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‘Rockefeller’ murder trial begins in California

Defendant ‘odd’ but innocent, lawyer says

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter

NICK UT/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, who went by the name Clark Rockefeller when he was convicted of kidnapping his daughter in Boston, stood accused in Los Angeles on Monday of killing his California neighbor in the 1980s.

LOS ANGELES — The attorney defending Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter against charges of killing his California neighbor in the 1980s wasted no time Monday in suggesting to a Superior Court jury that the victim was killed by his own wife and not the defendant, who went by the name Clark Rockefeller when he was convicted of kidnapping his own daughter in Boston in another sensational case.

“There will be enough evidence for you to reasonably conclude it could have well been John Sohus’s vanished wife Linda,” Brad Bailey said in his opening statement on the first day of the trial here, before a packed courtroom.

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In putting forth the defense, Bailey ­accepted the prosecution’s description of his client as deceptive and conniving. ­Bailey even tossed out a few more adjectives, turning toward the 52-year-old ­Gerhartsreiter at one point and calling him “odd.”

But Bailey told jurors that his client’s quirkiness does not make him homicidal and that Linda Sohus had her own fake name, her own fantasy world, and displayed odd and bizarre behavior in the weeks and days before she disappeared in California, where Gerhartsreiter lived in a Sohus guesthouse in the 1980s.

“Shut your eyes and envision whether John Sohus’s missing wife . . . sneaked up behind her husband and struck those ­vicious blows,” Bailey said.

The Boston-based attorney’s style was dramatic, almost theatrical as he repeatedly echoed his initial phrases, turning a deliberate rhyme.

“Over the next few weeks, you’re going to learn about a case that is quite old, once quite cold . . . but involves a story that is still untold,” Bailey told jurors as he lifted his dark-rimmed glasses off the bridge of his nose several times and waved his arms.

Through most of the day, Gerhartsreiter rarely changed his stoic expression.

In contrast to the defense lawyer, prosecutor Habib Balian was understated and used a large projection screen to display his major points during his almost two-hour opening statement earlier in the day.

Balian told the eight-woman, seven-man jury that John and Linda Sohus were drawn together by their love of science fiction and married on Halloween in 1983. John was shy and smart, a perfect complement to his wife, an extrovert who dreamed of becoming a professional artist.

The couple struggled financially, living week to week, but they were happy together, Balian said.

The prosecutor then summarized Gerhartsreiter’s life, saying he was born in Bergen, Germany, longed to become a big-time movie producer, and arrived in the United States in 1978.

Gerhartsreiter eventually made his way to California, which he left in 1985 to move to Connecticut and then New Hampshire before settling in Boston. In 1995, he married Sandra Boss, a Harvard Business School graduate and partner at a consulting firm with a $2 million annual salary. They had a daughter, Reigh, in 2001, before they divorced in December 2006.

Gerhartsreiter created an inter­national sensation in 2008 after authorities, prosecuting him for abducting his 7-year-old daughter, exposed his past as mostly a fabrication. By then, he had used about a half-dozen aliases.

At the time of his arrest, he had been passing himself off as Rockefeller, a con that he ­admitted allowed him to mingle in high society.

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.

At Monday’s first day of the Sohus murder trial, Balian told jurors that Gerhartsreiter exper­imented with different personalities in high school, accord­ing to a former high school classmate in Berlin, Conn.

Gerhartsreiter moved to Wisconsin and attended the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee from 1979 to 1981 and then landed in San Marino, ­Calif., an affluent community, where he mixed in, attend­ing the local church and functions where fine wine was served and classical music was played, Balian said.

Gerhartsreiter started going by the name Christopher Chicester and lived in the guesthouse at 1920 Lorian Road, owned by Didi Sohus, John Sohus’s mother. Soon afterward, the newlyweds moved ­into the main house at that ­address.

Balian said that in early ­February 1985, as the couple were making plans to attend a science fiction convention in Arizona, Linda Sohus told a friend that her husband was ­being considered for a secret government job and that she could possibly make a contribution as well. She indicated that they needed to go to Connecticut for about two weeks but would be back in time for the Arizona trip.

Balian said Gerhartsreiter had given the Sohuses the idea that they could possibly land the jobs doing secret work for the government. “Clearly they never went on this trip,” Balian said. “John was buried in the back yard. The defendant told Linda a convincing lie.”

John Sohus’s dismembered remains were discovered buried in plastic bags on May 5, 1994, when new owners began excavating the back yard to build a pool. One bag bore a ­logo used by the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee from 1979 to 1982. Another bag contained a University of Southern California logo, a school Gerhartsreiter had also attended.

As Balian displayed several grisly photos of Sohus’s remains on the projector screen, ­Gerhartsreiter, dressed in a blue blazer, shifted between looking at the pictures and writing notes on a legal pad.

Gerhartsreiter is being held on $10 million bail in California, where he faces 26 years to life in prison if convicted on the murder charge.

Brian Ballou can be reached at bballou@globe.com.

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