LOS ANGELES (AP) — A notorious Rockefeller impostor was depicted Monday by a prosecutor as a master manipulator who “always had a lie in his back pocket to explain things,” but slipped up and left clues that he was a killer.
“This isn’t a movie, a book, a TV show, a docudrama,” Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian said in his closing argument, referring to the fact that the case has been turned into all of those things over the years.
“This case is about two people who lived and died,” Balian said.
Defendant Christian Gerhartsreiter is charged only with the murder of John Sohus in suburban San Marino, but the prosecutor has been allowed to say he believes Gerhartsreiter also killed Sohus’ wife, who remains missing after nearly three decades.
“She’s dead,” Balian said repeatedly as he described the disappearance of Linda Sohus and her husband, John — newlyweds he said had no reason to vanish.
The bones of John Sohus were unearthed in the backyard of his mother’s former house in San Marino a decade after he and his wife disappeared.
Gerhartsreiter lived as a tenant on the property in 1984 and 1985.
The man who then called himself Chris Chichester vanished around the same time the couple disappeared in 1985, according to witnesses.
As part of his closing argument, Balian used a Powerpoint presentation that showed pieces of a jigsaw puzzle falling into place.
Balian predicted that the defense would seek to paint Linda Sohus as the murderer of her husband.
“They’re going to batter her over and over and say she was the mastermind,” Balian said in his presentation. “But all the evidence in this case is going to point you to the fact that only one person was the mastermind. … He is charged with murder.”
However, defense attorney Jeffrey Denner was less demeaning of Linda Sohus than he was of his own client. He said Gerhartsreiter, a German immigrant, was a white-collar criminal with a long list of offenses including identity theft and immigration fraud.
“Over a period of time in this country, he committed a lot of crimes with which he was never charged,” Denner said. “It’s no wonder he would want to stay under the radar.”
But the lawyer said his client had not been running from a murder investigation.
Denner noted that no trace evidence was scientifically connected to the defendant, and he suggested it was more likely that Linda Sohus had a “dark side” of her life that led her to kill her husband. But he offered no evidence to support that contention.
“That’s the stuff that reasonable doubt is made of,” he told jurors. “You don’t know what happened. If you don’t know what happened, you can’t convict anybody.”
Balian noted that Monday was the 28th anniversary of the day Linda and John Sohus were reported missing.
“What do we do with a case 28 years old?” he said, acknowledging there are no eye witnesses or physical evidence in the case.
“Circumstantial evidence is just as powerful,” Balian said as he detailed the pieces of his puzzle.
“Not only does he flee, he changes his identity and discontinues contacts with friends. Why? Because he’s a murderer,” the prosecutor said.
Eventually, Gerhartsreiter turned up on the East Coast using the name Clark Rockefeller and living well at the expense of his wealthy wife.
Gerhartsreiter was previously prosecuted for kidnapping his own daughter and is serving a prison sentence for that crime.
Defense lawyers have suggested that he lived a life of pretense, making up wild stories about royal lineage, but they say he never killed anyone.
“He lied at will and his life was based on that,” Denner said. “He said he was a filmmaker and he could amend the script anytime he wanted.”
Balian reminded jurors of testimony by former friends from San Marino. A woman remembered seeing dirt in his yard where a large hole had been dug. A forensic expert said traces of blood were found on the concrete floor beneath a rug in the guest cottage the defendant occupied. But it was never clear if the blood was human or animal and it was not linked to Gerhartsreiter.
The prosecutor also emphasized what was found in the backyard grave along with bones — plastic shopping bags from the University of Southern California and University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, two colleges the defendant attended.
“The case is easy,” said Balian. “The evidence is right in front of your eyes.”
The only thing missing, he acknowledged is a motive. Why would the defendant kill John Sohus?
“The prosecution need not prove why,” he said. “It’s not part of our burden of proof. Nor do we need to prove the type of weapon used or where he was killed.”
Superior Court Judge George Lomeli instructed jurors that if they cannot agree on the charge of first-degree murder, they have the option of considering second-degree murder, which does not require premeditation.
He told jurors to return Tuesday for Balian’s rebuttal before the start of their deliberations.