A man who blended into wealthy East Coast circles by posing as a member of the famous Rockefeller family was convicted Wednesday of first-degree murder in the 1985 killing of a Southern California man whose remains were unearthed decades later in his family's backyard.
Jurors deliberated for about one day in the case of Christian Gerhartsreiter, 52, who used several aliases that included Clark Rockefeller — a name that allowed him to fraternize with members of high society after he left Southern California following the disappearance of John and Linda Sohus.
John Sohus' remains were found by a construction crew nine years after he and his wife Linda disappeared. A father-son work crew found the remains — Sohus' skull was in two plastic bags — when they were building a pool in the backyard of the Sohus family's San Marino home.
Ellen Sohus, the victim's step-sister, spoke about her brother outside the courtroom. She remembered him as "the original nerd," who would set up electronic equipment and other gadgets for her.
"He was gentle, fun loving and curious — he knew everything," Sohus said.
Linda Sohus has never been located, and defense attorneys attempted to cast her as a suspect in the case.
Prosecutors presented three weeks of circumstantial evidence during the trial. In their closing argument, they told jurors that all the evidence pointed to Gerhartsreiter — not Linda Sohus.
"The jurors rejected what was unreasonable," said Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian. "Sometimes, you're afraid this guy has conned so many people for so many years, that this might be the time he pulls off his last con — that didn't happen."
Jurors who spoke after the verdict was announced said the "weight of the evidence" influenced the decision to convict. The evidence included two bags containing Sohus' skull. One bag was from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and one from the USC bookstore — schools that the defendant attended.
"The entire weight of the evidence really put it together," said jury forewoman Kristen Lee. "I can't say that one piece (of evidence) stood out in my mind."
Gerhartsreiter faces a penalty of 27 years to life in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for June 26.
The German national moved to the United States in the late 1970s. He was a tenant on the Sohus' property in the upscale community (map) southeast of Pasadena at the time of the couple's disappearance.
The couple (pictured, right) lived at the home with Sohus' mother.
Gerhartsreiter left Southern California for Connecticut in Sohus' vehicle and attempted to assume another life on the East Coast, according to prosecutors. The timeline of events — including Gerhartsreiter's activities in Southern California and on the East Coast — was presented to jurors during the trial in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom.
"What I have now are a lot of answers that I never believed I was going to have," Ellen Sohus said. "What happened to John? Who's responsible? And, what the defendant continued to do after he left San Marino."
He adopted the "Rockefeller" alias in an effort to move in wealthy circles, according to prosecutors. Defense attorneys argued the defendant's aliases have nothing to do with Sohus' death, and that he is just one of many people who moved to Los Angeles to "reinvent themselves."
Gerhartsreiter called himself "Chichester" in the early 1980s when he moved to Southern California. He said he was a film student at USC and claimed he was related to Sir Francis Chichester, a famed British adventurer.
"We feel bad for Mr. Gerhartsreiter," said defense attorney Jeffrey Denner. "We will always believe this case wasn't proven beyond a reasonable doubt."
Gerhartsreiter was serving time for the kidnapping in Boston when investigators connected him to the Sohus case.
Ellen Sohus was asked to comment on what she thought might have been the motive behind her step-brother's slaying.
"The only thing I can imagine happening, is something happened that he felt he needed to protect his mother from — he would have confronted someone," she said.