ALHAMBRA, Calif. - Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter will go to trial to face charges that he killed the son of his former landlady in California, a Superior Court judge decided yesterday, capping a five-day hearing that shed light on a mystery that began in 1985, when the victim and his wife vanished.
Judge Jared Moses said that “there is sufficient cause to believe’’ that Gerhartsreiter bludgeoned John Sohus to death, then buried his remains.
Gerhartsreiter’s Boston-based lawyers, Jeffrey Denner and Brad Bailey, said they were not surprised by the outcome because the burden of proof is lighter in a preliminary hearing than at trial. “We have every intention of holding them to that required burden, from the moment the jury is sworn until any verdict is rendered,’’ Bailey said.
Prosecutor Habib Balian called 28 witnesses during the hearing, some of whom struggled to remember details of the 1985 case, which shocked the city of San Marino, a wealthy community of about 13,000 where Gerhartsreiter lived for roughly two to three years in the 1980s. More than 70 pieces of evidence were introduced, including photos of the remains of Sohus, which were found in 1994 by workers digging a pool. His wife, Linda, was never found.
Just before Moses ruled yesterday, Balian described other pieces of evidence in his possession, including two plastic bags that held the bones of John Sohus. One bag featured a logo from the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Gerhartsreiter was a student there in 1981.
“That particular logo was only provided and used at the University of Wisconsin from 1979 to 1982,’’ Balian said. Prosecutors also believe that a sharp instrument, like a knife, was used to attack Sohus.
“There is only one reasonable conclusion, and that is the defendant killed him,’’ Balian said.
Moses’s ruling followed some of the most provocative testimony so far, including from the defendant’s former fiancee, who testified yesterday to Gerhartsreiter’s paranoia when police began calling their Manhattan apartment in 1988.
Mihoko Manabe said she met Gerhartsreiter in 1987 when both of them were working at the same brokerage firm and he was using the name Christopher Crowe.
Manabe, a slight, dark-haired woman, grimaced during personal questions about her seven-year relationship, which ended in 1994 when she left him for another man.
“Did you love him?’’ Balian asked.
“I guess,’’ she said. “Yes.’’
“How did he treat you?’’ Balian asked.
“Not well,’’ she said.
She described a troubled relationship in which she paid for all the couple’s expenses and Gerhartsreiter was often verbally abusive, snapping at her for petty things, like her driving or when she asked how much something cost. “He could be very mean,’’ she said, as Gerhartsreiter looked on, expressionless.
She described a relationship strikingly similar to his marriage to Sandra Boss, a senior partner at McKinsey and Co., who supported her husband financially until they divorced in 2007. The following year, Gerhartsreiter, who was then posing as Clark Rockefeller, was charged with kidnapping their daughter from a Back Bay street in Boston, an arrest that caught the attention of California authorities, who had been looking for him in connection with the disappearance of the Sohuses.
After he left San Marino in 1985, Gerhartsreiter moved to Greenwich, Conn., where, according to testimony, he gave Linda Sohus’s truck to a young film student. Greenwich police learned of the truck and began searching for him.
After a detective called Manabe, she said Gerhartsreiter told her that he was not a police officer but instead a bad person out to hurt him and his family. He refused to give details, but the couple had to lay low, he said. Manabe said she believed him.
Gerhartsreiter asked her to dye his eyebrows and hair blond, she testified. He grew a beard and insisted that their mail be delivered to post office boxes. All papers had to be shredded and trash had to be dumped far from their apartment. When they were on the street, he insisted they walk on opposite sides, Manabe told the court.
“He insisted that I disassociate myself from my friends and my family,’’ Manabe said. He began talking about leaving the country and once took them to the German embassy. When they returned, she saw he was carrying a German passport with his picture in it and a name she did not recognize. When she asked about it, he told her it was fake.
Soon after the police called, he proposed, according to the testimony. “The gist of it was because he was going to put me through all this, he might as well marry me,’’ Manabe said.
They never left the country, Manabe said. In 1989, the couple went to Camden, Maine, to scout wedding venues. There, he made a reservation at a restaurant under the name Clark Rockefeller, “the first time he used it,’’ Manabe said.
During cross-examination, Manabe acknowledged he used the name because he liked people’s response to it. Bailey, his lawyer, was trying to show that the defendant used a fake name for status, not to hide.
His lawyers still call him Clark Rockefeller. After the judge’s ruling, Denner said, “Clark is somber.’’
“But,’’ Denner said, “he believes that at the end of the day he will be vindicated.’’Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.