Published January 23, 2012
ALHAMBRA, Calif. – A man who masqueraded as a Rockefeller and is now accused of murder was confronted in court Monday by witnesses who said he tried to sell them an Oriental rug with a blood spot.
Christian Gerhartsreiter, who is charged with murdering a San Marino man from whom he had rented a cottage in 1985, 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.
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.
Gerhartsreiter 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 testified at a preliminary hearing about a day in 1985 when the man they knew as Chris 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, adding that his wife suggested a place he could take it to be cleaned.
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 had 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, which was not surprising.
"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. Gerhartsreiter was arrested in Boston in 2008.
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 prosecutor Habib 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 it had fraudulent license plates. He dumped the truck at a train station, thinking he could get in trouble for it.
"I thought that was going to be the end of the story," Bishop said. "But one day, I was sitting at my parents' house and a Greenwich detective came to the door."
The detective asked about Crowe, saying he was involved in a missing person investigation. Bishop said he later asked Crowe who he really was.
"What was the defendant's response?" Balian asked, to which Bishop replied: "Gotta go, bye."
The truck was later found to be registered to John and Linda Sohus and had disappeared at the time Gerhardsreiter left the house, authorities said.
On the East Coast, Gerhartsreiter had 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.
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 that she kept a detailed diary of their conversations.
She said Linda Sohus had some unhappy romances before she met and married John Sohus, and that the woman said after the wedding she was happy for the first time.
Coffman testified that in February 1985, Sohus called to say she and her husband had to go to New York briefly for jobs. Both she and Linda Sohus' mother, Susan Mayfield, were told that Linda Sohus planned to 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.
She said she contacted the television show "Unsolved Mysteries" and had them investigate, as well as prodding police to do something. But until bones were dug up in the backyard of the Sohus home, she said there was little interest.
After the bones were found, she said, police promised to give the case another look but many years passed before anything happened.
Another neighbor in San Marino, Winslow Reitnouer, said she knew Gerhartsreiter as Chichester. She testified that she saw him visit the neighborhood in 1986.
She said she once got a phone call from him on a crackly line in which "he said he was in Stockholm and just calling to say hello."
The preliminary hearing will determine whether Gerhartsreiter is bound over for trial on the murder charge. The prosecutor estimated the hearing will end Tuesday.