LOS ANGELES — The trial of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, the con man charged with murder in California who was also convicted of kidnapping his young daughter under the fake name of Clark Rockefeller in Boston in another case, took a dramatic turn Tuesday when a former police officer told the jury that a neighbor reported seeing Gerhartsreiter digging in the backyard where the remains of slaying victim John Sohus would be found years later.
Further raising the stakes in the case that has drawn worldwide attention, another witness testified in Los Angeles Superior Court that Gerhartsreiter invited her over to his guesthouse in San Marino, Calif., which was owned by the Sohus family, for a game of “Trivial Pursuit” in 1985 and that she noticed that someone had been digging in the backyard.
She said she asked Gerhartsreiter about it, and he told her he had been having plumbing problems.
Joe Lucero, the former San Marino police officer, testified that he responded in May 1994 to the home that was once owned by the Sohus family, after a crew digging a pool foundation came across human bones.
Lucero was quite familiar with the tight-knit, upscale community, having been active in the Neighborhood Watch program and meeting about once a week with residents.
He testified that when he arrived at the house, he noticed what appeared to be a plastic or fiberglass drum-type container protruding from the dig site.
During his time at the house, Lucero said, some residents came by and told police “they had seen things in the past.”
One neighbor had once seen “Chichester” digging in the back yard, Lucero said. Authorities say Gerhartsreiter used the name Christopher Chichester at the time.
In addition, Dana Glad Farrar testified Tuesday that she met the defendant in 1984 at the University of Southern California, when she was a student. She said Gerhartsreiter introduced himself as Christopher Chichester, “the 13th baronet,” a wealthy film producer from South Africa.
Gerhartsreiter seemed to always be hungry and would show up at her house looking for meals, she said.
“He never picked up a check,” she said. “He bought me a doughnut after we saw ‘Double Indemnity.’ ”
Her testimony sometimes drew laughs in the packed courtroom. When defense lawyer Brad Bailey suggested that Chichester seemed well-
connected at the USC film school, enough so to get her and her friends into a party with producer George Lucas, she responded, “Yeah, but we had to jump through the bushes.”
Farrar said Chichester invited her to a gathering at his San Marino residence in summer 1985 to play the game Trivial Pursuit in the backyard.
When she arrived, she saw several people sitting at a table playing the game by twilight and sipping iced tea. She testified that she also noticed a large mound of displaced dirt, approximately 2 to 3 feet wide and 5 to 8 feet long.
“‘What’s going on with your yard, Chris? It’s all dug up,’” she said she asked Chichester. “He said he had been having plumbing problems,” she told the jurors.
Prosecutors say there are no records indicating that any plumbing jobs were done at the site in the mid 1980s and that no pipes ran underground from the house in that area.
Gerhartsreiter is charged with killing John Sohus in 1985, dismembering his body, and burying the remains in the backyard of the guesthouse where Gerhartsreiter lived.
Earlier Tuesday, Jose Perez Jr. told jurors that he found Sohus’s remains while digging out the yard on Loring Road on May 5, 1994.
Perez, who worked for his father’s San Diego, Calif.-based business, California Excavations, which specializes in digging swimming pools, was operating a Bobcat excavator.
“We hit a pocket of what we thought was trash,” Perez said. “My father started pulling it out. He dragged it to the side and started poking around in it.”
Perez said he hit a fiberglass box in the hard, rocky, claylike soil. His father pulled bags out of the box and started examining them, pulling out a skull.
“Bones!” the father exclaimed, bringing all excavation to a halt.
“We called the police,” Perez said. Within minutes, the work site was transformed into a crime scene.
Perez estimated it would have taken him six or seven hours “with breaks” to dig a hole the size of the one the remains were buried in. He said he would have needed not only a shovel, but a pickax because the soil was so hard.
Under cross-examination, Brad Bailey, Gerhartsreiter’s lawyer, meticulously questioned Perez about how he unearthed the remains, apparently focusing on whether the Bobcat’s steel bucket may have caused any damage to the skeletal remains.
The jawbone, at least, became detached from the skull as his father pulled it out with rebar, Perez testified.
As he did on the first day of the trial Monday, Gerhartsreiter, 52, displayed little emotion and focused on exhibit photos as they were flashed on a large screen, jotting down notes on a legal pad.
Prosecution and defense gave opening statements Monday. In 1985, Gerhartsreiter was living in the guesthouse owned by Didi Sohus, John Sohus’s mother. John and Linda Sohus, a young couple, were living in the main house.
Linda Sohus, along with her husband, has been missing since 1985 and authorities presume that she is also dead. Gerhartsreiter is considered a suspect in her disappearance but has not been charged with her death.
Gerhartsreiter made headlines in 2008 when he was prosecuted for abducting his 7-year-old daughter, Reigh, from a Boston street and his mysterious past was revealed, including the fact that he was not “Clark Rockefeller,” as he had claimed.
Instead, it turned out that he was a native of Germany and that he had used about a half-dozen aliases and lived in several different parts of the United States.
He received a five-year Massachusetts sentence in the kidnapping, but by that time had caught the attention of California authorities seeking to solve the Sohus homicide.
Gerhartsreiter’s lawyer, Bailey, said Monday that “Rockefeller” might be “odd” but he was not a murderer. Bailey also suggested that Linda Sohus might have killed her husband.
Ellen Sohus, John Sohus’s stepsister, has been attending the trial, sitting about 15 feet behind the man charged with killing her stepbrother.
“I’m just hoping for justice to be served,” Sohus said during the lunch break. She declined to comment further until after the trial, which is expected to last about a month.
Brian Ballou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.