LOS ANGELES — Christian Gerhartsreiter was a master at self-aggrandizement, even after murdering a young couple in 1985 and creating a whole new identity for himself, a prosecutor told jurors Monday during his closing statements.
“Masterfully done, masterfully done,” Habib Balian said, standing behind Gerhartsreiter and waving his hands through the air as if he had just witnessed an astonishing magic trick by the 52-year-old defendant.
Gerhartsreiter, the German con man who created an international sensation five years ago when he abducted his young daughter in Boston, faces 26 years to life in prison on charges that he killed John Sohus while living in the guesthouse of a San Marino, Calif., residence owned by the victim’s mother, Didi Sohus. John Sohus and his wife, Linda Sohus, lived in the main house and disappeared in early 1985.
Authorities presume that Linda Sohus is dead. Gerhartsreiter, who went by the name Christopher Chichester when he lived in California and Clark Rockefeller in Boston, is a suspect in her disappearance but has not been charged in that case.
Monday marked the 28th anniversary of the day when Linda Sohus’s family went to police in San Marino to file a missing persons report.
Balian spent two hours Monday attempting to portray Gerhartsreiter, with all of his aliases and claims of riches and royalty, as a murderer.
With no witnesses to the slaying, Balian focused on the circumstantial evidence, pacing back and forth and often planting himself close behind the defendant as he spoke in a voice that boomed through the courtroom.
The prosecutor reminded the jury of witness testimony saying that Gerhartsreiter was observed burning carpet in the guesthouse chimney, that he borrowed a chainsaw, and that two bags that contained John Sohus’s dismembered remains had logos from the University of Southern California and the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, two schools the defendant attended.
Balian also said that given the amount of time it would have taken to dig the backyard grave and dispose of the body, the killer had to live at 1920 Lorain Road in San Marino, where Gerhartsreiter resided.
“The case is easy,,” he told jurors. “The evidence is right in front of your eyes; it’s as clear as day.”
On Tuesday, jurors will begin deliberating after four weeks of testimony by 45 witnesses and 160 exhibits in Los Angeles Superior Court.
“What struck me as being particularly sad . . . is not only did the defendant kill John Sohus, not only does all the evidence indicate that both of these people are dead . . . [but] they have the gall to come in here and blame the very person he killed,” Balian said, referring to the defense’s suggestion that Linda Sohus killed her husband.
Speaking for the defense, Boston-based attorney Jeffrey Denner immediately made that argument, speaking softly and never turning away from the jurors, a striking difference in style from the prosecutor’s closing statements.
Gerhartsreiter has appeared studious throughout the trial, and Monday was no different as he took copious notes.
Of the circumstantial evidence, Denner said, “the totality points far more to Linda Sohus than it does to the defendant as the killer of John Sohus.”
Denner suggested that her marriage was not at all as rosy as Balian portrayed it, calling the union “a somewhat darker picture . . . a picture that not all is right in paradise.”
Gerhartsreiter took numerous measures to conceal his identity when he moved from San Marino to New England in 1985, and while Balian said he did so to hide after killing John Sohus, Denner offered a different explanation.
“At the end of the day, he had quite a portfolio of illegal behavior that was following him, of a white collar financial ilk,” Denner said.
“There are so many possibilities that you can entertain,” Denner told the jury, in wrapping up his roughly 90-minute closing statement.
“That’s what reasonable doubt is,” he said.
Gerhartsreiter’s tales unraveled in 2008 after he snatched his 7-year-old daughter from a Back Bay street and brought her to Baltimore, where he was arrested six days later.
He was going by the name Clark Rockefeller at the time, passing himself off as a relative of the famous industrialist.
Gerhartsreiter left California for New England the same year the couple disappeared, in 1985. He moved to New York, then New Hampshire, and eventually Boston.
As Clark Rockefeller, he was able to ease into wealthy circles and move among the elite of New England high society.
Balian will give a rebuttal Tuesday morning to Denner’s closing statements, and he indicated it will take about 40 minutes.
After that, Judge George Lomeli will give brief instructions to the jury, and then the jurors will start deliberating the case.
Brian Ballou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.