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Rockefeller impostor convicted of 1985 murder

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Christian Gerhartsreiter (AP Photo)

Christian Gerhartsreiter (AP Photo)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A notorious Rockefeller impostor was found guilty Wednesday of first-degree murder in the death of a man whose bones were found buried beneath the backyard of a suburban home.

Christian Gerhartsreiter was tried 28 years after the disappearance of newlyweds John and Linda Sohus in a heavily circumstantial cold case. Much of the prosecution’s evidence focused on the strange behavior of the man who adopted many names including Clark Rockefeller. He masqueraded as an heir to the fabled oil fortune for 20 years.

The case went to the jury late Tuesday morning and the verdict was reached shortly after the panel returned Wednesday.

Gerhartsreiter did not show any reaction when the court clerk read the decision convicting him of killing John Sohus.

“I don’t know if you can really have closure with something like this,” the victim’s sister, Ellen Sohus, said afterward. “What I have now are a lot of answers that I never believed I was ever going to have.”

Sentencing was scheduled for June 28. Gerhartsreiter faces 25 years to life in prison for the murder conviction, plus two additional years because the jury also found that he personally used a blunt object and a sharp instrument as weapons. It was not a death penalty case.

Authorities said Gerhartsreiter was a German immigrant who lived another life long ago, occupying a guest cottage at the home of Sohus’ mother in the ritzy suburb of San Marino. He was known then as Chris Chichester and intimated he was of royal lineage. He joined the church, befriended residents and told some he was a film student.

A friend said Linda Sohus once described the tenant in the cottage owned by John’s mother as “creepy” and said she and her husband never spoke to him.

The town folk didn’t connect him with the disappearance of the Sohus couple in 1985, but shortly after they vanished, so did he.

No trace of Linda has been found but John’s bones were unearthed during excavation of a swimming pool at the San Marino property in 1994. With no clues, the mystery went cold again.

But across the country, a man variously known as Chris Crowe, Chip Smith and Clark Rockefeller was inventing new lives for himself.

This impostor wormed his way into high society and talked his way into important jobs. He married a wealthy woman and controlled her funds, but his identity unraveled when he kidnapped their daughter during a custody dispute. She testified that he became increasingly paranoid when police begin inquiring about him.

When he was unmasked, he became the subject of magazine articles, true crime books and TV movies that sought to explore his bizarre story and get to the heart of the man behind the pseudonyms.

The resulting publicity led California authorities to revisit the Sohus disappearance. They realized the man in custody in Boston was not an heir to the Rockefeller fortune but was the man who had lived in San Marino decades ago.

Already serving time for the kidnapping of his young daughter in a Boston custody dispute, Gerhartsreiter was close to the end of his sentence and headed for freedom when the murder charge changed that. After a quarter century, authorities believed they had linked him to the disappearance of his old neighbor, Sohus.

Defense attorneys suggested that Linda Sohus, not their client, killed her husband. But no motive was offered for her or Gerhartsreiter to have killed the young man.

Prosecutors filled in the blanks of the defendant’s whereabouts during the decades of his disappearance. But some details were unlikely ever to be explained.

He chose not to testify in his own defense and much of the trial testimony came from people now hobbled by age who knew him in San Marino as Chris Chichester, a stranger with a murky past.

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