LOS ANGELES (AP) — A prosecutor told jurors Monday he will prove a cold-case murder allegation against a German immigrant who spent years moving through U.S. society under a series of aliases, most notoriously posing as a member of the fabled Rockefeller family.
The prosecution's outline, however, offered no suggestion of a motive for the killing and focused instead on the many identities and fabulous assertions of a man with a gift for deceit.
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter (GAYR'-hahrtz-ry-tur), known for 20 years as Clark Rockefeller, sat quietly listening on Monday to Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian's opening statement, which wove a complicated web of circumstantial evidence.
Balian told of how Gerhartsreiter came to the United States, began inventing new identities and charmed his way into the lives of people from coast to coast.
At issue is the fate of a couple who befriended him in 1985 and vanished shortly afterward. The young husband's bones were eventually unearthed from his backyard decades later, but his wife has never been found.
Gerhartsreiter has pleaded not guilty to the killing of John Sohus, 27, who disappeared with his wife, Linda. At the time, Gerhartsreiter — using an alias — was a guest cottage tenant at the home of Sohus' mother, where the couple lived.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the evidence will show that John and Linda Sohus are dead," Balian said.
Later Monday, Gerhartsreiter's attorney told jurors that every piece of circumstantial evidence outlined by a prosecutor could point to Linda Sohus as the killer.
Brad Bailey said prosecutors have little more than the bizarre behavior and multiple identities of Gerhartsreiter to paint him as a murderer. But he said Linda Sohus also acted strangely and may have had a motive to kill her husband.
The most mysterious evidence is a series of postcards from Linda Sohus sent to friends and family from Paris after she disappeared. The handwriting was analyzed as hers, but the stamps — which were subject to DNA analysis — were licked by a man who wasn't Gerhartsreiter, the prosecutor said.
Balian said that police earlier this year found a storage locker rented by Gerhartsreiter in Baltimore. Inside, they found postcards from international cities.
A possible explanation, said Balian, is that "the defendant has someone in Europe who mails postcards for him."
The prosecution's case is circumstantial, based on a bag of bones found buried at the property and the fuzzy memories of residents of San Marino, a wealthy Los Angeles suburb. The residents knew the defendant as Chris Chichester.
When Chichester suddenly vanished from San Marino following the departure of the Sohuses, residents didn't connect him with the couple's disappearance.
For Gerhartsreiter, it was the start of an odyssey across America, using the names Christopher Crowe, Chip Smith and Clark Rockefeller, a pretender to the fabled oil fortune.
A gaunt, bespectacled Gerhartsreiter listened quietly on Monday as Balian connected the dots of the defendant's later life.
Balian depicted him as a fabulist, a liar who made up extravagant stories about being a famous film director, the heir to a South African fortune and a descendant of British royalty. The defendant passed around business cards announcing himself as the 13th Baronet of England and once used the name Mountbatten, he said.
When police began asking questions about him, linking him to a truck owned by the Sohuses, he abandoned his $100,000 a year job as a Wall Street bond trader and went into hiding.
He was close to the end of a prison term for the kidnapping of his young daughter in a Boston custody dispute when the murder charge interrupted his chance to regain his freedom.