Circumstantial and physical evidence prove a German con man who later posed as a member of the Rockefeller family killed his San Marino landlord's son 28 years ago, a prosecutor argued today, but a defense attorney countered that the victim's wife had a dark side that made her the more likely killer.
Christian Gerhartsreiter, 52, who has also passed himself off as an English nobleman and a Hollywood producer, is charged in the February 1985 slaying of his landlady's son, John Sohus, whose wife Linda disappeared about the same time.
Gerhartsreiter, known at the time as Christopher Chichester, lived in a guest house on the San Marino property at 1920 Lorain Road. Sohus' buried remains were uncovered in May 1994 by an excavation crew preparing to build a swimming pool on the property for a new owner.
"Not only did the defendant kill John Sohus, ... all the evidence indicates that he killed Linda Sohus," Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian told jurors during closing arguments of Gerhartsreiter's trial in downtown Los Angeles.
"You're going to be left with one singular, reasonable truth, ... Christian K. Gerhartsreiter killed John Sohus," the prosecutor said.
Balian scoffed at a defense assertion that Linda Sohus killed her husband, citing testimony that the couple were in a loving relationship and were planning for their future. Balian said Linda Sohus was not "criminally sophisticated" enough to carry out a murder, dispose of the remains and then remain in hiding for 28 years without a trace, noting that the woman hadn't finished 10th grade and was known for "painting unicorns and fairies."
"She's dead, ladies and gentlemen. She's dead," Balian said, noting that today is 28 years to the date Linda's family filed a missing-person report with police.
Gerhartsreiter is not charged in Linda Sohus' disappearance, but the prosecutor alleged the defendant arranged for forged postcards to be sent from Paris to Sohus family members and friends to give the appearance that they were traveling abroad.
One of Gerhartsreiter's attorneys, Brad Bailey, suggested during trial that the postcards from Paris instead prove Linda was alive and that she, rather than his client, might be her husband's killer.
Two witnesses called by the defense testified that they examined handwriting samples from Linda Sohus and said they believed she wrote the postcards.
But Balian showed the jury another postcard, mailed from Britain in 1982 and purporting to be from the defendant, though Gerhartsreiter was in California and taking a film class at USC at that time.
"He had someone in Europe who mailed postcards for him," Balian said.
He insisted that Gerhartsreiter was solely responsible for John Sohus' death.
"There's only one person who's a mastermind,"
The prosecutor said some of the strongest evidence of Gerhartsreiter's guilt are two bags that were unearthed in the San Marino backyard and "double bagged" around John Sohus' skull -- one from the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee and one from the USC bookstore.
"How many people went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Southern California and also lived at 1920 Lorain Road?" Balian asked.
The prosecutor presented several other "pieces of the puzzle" to the jury, pointing out that no stranger could have gone undetected while spending six to seven hours digging a hole to bury Sohus' remains in a spot that couldn't be seen from anywhere on the property but the guesthouse.
Once he left California, Gerhartsreiter was "acting like a murderer on the run," giving up a lucrative Wall Street job, never carrying identification and never working, driving or flying anywhere ever again.
Playing back a television interview with Gerhartsreiter for the jury, the prosecutor pointed out that the defendant failed to answer the question of whether he had killed John and Linda Sohus with a straightforward "no," instead responding that he was a Quaker and a pacifist who could "fairly certainly say that I've never hurt anyone."
Balian conceded that criminal defendants are always presumed innocent until proven guilty. But he told jurors that they could also presume that it's "snowing in L.A."
"As soon as you walk outside, the presumption will be overcome," Balian said, urging the panel to rely on their common sense and convict the defendant.
In his closing argument, defense attorney Jeffrey Denner conceded that his client "is a schnook and worse," who "tricks people," including "filmmakers, judges, successful men and businesswomen." But the attorney said his client had no history of violence and was not the killer.
Gerhartsreiter was in hiding because of the many "petty, financial white collar crimes" he had committed over the years, fearing that he would be deported or at least lose all the benefits he'd garnered through his life of lies, Denner said.
The defense attorney said the prosecution's case amounted to speculation.
"There's no eyewitness" and "no so-called forensic or trace evidence that links Christian Gerhartsreiter .... to this case," Denner said.
Instead, he pointed to Linda Sohus.
"It certainly is convenient to have her as dead ... rather than as a potential defendant," Denner said.
Linda was tired of living with her mother-in-law, a "controlling, vicious alcoholic," the defense attorney said, giving her a motive for killing her husband.
"It is far more likely that ... she killed her husband than the defendant, who had no motive."
Calling Linda Sohus "the kind of a person who needs to escape," Denner said she had been engaged three times in the four years prior to meeting John, calling into question the idea that the two had a "match made in heaven."
It "suggests a certain level of desperation," Denner said of the multiple relationships.
He repeatedly referred to Linda Sohus' "dark side" and raised the possibility of an old boyfriend or a stalker coming back into her life, noting one witness' testimony that she had a bodyguard at one point.
Denner also pointed to the success of his client's other scams as reason to believe he wasn't the killer.
The jury should ask "whether someone as intelligent and persuasive ... would be likely to commit a murder ... and then spread breadcrumbs behind leading people to him?"
Leaving the victim's head in his alma mater's book bag, Denner said, would amount to putting "a plaque there that says 'burial by me, defendant Christopher Chichester."'
Gerhartsreiter would have to be "one of the stupidest murderers in the history of Southern California" if he killed John Sohus, Denner said.
Balian argued the evidence was enough to convict Gerhartsreiter.
"This case is easy, the evidence is right in front of your eyes, it's as clear as day," he said. "For once, finally, tell this man he's responsible for his actions."
Denner countered that the evidence was not enough, given the "pretty high standard" of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
"You don't know what happened and if you don't know what happened, you can't convict anybody," the defense attorney said.