Bad Heir Day

03.19.13

Fake Rockefeller, Real Murder: The Case of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter

He gained infamy (and a Lifetime movie) for pretending to be a magnate's heir. Now he’s on trial for murder, and there’s already enough gruesome material for a sequel. By Christine Pelisek.

No, he’s not a scion of the Rockefeller family. But he might have killed his landlord and buried him in the backyard.

The trial of former German exchange student Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, which kicked off in Los Angeles this week, has all the trappings of a classic film noir—stolen identities, a blood-stained carpet, and a murder most foul. The conman has already been the subject of a Lifetime movie, Who Is Clark Rockefeller?, starring Eric McCormack of Will & Grace, about his daughter's kidnapping. Now a jury is tasked with determining whether the fake Rockefeller is a murderer too, revealing even more Hollywood-ready details along the way.

Gerhartsreiter, now 52, is accused of murdering 27-year-old computer programmer John Sohus, in whose mother's guesthouse he was living at the time in San Marino, California. The alleged homicide took place in 1985, prosecutors say, the same time Sohus’s wife also went missing. But Sohus’s skull and bones weren’t found until construction workers were digging up the backyard for a pool in 1994. But Gerhartsreiter had long fled and was living under a different name.

The trial, which began on Monday in Los Angeles, will include an elderly witness who will testify that after the slaying Gerhartsreiter attempted to sell her an Oriental carpet with a blood stain on it, as well as a former girlfriend who helped Gerhartsreiter evade the police by helping him change his identity to Clark Rockefeller, the son of George Rockefeller, a member of one of the wealthiest oil and banking families in U.S. history.

Gerhartsreiter, a short, balding man wearing wire-rimmed glasses, has pleaded not guilty. During the trial on Monday, his attorney, Brad Bailey, said it was Sohus’s missing wife—whom he described as stocky and strong—who killed him.

“It is just as reasonable or more so that John could have been killed by someone else. Not just an unnamed someone, and not just a mysterious one-armed stranger,” said Bailey. “Linda also exhibited her own similarly odd and strange and bizarre behavior. Consider whether this might have been a premeditated, prearranged way for her to cover her own tracks … And kill her husband for whatever motive she might have had. Isn’t it just as plausible?”

The investigation into the couple’s disappearance began in April 1985, when Linda’s sister reported her missing. Gerhartsreiter who was going by the alias Chris Chichester at the time, created “an illusion that John and Linda were away” while police were investigating, prosecutor Habib Balian said during opening statements. “He moved [their pickup truck] away from the property during police activity. He had the keys to the truck.”

The case went cold until May 5, 1994, when construction workers made a gruesome discovery. Buried three feet below the ground was a fiberglass box filled with human bones. The coroner determined that the remains belonged to John Sohus. He had been stabbed multiple times and sustained blunt force trauma to his head. Linda’s body has never been found.

During their hunt for Sohus’s killer, investigators used Luminol to find what looked like blood droplets in the guesthouse where Gerhartsreiter lived. As they continued their probe, detectives learned that shortly after the murder, Gerhartsreiter, who was still living in the guesthouse, attempted to sell an elderly couple an Oriental rug with what looked like a quarter-sized spot of blood on it. A neighbor also told police that Gerhartsreiter borrowed his chain saw and returned it in the spring of 1985. In addition, an elderly woman told police that Gerhartsreiter admitted to her that he had burned a carpet in his guesthouse when she inquired about black smoke billowing out of his chimney during that time.

Sohus had been stabbed multiple times and sustained blunt force trauma to his head.

What police didn’t know was that Gerhartsreiter had reinvented himself again. He had changed his name to Christopher Crowe and was masquerading as the brother of director Cameron Crowe, landing a job at a brokerage firm in Connecticut.

While in Connecticut, Balian said Gerhartsreiter attempted to unload the Sohus’s stolen pickup truck, and almost got caught by the police. The close call forced Gerhartsreiter to quit his $100,000-a-year job and go underground.

By 1988, Balian said Gerhartsreiter was living under a new name: Clark Rockefeller. This one would later gain infamy because of its link to the wealthy industrialist family.

In 1993, the man with the many pseudonyms met Sandra Boss, whom he would eventually marry and have a daughter with. When they first met, Balian says, he claimed he designed submarines for the U.S. Navy and worked on top-secret missions for the Department of Defense.

“He was hiding in plain sight,” said Balian. “He never worked again. He never held leases or had utilities in his name … He talked about his time in California when he lived with the Hearst family. He hated California and said he would never go back there.”

However, the conman’s life began to unravel when his wife hired a private detective and learned that he was not who he claimed to be. She filed for divorce in July 2008 and got permission to take their daughter, Reigh, to London. During a supervised visit, Gerhartsreiter kidnapped the girl, but was apprehended within days, and was sentenced to four to five years in state prison for the abduction in 2009.

He was halfway through his sentence when the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office charged him with the murder of Sohus.