- Front Porch
LOS ANGELES — A small, bespectacled German immigrant who invented a glamorous life for himself in the United States by posing as an heir to the fabled Rockefeller fortune was sentenced Thursday to 27 years to life in prison for a California cold-case murder.
Representing himself after firing his lawyers, Christian Gerhartsreiter, 52, asserted that he did not commit the mid-1980s murder of John Sohus in the wealthy city of San Marino and asked to read a voluminous motion he had submitted to the court. When Superior Court Judge George Lomeli refused, he withdrew the motion.
Gerhartsreiter reportedly lived in Meriden, Conn., and Berlin, Conn., around 1979 to 1981, and briefly attended Platt High School in Meriden and Berlin High School.
Gerhartsreiter, who fooled friends, lovers and a wife during an extraordinary three-decade charade, entered the courtroom balancing in his arms a mountain of transcripts from his trial. He submitted a brief sentencing memorandum asking that he be given time served and probation. The judge rejected that.
The hearing was marked by an emotional statement from Sohus’ sister, who said some questions in the case will never be answered. She said that until his dying day, her father always asked, “Why John?”
Ellen Sohus told the judge: “You cannot give me back my brother. All I ask is that you hold Mr. Gerhartsreiter accountable.”
Gerhartsreiter, handcuffed and wearing a blue jail uniform, was calm and respectful as he addressed the judge, saying he wished to read his motion for a new trial aloud for the benefit of reporters and others.
“There is great public interest,” he said. “It would save time for the media.”
The judge told him his motion would become part of the public file where anyone can read it. But it did not become part of the public record because at that point Gerhartsreiter said, “If I do not get to read the motion, I will withdraw it.” The judge said it was his right.
Asked if he had any last words for the court, Gerhartsreiter said, “I can only say again I want to assert my innocence. I did not commit the crime for which I was convicted.”
Gerhartsreiter took over his own representation after a jury convicted him of first-degree murder in the death of Sohus, whose bones were found buried at the suburban San Marino home where the defendant had lived under the name Chris Chichester.
It was a heavily circumstantial case built 28 years after Sohus vanished. There was no slam-dunk DNA solution to a murder mystery. But discovery of the bones with a bag bearing the logo of a university once attended by the defendant added a crucial piece to the puzzle of the man who later called himself Clark Rockefeller.
Sohus, a 27-year-old computer programmer who was the son of the defendant’s landlady, vanished with his wife, Linda, in 1985. No trace of her has been found. Gerhartsreiter hinted at a recent hearing that he might have information about her whereabouts but never expanded on that.
Ellen Sohus said outside court she believes Linda Sohus is dead but doesn’t know why.
“Why did you kill my brother?” she asked Gerhartsreiter in court. “What happened to Linda? I believe Linda is dead and you are responsible for her death.”
At trial, witnesses now old and frail testified about the stranger who came into their elegant town, befriending church members who invited him into their homes.
Their testimony exhumed the ghosts of the happy young newlyweds, who inexplicably vanished shortly before the man then known as Chichester also disappeared.
In subsequent years he was variously known as Chris Crowe, Chip Smith and as a Rockefeller while worming his way into high society, moving from New York to Connecticut and Boston. He married a wealthy woman and controlled her funds. But his identity unraveled when he kidnapped their daughter during a custody dispute.
The publicity led California authorities to revisit the Sohus disappearance and the bones found in 1994.
He was near the end of his sentence in Boston for kidnapping his young daughter, when he was charged with murder.
Jurors took a scant six hours to convict him.
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