LOS ANGELES — A man who claimed to be a member of the storied Rockefeller family insists he had nothing to do with the killing of a California man more than 25 years ago, his lawyer said Wednesday — a day after Los Angeles prosecutors charged the man with murder in the case.
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, 50, is a German national who came to the United States in the 1970s and assumed many identities, including Clark Rockefeller, a supposed heir to the Rockefeller oil fortune. He is currently serving a four- to five-year sentence on a 2009 kidnapping conviction in Boston for absconding to Baltimore with his then-7-year-old daughter.
Police in California had long considered him a person of interest in the killing of 27-year-old John Sohus, a former landlord who mysteriously disappeared with his wife, Linda, in 1985 at the same time a German man using the name Christopher Chichester was staying in a guest house on their property in the wealthy Los Angeles-area enclave of San Marino, prosecutors said.
Gerhartsreiter could face 26 years to life in prison if convicted of murder in the disappearance of Sohus.
“He maintains complete innocence as he always has,” Boston defense attorney Jeffrey Denner said after meeting Gerhartsreiter for two hours at a prison in Gardner, Mass.
“He doesn’t know what to make of it,” Denner said of the charge. “He thinks that obviously the notoriety of this (Boston kidnapping) case has generated interest in the Sohus case that didn’t exist before.”
Gerhartsreiter is eligible for parole next year in the kidnapping case.
Denner said his client is not afraid of any evidence in the California case because he believes “it will prove his innocence, not his guilt.”
While no final decision has been made on whether to fight extradition, Gerhartsreiter would likely agree to return to California quickly because he is eager to fight the murder charge against him, Denner said.
Arranging that extradition could take as long as two months, said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.
Gerhartsreiter came to the United States as a teenager. Through the years, he told friends and acquaintances that he was a physicist, an art collector, a ship captain and a financial adviser who renegotiated debt for small countries.
At his 2009 trial for kidnapping, prosecutors said Gerhartsreiter used aliases to move in wealthy circles in Boston, New York and Los Angeles. His strange story has become the subject of a TV movie.
During Gerhartsreiter’s 2009 kidnapping trial, his lawyers claimed he was suffering from a delusional disorder and was legally insane when he snatched his daughter during a supervised visit in Boston following a bitter divorce from his wife. Prosecutors portrayed him as a master manipulator who used multiple aliases and told elaborate lies about his past since moving to the United States as a teenager in the 1970s.
Gerhartsreiter used several aliases during his time in San Marino, including Christopher Chichester. He left town shortly after the couple disappeared, prosecutors said.
Denner said Gerhartsreiter said he “has no idea” what happened to Jonathan and Linda Sohus and insists he had nothing to do with the couple’s disappearance in 1985.
“He is not a violent man,” Denner said during a news conference in Boston.
Denner said Gerhartsreiter recalls renting a guest house from Sohus’ mother, but said he had “very limited contact” with him or his wife, Linda.
John Sohus’ body was unearthed from the backyard of the house in 1994 when the new owners of the property were having a swimming pool built. At the time, investigators were unable to prove the remains were those of John Sohus because he was adopted and they had no known biological relatives to compare a DNA sample to.
About two months ago, investigators used new technology to conclusively identify Sohus’ remains and cold-case investigators assembled “overwhelming” evidence that had been collected over the years, Los Angeles County sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said. He declined to provide details.
“It was just old-fashioned, shoe-leather police work combined with technology,” Whitmore said. “Detectives just never give up.”
Investigators determined he was killed by blunt force trauma to the head. Linda Sohus remains missing.
In 1988, California authorities tried unsuccessfully to track down someone using another one of Gerhartsreiter’s aliases — Christopher Crowe— who was in Connecticut trying to sell a pickup truck that belonged to Jonathan and Linda Sohus.
Denner said Gerhartsreiter bought the truck from Jonathan Sohus’ mother and it was never reported stolen.
Robison, of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, wouldn’t say whether any new evidence had led prosecutors to charge him with murder.
“They looked at the totality of the evidence, and they believe it is enough to file on,” she said.