pointing toward his guilt. Defense attorneys have a strong case for reasonable doubt – while conceding his client is “a strange guy, an odd guy,” attorney Brad Bailey told the jury “There isn’t going to be much more than that in terms of solid evidence to this quite old, once quite cold and still untold case.” Calling the story “a classic case of whodunnit,” Bailey even threw out the name of an alternate killer: Linda Sohus.
Prosecutors called Sue Kauffman, a friend of the Sohus’, to tell the jury about the couple. Kauffman was maid of honor at the Sohus’ wedding and recalled the two were “contented puppies… happy to be in each other’s presence.” But Coffman conceded that she only saw the Sohus’ a few times in the year before their disappearance – and she confirmed that Linda told her John had been hired for a secret government job and they were planning a trip east when they disappeared.
But the circumstantial evidence piled up as the State went through its case. Bettie Brown testified that Christopher Chichester tried to sell her an Oriental rug in 1985, but she turned him down because the rug had a quarter-sized stain that looked like blood. A neighbor of the Sohus’ then testified that around the same time, she noticed putrid black smoke coming out of the guest house chimney. When Mary Cologne confronted the man know as Chichester, he said he “I’m burning carpet.” A USC friend recalled a backyard Trivial Pursuit party thrown by the defendant a few months after the Sohus’ went missing. Dana Farrar said she noticed a freshly-dug patch of dirt in the backyard. Chichester told her he’d had plumbing problems, but the prosecution presented evidence that John Sohus’ remains were found a decade later near that patch of overturned soil.
On Wednesday, April 3, the State rested its case. The defense put on two handwriting experts who identified the writing on the postcards as most likely being written by Linda Sohus. Prosecutors pointed out that there is no way to tell whether the postcards were written under duress or trickery by Gerhartsreiter.
Forensic examiners determined that John Sohus died from some combination of brutal blows to the head with a blunt object and possible stabbings – the shirt Sohus was wearing had several knife-slits. Furthermore, Sohus’ skull was found wrapped in two plastic bags: one said “Trojan Stores USC”, and the other had a logo from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Gerhartsreiter attended UW-Milwaukee in the past and was a frequent visitor to USC. The brutality of the injuries gave the defense an opportunity to again float the still-missing Linda Sohus as a potential killer: Linda was 6 feet tall, 200 pounds – considerably bigger than the diminutive defendant who stands roughly 5’7” and 150 pounds.
The prosecution’s final witness was the one everyone in the courtroom wanted to see: Gerhartsreiter’s ex-wife Sandra Boss. A top management consultant now based in London, Boss spun a fascinating tale illustrating how an intelligent, successful woman could make such a foolish choice. She described how the defendant won her over with his intelligence and quirkiness, but that his secrecy and domineering manner with the family’s money put a strain on the relationship. Prosecutors entered a checkbook of blank checks signed by Boss – she said he had her do that so he could pay the household bills and other expenses without having to clue her in on family finances. Throughout her testimony, Boss almost never glanced at Gerhartsreiter, who she never referred to by name, only as “my ex-husband” or “the defendant”.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Denner walked Boss through the lies his client told as if to imply that the tales were so over-the-top no one could credibly believe them. When Boss said she knew little about her ex-husband’s mythical business dealings in a bankrupt company that allegedly held important patents, Boss said “he wasn’t always forthcoming in his activities.” Denner followed up naively, “You mean he lied to you?” For one moment, Boss’ cool demeanor cracked: “What do you think?” she coldly retorted, drawing laughter from the gallery.
Closing arguments in the trial are set for Monday, April 8.