Rockefeller impostor's hearing to conclude Tuesday

AP News
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Posted: Jan 24, 2012 3:32 AM
Rockefeller impostor's hearing to conclude Tuesday

A prosecutor making his case with bones, blood and the testimony of those who came back from the past of a mysterious murder defendant is preparing to rest his case against the man who once masqueraded as a Rockefeller.

Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian said he plans to wrap up evidence Tuesday in the preliminary hearing for Christian Gerhartsreiter, who is charged with murdering a San Marino man from whom he had rented a cottage in 1985.

Seven more witnesses were waiting to testify before Superior Court Judge Jared Moses is asked to decide whether there is enough evidence to hold Gerhartsreiter for trial. The defense customarily does not put on evidence at a preliminary hearing.

The slight, bespectacled defendant, clad in a blue prison jumpsuit, smiled slightly at witnesses Robert and Bettie Brown, an elderly couple who once welcomed him into their home for religious study classes and became his close friends. Other residents of their upscale community also testified about the stranger who came to their church and ingratiated himself, telling tall tales about his past.

Gerhartsreiter is charged with killing John Sohus, whose bones were found in 1994 in the backyard of his former home in San Marino, a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles, nearly 10 years after Sohus and his wife vanished.

The man then known as Chris Chichester left town soon after they went missing. He is charged only with killing 27-year-old John Sohus. No sign of Linda Sohus has been found.

Robert Brown, 85, testified Monday about a day in 1985 when his friend Chichester showed up at their door with belongings he wanted to sell because he was going on a trip.

Brown said he called his wife to look at a small Oriental rug.

"She looked at it, and said, `Chris, this has blood on it.' He fairly quickly rolled it back up and left with it," Brown said.

Brown said Chichester, who was then pretending to be an instructor at the University of Southern California's film school, showed up on another occasion asking how to dispose of photo processing chemicals.

Chichester told the Browns that he was descended from English peerage and was related to a famed British sailor of the same last name. He had also given them tea, saying it came from his family's Indonesian tea plantation.

About a week after the rug incident, Brown said Chichester disappeared and so did the Sohus couple.

"He was something of a phantom. He was different, unusual. He was believable up to a point. You couldn't pin him down on details. Everything was loose and feathery," Brown said.

Another witness filled in the blanks of Gerhartsreiter's travels after he left San Marino, ultimately being arrested in Boston in 2008.

His aliases began to multiply. Christopher Bishop, an Episcopal priest from Greenwich, Conn., testified that he met the man he knew as Christopher Crowe in 1985 when he appeared at the church where Bishop's father was the priest.

The younger Bishop said he was a film student at Columbia University at the time and his father told him there was a new parishioner who was also involved in film.

Crowe told Bishop that he was the brother of well-known film director Cameron Crowe and had been to film school in California. He said he was in Connecticut to produce the new "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" series, Bishop said.

"Did you believe it?" asked Balian.

"Yes," the witness said. "I gave him a screenplay I had written and he had critiqued it. He certainly was conversant in film."

In 1988, Crowe gave Bishop a truck, saying he had used it in a movie and didn't need it anymore. Bishop said he later found out there was a lien on the truck and he dumped it at a train station. The truck belonged to the Sohus couple.

When detectives showed up looking for Crowe in a missing persons case, Bishop said he confronted Crowe on the phone asking who he really was.

"What was the defendant's response?" Balian asked, to which Bishop replied: "Gotta go, bye."

He said he never heard from him again.

On the East Coast, Gerhartsreiter claimed to be Clark Rockefeller, a member of the famous family, and married a woman with whom he had a daughter. She divorced him when she found out he had duped her.

Last year, Gerhartsreiter was convicted of kidnapping his daughter in Boston during a custody dispute. He is serving a four- to five-year prison sentence for that crime.

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 he's convicted.

In spite of the discovery of bones in 1994, it wasn't until 2011 that authorities reopened the case and filed charges against Gerhartsreiter 26 years after the couple disappeared.

Other witnesses, including Linda Sohus' mother and her best friend, testified about the missing woman's life and the mystery of why she had disappeared. Susan Coffman said she and Sohus were best friends and Sohus told her in February 1985 she and her husband were going to New York for job interviews and would be back in two weeks.

But the couple vanished and both women received cryptic postcards from Paris signed by John and Linda saying they had gone there instead of New York. Coffman found it suspicious and said many years later she was sure it was not her friend's handwriting.