Photo Galleries: Photos covering the Rockefeller trial in LA
Complete Coverage: Fake Rockefeller Trial and San Marino Murder Mystery
LOS ANGELES -- A con 28 years in the making came to an abrupt end Wednesday morning when a six-woman, six-man jury found a Rockefeller imposter guilty of murdering a San Marino man in 1985 and burying his trisected corpse in the backyard of his Lorain Road home.
Suspect Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, aka Clark Rockefeller, wore a blue blazer, gray slacks, a white shirt opened at the neck and slip-on shoes in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom. He stood silently and listened to the court clerk read the guilty verdict on one count of first-degree murder, with an enhancement for use of a deadly weapon.
He faces 27 years to life in prison when sentenced June 26 by Judge George Lomeli in Los Angeles Superior Court. The jurors did not look at Gerhartsreiter as the verdict was read. But they each affirmed to Lomeli and attorneys on both sides that they believed Gerhartsreiter was guilty of bludgeoning John Sohus, a 28-year-old computer nerd, to death.
"I'm overwhelmed. It's finally over," said Arizona resident Ellen Sohus, John's sister, wiping tears from her eyes as she sat in court watching jurors file past. "It was miraculous. "
The verdict brought a swift end to Gerhartsreiter's 17-day murder trial. The imposter immigrated to the United States as a teenager and passed himself off as a member of British and then American royalty since coming to Berlin, Connecticut in 1978.
He changed his identity and profession numerous times along the way, crisscrossing the United States in search of new marks, fame and fortune. At various times he claimed to be related to Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain, a member of the super-secret Trilateral Commission, a "freelance central banker," and the owner of Propulsion Physics, a Canadian company that shared a lot of traits with La Canada Flintridge's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
"Sometimes you are afraid that this guy has conned so many people for so many years that this would be the one last time he pulls off his con. That didn't happen. The system worked," prosecutor Habib Balian said. "I can tell you this: the defendant wanted John Sohus dead and he accomplished his goal. "
Balian, a Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney, built his case largely on circumstantial evidence, but there was a lot of it: Postcards that appeared to have come from foreign countries but didn't; evasive behavior; a game of Trivial Pursuit played among dirt mounds just feet from where Sohus' body was ultimately discovered; and Gerhartsreiter's possession of a pickup truck that belonged to the dead man and his long missing wife Linda.
Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence was the fact that Sohus' head was found buried in a plastic, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee book bag when it was unearthed in 1994. Gerhartsreiter attended the university from 1979-82 before coming to the San Gabriel Valley.
Juror Vincent Garcia, 33, a truck driver who lives in Baldwin Park, said that bag, coupled with a University of Southern California book bag, where Gerhartsreiter audited film classes, were the most solid pieces of evidence the jury saw.
"We deliberated for about five or six hours; most of us were on the same page," Garcia said. "A couple of people were kind of not sure where they wanted to stand but we decided. We did an early vote and it was 10-2 for conviction. The facts, the evidence. You know the bags, the Wisconsin bag, the USC bag, the blunt object. In the end we just felt that it all connected him to it. "
Juror Salvador Ruiz, 60, of Norwalk, wore his trademark Guyabara shirts, dark sunglasses and straw hat to court every day. He said Balian covered all the bases in his presentation.
"The prosecutor didn't leave much for the defense to work with," Ruiz said.
Although jurors will have no say in Gerhartsreiter's sentence, Ruiz said he would like to see officials offer a deal in exchange for information on Linda's whereabouts.
"We don't have anything to do with the punishment part, but if we did, I would recommend giving him a little bit of a break if he would give up Linda," Ruiz said. "I didn't get a lot of affection out of Linda's half of the family, but if he could do something like that there would be some closure. "
After sitting through 17 days of trial, hearing from 45 witnesses and examining 160 separate pieces of evidence, juror Gema Vasquez of Lincoln Heights, a nurse, said she was ready to go back to work.
She also pointed to the bags as key pieces of evidence and said Gerhartsreiter's attempt to get rid of the Sohus' pickup truck in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1988 also weighed heavily in the decision to convict him.
"Well he was really stupid to use the two - the Wisconsin and the USC bag. That was really stupid," Vasquez said. "If you haven't killed him, why do you have a key to the truck? Why are you giving (the truck) away and taking it back and giving it away to somebody else and telling everybody it was from a film and it wasn't from a film? "
Vasquez said she wasn't concerned that prosecutors presented no motive in for the murder.
"I mean in a way you think, 'How can a person kill another person?' I think in all of our minds we were thinking why did he do it? What did John do to him or what did Linda do to him that he wanted to kill them? It was really stupid to kill them if he only wanted to stay in that house. "
Gerhartsreiter went by the name Christopher Chichester, XIII baronet of Chichester, when he lived in San Marino between 1982 and 1985. He resided in the guesthouse behind a ranch-style home at 1920 Lorain Road owned by Ruth "Didi" Sohus, John's mother. John and his wife Linda, who lived in the main house with Didi, went missing in February of 1985. Shortly thereafter Gerhartsreiter took off for the East Coast in the Sohus' white Nissan pickup truck. There he became Christopher Crowe, TV producer, and ultimately Clark Rockefeller, of the oil-rich and powerful East Coast Rockefellers.
Juror Ruiz said the fact that Gerhartsreiter changed his name to Chichester didn't seem too unusual "in California" but what bothered him was the name changes after he left California.
"Everyone changes their name," he said. "But it's afterward when he left, he changed his name and got no driver's license, no checking account, no savings account. You know that just didn't seem right."
John Sohus' body was discovered in 1994 by contractors excavating the backyard of the Sohus' former home in order to build a swimming pool for the new owners. His body had been cut into three parts and wrapped in plastic or bags. Forensic examination revealed Sohus had been struck in the head with a rounded, blunt object a couple of times, then stabbed six times.
Gerhartsreiter defense attorney Jeffrey Denner said the German conman was "disappointed" by the verdict.
"He continues to maintain his innocence," Denner said. "He indicated disappointment. He felt the evidence did not rise to the level of beyond a reasonable doubt. "
But Denner acknowledged Gerhartsreiter, who attempted to gain entree in wealthy communities from coast to coast, presented an unlikeable persona to the largely working-class jurors. Many of them appeared more likely to be part of the Raider Nation than the sort of friends Gerhartsreiter cultivated when he lived blocks from the United Nations building in New York City.
"Our defendant wasn't an easy guy for this jury out here to relate to," Denner said. "There weren't a lot of overlaps in personality traits and there were some pretty damning pieces of evidence that if they wanted to, they could hang their hats on. "
Denner said Gerhartsreiter will file an appeal.
"We continue to feel that this case was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt," he said. "The circumstantial case" a lot of emotion in it. Whatever. But they're the jury. It's their job. They did it. There will be an appeal. The chips will fall where they fall. "
Los Angeles County sheriff's Sgt. Timothy Miley, assigned to the case in August 2008 after Gerhartsreiter was arrested for kidnapping his daughter in Boston and attempting to flee, said although jurors confirmed John Sohus was killed by Gerhartsreiter, he doesn't know what happened to Linda Sohus.
"We know, based on testimony, that John's killed and Linda's still alive at some stage," Miley said. "In 2008 we went back to the San Marino house and dug up a whole lot of that yard - the swimming pool - to see if they missed a grave (during the first search). Other than that, we have no idea."
Miley said it would be nice if Gerhartsreiter explained what happened to Linda, but he doubted that would ever happen.
"Her family certainly deserves to know. I don't know what kind of a break he deserves for that. He was fortunate over the course of years that things broke his way," he said.
Miley said the parental abduction case led detectives to Gerhartsreiter, but he believes that the sheriff's Homicide Bureau would have caught the German conman eventually.
"Somebody other than myself was already digging into this case," he said. "We probably would have eventually got to him and it would have been worked up. "
Miley said postcards mailed from Paris and signed by Linda Sohus about the time she and her husband disappeared were a trick engineered by Gerhartsreiter.
"He's from Europe, he has friends there," Miley said. "Somebody mailed it from Europe ... it's pretty obvious. "
Standing in front of a half-dozen TV cameras and talking about the loss of the brother she loved, Ellen Sohus said she believed her brother was killed protecting his mother. Ellen, a one-time Altadena resident who now lives in Phoenix, attended every day of the trial.
"If there was something that he thought he needed to do to protect his mother, he would have confronted someone," she said before thanking the jury for their work. "I wanted to be here for me and for my family and for my father and to let everyone know that (John) was loved. "
Staff Writer Zen Voung contributed to this story.