LOS ANGELES — As a foreign exchange student living in Connecticut, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter practiced relentlessly to suppress his German accent and he sharpened his ability to tell tall tales by conning fellow high school students, according to testimony Wednesday in his murder trial here.
“He would start to tell a story; if the person didn’t respond, well, he would notice it, stop, and you wouldn’t hear that story again,” Edward Savio told jurors in Los Angeles Superior Court.
It was the third day of testimony in the murder trial of Gerhartsreiter, the German con man who made headlines after his masquerade as “Clark Rockefeller” in Boston began to unravel in 2008.
Prosecutors say Gerhartsreiter lived in 1985 in a guesthouse in San Marino, Calif., owned by the mother of slaying victim John Sohus, while Sohus and his wife, Linda, lived in the main house.
Sohus’s remains were found buried in the house’s backyard in May 1994, and Gerhartsreiter is charged in the killing. Linda Sohus is missing and presumed dead.
A medical examiner testified Wednesday that Sohus died of blunt force trauma to the head.
Soon after arriving in the United States, Gerhartsreiter stayed at Savio’s house in Connecticut as a foreign exchange high school student from September 1978 until February 1979, when Savio’s mother kicked him out because their guest had continually belittled their middle-class life.
We hung out a lot together, I liked Chris,” Savio said. “We stayed up late at night talking about sort of making it big in the world.
“If he was trying to impress somebody, he would tell stories about family or travel,” Savio testified. “. . . The more they bought into it, the more he’d do it.”
Gerhartsreiter’s early adulthood came into sharp focus Wednesday through witness testimony by people he crossed paths with, from his hometown village in the German countryside to the affluent and tight-knit community of San Marino.
Gerhartsreiter’s defense is attempting to show jurors that while his life is one long con job, the level of intelligence and sophistication that allowed him to gain entry into high society does not fit with the loose ends of the killing.
Prosecutors, on the other hand, are making a case that Gerhartsreiter’s life story highlights his attempts to gain wealth and fame by any means.
Another witness, Elmer Kelln, testified Wednesday that on a vacation he and his wife stopped in Bergen, Germany, to wait out a storm. They spotted Gerhartsreiter hitchhiking and gave him a ride.
Gerhartsreiter told them he was interested in the movie business, particularly film noir.
Kelln said that during the course of several hours getting to know the young man, it was apparent he longed to make it big in the United States.
“I think he wanted to get out of Germany; there was no question about that,” Kelln said.
Gerhartsreiter would visit the Loma Linda couple on Sundays for dinner. Kelln once visited Gerhartsreiter at the house in San Marino.
“He made me believe he owned the property and the car,” Kelln said, referring to the residence at 1920 Lorain Road and a late-model Chrysler that Gerhartsreiter said he drove.
Earlier in the day, prosecutor Habib Balian told the court that investigators had no knowledge of a development detailed in a dramatic statement made by witness Joe Lucero on Tuesday. The former San Marino police officer testified that a neighbor described seeing Gerhartsreiter digging in the backyard.
Balian said the lead investigator in the case, Detective Timothy Miley, was “personally unaware of a report of anyone seen digging in the backyard of 1920 Lorain Road.”
Habib did not offer any details on how investigators were not aware of Lucero’s claim.
Also testifying was Frank Sheridan, chief medical examiner for San Bernardino County. He told jurors that he examined the skull found with the remains in the San Marino backyard, paying special attention to the “fracture edges” that revealed the injuries occurred at or before the time of death, that Sohus was alive when the strikes occurred, and that he died immediately afterward. Sohus was struck at least three times in the head by a blunt object, Sheridan said.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Denner questioned witness Lynne Herold, a forensic scientist who examined evidence in the case, including blood stains.
Gerhartsreiter’s charade began to collapse when he was arrested in 2008 for abducting his 7-year-old daughter in Boston and questions were raised about his mysterious past.