LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles Superior Court jury dramatically ended Christian Gerhartsreiter’s long tale of lies and deceit on Wednesday, convicting him of the murder of a California man in 1985, a crime that might never have been solved were it not for his missteps while living as Clark Rockefeller in Boston.
Gerhartsreiter, 52, was found guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of John Sohus in San Marino, Calif., and he will face at least 27 years in prison, far from the circles of the rich and well-
connected he so constantly strived to be a part of. The murder occurred nearly 30 years ago, when Gerhartsreiter lived in a guest house in San Marino next to a main residence where John Sohus and his wife, Linda, resided. Linda also disappeared that year and has not been heard from since.
The six-man, six-woman jury needed just five hours to return its verdict, convinced by no single piece of circumstantial evidence but by the totality of it. They accepted prosecutors’ description of how Gerhartsreiter struck Sohus in the head repeatedly, crushing his skull, and then buried his dismembered body in the backyard of his guest house. Sohus’s remains were found when new owners dug for a pool in 1994.
Dressed in a blue sport coat and gray pants, Gerhartsreiter displayed no reaction when the verdict was read.
Ellen Sohus, the victim’s stepsister, wept.
“My first thought was, it’s finally over, and I was moved to tears; it’s finally over,” she said moments after the verdict. Ellen Sohus had helped reignite interest in her sibling’s murder during the many years it went unsolved.
Kristen Lee, a civil litigation lawyer who served as the jury forewoman, said there was no one piece of evidence that swayed her.
“The whole of the evidence, the summation, the entire weight of the evidence when you put it together painted a picture that the 12 of us were able to decide that he was guilty. . . . I don’t think either side disputed that he had conned a lot of people. But we focused on the evidence that was presented.”
Gerhartsreiter’s path of deception began when he left Germany for the United States in 1978 and featured stops in a number of areas across the country, including New England.
He had lived a life of freedom and relatively high style since leaving California in 1985. But his fast-moving deception hit a roadblock in Boston in 2008, when — divorced from his wife, Sandra Boss — he caught the attention of authorities by kidnapping his then-7-year-old daughter, Reigh, from a Back Bay street and taking her to Baltimore.
He was arrested six days later, and slowly the web of phony names and heritage that Gerharstreiter had woven together came to light.
Now imprisoned in California and serving time for the abduction of his daughter during a supervised visit, Gerhartsreiter was scheduled to finish serving a maximum five-year sentence on that charge this summer. He will remain in prison in California.
As the word guilty fell off the court clerk’s lips, Ellen Sohus exhaled deeply, put her palms together, and held a prayer pose for several seconds as tears ran down her cheeks.
“He would be so overwhelmed by how many people loved him and how many people were fighting for him, and I think he would just be amazed that he was that important,” she said of her slain brother.
Sohus said she believes that her brother confronted Gerhartsreiter over some issue that John Sohus perceived as a threat to his mother, Didi, with whom he was extremely close and who owned the main home the couple lived in in San Marino.
Sohus said she attended the trial to demonstrate that her brother should never be forgotten.
“I love my brother,’’ she said, speaking of him as he were alive today. “My father adored John and was heartbroken when he found out he was murdered. He had family. He was loved.’’
She said that during the trial, she was accompanied by friends of Linda Sohus, who authorities presume 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.
Prosecutor Habib Balian told reporters after the verdict that he sometimes feared that Gerhartsreiter would succeed one final time as a con man.
“We’re very, very relieved. Sometimes, you’re afraid that this guy’s conned so many people for so many years that this would be the one last time he pulled off his last con,’’ an obviously upbeat Balian told reporters.
“But that didn’t happen; the system worked,’’ he added. “The jury looked at what was reasonable, rejected what was unreasonable, and they came to a just verdict.’’
Jurors heard and saw evidence that John Sohus’s remains were buried in two plastic bags stamped with the logos of two schools Gerhartsreiter attended, the University of Southern California and the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.
The jury started deliberating Tuesday at 10:15 a.m., after four weeks of testimony by 45 witnesses and 160 exhibits.
In his closing arguments, the prosecutor reminded the jury of witness testimony saying that Gerhartsreiter was observed burning carpet in the guest house chimney, that he borrowed a chainsaw, and had asked a neighbor where he might discard a drum of chemicals.
Juror Salvador Ruiz, who stood out among the other jurors with his straw hat, dark shades, and Guayabera-style silk shirts, said the jury took two polls, one Tuesday and another early Wednesday, on whether Gerhartsreiter played a role in the murder. Both polls came back 10-to-2. But roughly 15 minutes after the second survey, there was unanimity.
“The prosecutor didn’t leave a whole bunch for the defense to work with,” Ruiz said.
“The part about the defendant being strange, well, in Hollywood that happens a lot, but when he took off East and continued to do it . . . there was a lot of suspicious activity after the end of February” 1985.
Ruiz said jurors made a timeline of events in the case and “tore it down” several times during their deliberations. They did not buy the defense’s suggestions made throughout the trial that Linda Sohus killed her husband.
Ruiz said it is unlikely for her to be on the lam this long without any trace.
“We don’t have anything to do with the punishment part of this, but if we did I would recommend giving him [Gerhartsreiter] a little bit of a break if he would give up Linda,” he said.
Thomas Miley, the lead investigator in the case for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, said he would welcome the chance to question Gerhartsreiter about Linda Sohus.
Jeffrey Denner, Gerhartsreiter’s co-counsel, said after the verdict that he believes the case was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
“It’s a circumstantial case with a lot of emotion involved,” he said. “There will be an appeal, and the chips will fall where they may.”
Denner and lawyer Brad Bailey said they will not represent Gerhartsreiter in the appeal, to get “fresh eyes” on the case.
“Our defendant was not an easy guy for this jury out here to relate to,” Denner said. “There wasn’t a lot of overlap in their personality traits, and there was some pretty damning pieces of evidence that if they wanted to they could have hung their hats on and they did.”
In Boston, the district attorney who played a role in the unraveling of Clark Rockefeller by successfully prosecuting him for the kidnapping of his daughter, applauded LA prosecutors for “finding justice for Mr. Sohus and his loved ones.’’
“Beyond his lies and tall tales, what we saw in this defendant was a shrewd and cunning offender,” Daniel F. Conley said in the statement. “. . . Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was a mystery until he was identified, located, and convicted for his crimes here.’’
Sentencing is set for June 26.