Rockefeller impersonator pleads not guilty in California murder case

The judge rejected a defense request that Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter be referred to as "Mr. Rockefeller" in court.

Story highlights

  • Judge keeps bail at $10M, but defendant is already under a Massachusetts sentence
  • Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter pleads not guilty to a charge of murder
  • He denies killing landlady's son, whose bones were found nine years after he disappeared
  • Gerhartsreiter went by the name Clark Rockefeller
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a German-born man known for impersonating a Rockefeller, pleaded not guilty Thursday in a Los Angeles County court to a charge of murder.
He is accused of killing his landlady's son, who disappeared in the mid-1980s and whose bones were discovered nine years later in the backyard of what had been his mother's Southern California home.
On Thursday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Candace J. Beason scheduled an April 3 pre-trial hearing in the case.
Last month, another Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, Jared Moses, ruled there was sufficient probable cause to bind Gerhartsreiter over for trial. Gerhartsreiter appeared in court Thursday for his arraignment; he was wearing a blue jail jumpsuit.
The dismembered remains of John Sohus, who was 27 at the time of his 1985 disappearance, were found in 1994 by workers installing a pool at a home his mother once owned in San Marino, California.
At the time of Sohus' disappearance, Gerhartsreiter had been renting a guesthouse from Sohus' mother, said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.
During a preliminary hearing last month, a pool builder described how he discovered a skull buried in the yard, and investigators eventually found nearly an entire skeleton. The remains were not identified until 2010.
Robison said evidence showed the bones belonged to Sohus.
During the preliminary hearing, Moses rejected a defense request that Gerhartsreiter be referred to as "Mr. Rockefeller" in court. The defense attorney said he and other attorneys on the team knew Gerhartsreiter as "Mr. Rockefeller."
Gerhartsreiter, who has led a life of multiple identities, has denied involvement in the Sohus case. At one point in his life, Gerhartsreiter assumed the identity of "Clark Rockefeller," a cultured poseur who never seemed to have a job.
A Boston tabloid dubbed him "Crockefeller." A 2010 made-for-TV movie, "Who Is Clark Rockefeller?" starring Eric McCormack as Gerhartsreiter, aired on the Lifetime network.
Gerhartsreiter has been serving a four- to five-year sentence in Massachusetts for kidnapping his then-7-year-old daughter from his ex-wife in 2008. He was transferred from a prison in that state to California in July, authorities said.
On Thursday, Judge Beason ordered that Gerhartsreiter's bail in California remain at $10 million, but that bail is moot because he is being held on the Massachusetts sentence, authorities said.
The whereabouts of the dead man's wife, Linda Sohus, are unknown. Except for a few postcards that appeared to have been mailed by the couple from Paris in 1985, her friends and family have not heard from her.
A spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office has said her disappearance is still under investigation.
Gerhartsreiter's Massachusetts prison term will end in mid-2012, authorities said. He will receive credit for that Massachusetts sentence while being held in California, authorities said.
Gerhartsreiter came to the United States from Germany in 1978, according to testimony at his trial for kidnapping. After spending a few years in Connecticut, he moved to Wisconsin, where he married in a green card arrangement using his true name.
Gerhartsreiter then relocated to California.
He settled in San Marino, a wealthy community near Pasadena, where he lived under the name Christopher Chichester from 1983 to 1985.
He posed as a film student and boasted that he was of English royalty, according to Vanity Fair magazine, which profiled him in January 2009 and quoted several people who knew "Chichester" at the time.
As Chichester, he rented a guest house from Ruth "Didi" Sohus. Her son John and his wife, Linda, came to live with Didi Sohus during the time Gerhartsreiter lived in the guest quarters.
His relationship with the couple is unclear.
Didi Sohus told investigators she believed that her son and daughter-in-law were in Europe after she and one of Linda Sohus' friends received Paris-postmarked cards in mid-1985, purportedly from the couple. Investigators were suspicious of the cards' authenticity.
Sohus sold the house in late 1985 after suffering a stroke. She died three years later.
Through luminol testing of the guest quarters where Chichester lived, investigators found what appeared to be a large amount of blood. Luminol causes a glow when it comes in contact with blood.
It is not clear when the luminol testing took place, but police thoroughly searched the house when the remains were found and again after Gerhartsreiter's arrest in the kidnapping case.
A former neighbor quoted by Vanity Fair reported that Chichester borrowed a chainsaw from him around the time the couple went missing. An acquaintance, Dana Farrar, said she "saw an area of dirt that had obviously been dug up and filled in" at the time, according to the Pasadena Star-News. When she asked him why, Chichester told her he was having plumbing problems.
Sheriff's detectives from Los Angeles County sought Chichester for questioning in early May 1985, but he had disappeared in a pickup registered to John Sohus.
He resurfaced under yet another identity, that of Christopher Crowe, in Connecticut in the late 1980s.
In late 1988, Crowe tried to sell Sohus' pickup to a man in Connecticut. When he couldn't produce the proper paperwork for the truck, the prospective buyer reported him to police.
Connecticut police soon learned that Chichester and Crowe were the same person, although at that time no one knew that his true name was Gerhartsreiter.
Crowe disappeared before police could question him.
He resurfaced in Manhattan in 1993 as Clark Rockefeller.
Authorities learned shortly after the 2008 kidnapping of his daughter that Gerhartsreiter was not Clark Rockefeller. He was arrested in Baltimore, where he was hiding out with the daughter. He had already assumed a new identity: a ship's captain named Chip Smith who, with his daughter, Muffy, was relocating to Chile.
His second wife, Harvard-educated financial executive Sandra Boss, testified that she spent more than a dozen years with him before growing suspicious that "Rockefeller" was not who he said he was.
They met in New York and were married in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Their daughter, Reigh, was born on May 24, 2001, and her father nicknamed her "Snooks."
The couple divorced in 2007 after Boss hired a private investigator to conduct a background check, according to testimony at the kidnapping trial.