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University logo may play key role in ‘Rockefeller’ trial

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter is accused of killing John Sohus. Linda Sohus also disappeared in 1985, but Gerhartsreiter is not charged with killing her.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter is accused of killing John Sohus. Linda Sohus also disappeared in 1985, but Gerhartsreiter is not charged with killing her.

Courtesy of Lydia Marano

Linda and John Sohus in an undated photo.

A University of Wisconsin logo stamped on a bag may play a key role in the murder trial of the con man who called himself Clark Rockefeller, which started Monday in a Los Angeles courtroom.

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter is accused of killing John Sohus, his landlord, in 1985. Prosecutors said that in 1985 he dismembered Sohus’s body and stuffed the remains into plastic bags before burying them in the backyard of a San Marino home owned by Sohus’s mother. Sohus’s wife, Linda, ­also disappeared in 1985, but Gerhartsreiter is not charged with killing her.

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When John Sohus’s remains were uncovered in 1994 while new owners were building a pool, authorities discovered that one of the bags was marked with the logo used by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee from 1979 to 1982.

Gerhartsreiter, a serial con man, was a student at the university in 1981, authorities say. At the time of John Sohus’s slaying, Gerhartsreiter was using the name Christopher Chichester, authorities have said.

Jeffrey Denner, the Boston attorney who, along with his law partner, Brad Bailey, is defend­ing Gerhartsreiter in the California trial, said the defense is focused on jury selection, which was scheduled to begin this week in a Los Angeles courtroom.

Denner said he is searching for prospective jurors who can put aside whatever they may have heard about the man who claimed for more than a decade to be related to the Rockefeller family and who used numerous other aliases after arriving in the United States from Germany and staying illegally.

“It’s a very difficult, if not dicey, proposition to get a fair jury in a high-profile case,’’ Denner said.

Denner declined to discuss his trial strategy, or lay out how he plans to rebut physical evidence, like the bag with the college logo, that authorities contend links Gerhartsreiter to John Sohus’s killing, except to say that jurors will repeatedly hear that his client is not a killer.

Nuck Ut/AP Photo

The Sohuses’ property in San Marino, Calif., was searched for evidence in 2008.

“Whoever is responsible for his death is not the defendant in this case,’’ Denner said.

Denner said Gerhartsreiter welcomes the arrival of the murder charge against him, which has kept him in a California jail on $10 million bail awaiting trial.

While in California, ­Gerhartsreiter has been serving the five-year prison sentenced imposed in Massachusetts for kidnapping his own daughter in 2008, an act that led to
his unmasking as a serial con man.

“He is anxious to get closure,’’ Denner said Monday in a telephone interview from ­California.

Denner said the trial could last as long as two months.

He also said that opening statements are not expected ­until sometime next week, after the jury is chosen.

John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@
globe.com
.
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