ALHAMBRA, Calif. – The bizarre murder case against a man who assumed multiple identities including that of a Rockefeller is headed for trial and a lawyer for the defendant said he welcomes the chance to go before a jury.
“He views this as a beginning, not an end,” said attorney Jeffrey Denner after a judge ordered Christian Gerhartsreiter to be tried on a charge of murdering the son of his landlady a quarter century ago.
Gerhartsreiter, a German immigrant who at times called himself Clark Rockefeller, Chris Chichester and Christopher Crowe, has pleaded innocent in the killing of John Sohus, a crime which had baffled authorities since the 27-year-old computer programmer disappeared with his wife, Linda, in 1985.
No sign of Linda Sohus was ever found, but bones of a man dug up in the back yard of his mother’s San Marino home in 1994 were linked to Sohus. The discovery led police to consider the tenant who once lived in a guest cottage there as the prime suspect.
But it was not until last year when Gerhartsreiter was serving a sentence in Boston for kidnapping his own child that authorities in California developed sufficient evidence to charge him with the killing.
Tuesday’s decision by Superior Court Judge Jared Moses to hold the defendant for trial came at the end of a five-day preliminary hearing which previewed some of the evidence the prosecution will present to a jury. The standard in a preliminary hearing of proving probable cause for trial is not as stringent as the trial requirement to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Whether the highly circumstantial case will convince a jury remains to be seen. Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian said outside court that “The age of the case proses some challenges.” But he said he was confident of achieving a “fair and just verdict.”
Balian called 29 witnesses to build a circumstantial case based on the excavated bones, traces of blood found in the cottage and the memories of residents of the upscale community who welcomed the stranger known as Chris Chichester into their homes and churches.
Asked about Gerhartsreiter’s reaction to testimony from the townspeople, Denner said, “It’s always daunting to see your life unfold in front of you, particularly to see people who were your friends testifying against you.”
But he said that given the passage of time, “there are a lot of grey areas out there.”
His co-counsel, Brad Bailey, said, “Anytime you’re dealing with a case of this vintage it gives the defence a chance to bring up faulty memories and other things that change with the passage of time.”
Witnesses who are now elderly had only fuzzy memories of some events, while others remembered everything clearly. One of them was a woman who lived with Gerhartsreiter as his girlfriend for seven years in New York.
Mihoko Manabe testified Tuesday that he lived the life of a hunted man in a plot that could have been plucked from a spy thriller.
Manabe said that after she got a call in 1988 from a Connecticut detective looking for her boyfriend, whom she knew as Christopher Crowe, he became panicked, had her dye his hair blonde, grew a beard, exchanged his glasses for contact lenses, and made plans to leave the country.
Manabe said she met the man she knew as Crowe in 1988 at a major New York City brokerage house where she worked as a translator and he headed the bonds desk.
After they moved in together, a Greenwich, Connecticut, detective called, and she said Crowe told her the caller was not the police, “that he was somebody bad and that he was going to get him and not to tell him he was there.”
“He said that his parents had gotten into trouble,” Manabe said. “They were in danger and because of that, he was also in danger.”
Another witness said the man he almost hired to work as a bond salesman acted strangely and had an attitude as if he was involved in “something cloak and dagger.”
Ralph Boynton said the man he knew as Christopher Crow told him a wild story involving his parents being kidnapped by terrorists and said he had to go and help them.
“It had to do with espionage, spies, kidnapping. It all sounded a bit strange to me. I was looking for a bonds salesman,” he said.
Both witness’ stories helped bolster the prosecution claim that Gerhartsreiter had a consciousness of guilt, a point that can be raised as circumstantial evidence against him.
The judge set his arraignment for Feb. 9 and set bail at $10 million. Defence attorneys said they hoped the case could go to trial this coming fall.