A man who allegedly murdered his landlord and buried him in a San Marino backyard posed at times as a Rockefeller, a Hollywood producer, British royalty and a USC film professor, lying even to his wife of 12 years, prosecutors said today in their opening statement.
But defense attorneys suggested that the victim's wife, who is still missing, may have been his killer.
Christian Gerhartsreiter, 52, is accused of the February 1985 slaying of John Sohus, 27, whose bones were found nearly a decade later. Sohus and his wife Linda disappeared from San Marino that month. Linda's body has never been found and the defendant is not charged with her murder.
Gerhartsreiter was charged in March 2011, while serving a prison term in Massachusetts for kidnapping his own daughter.
Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian previewed the prosecution's case in a trial that may include as many as 93 witnesses, including 16 experts, according to a jury questionnaire.
Balian showed the jury photos of the bones found May 5, 1994 by an excavation crew building a swimming pool in the backyard of 1920 Lorain Road.
The first set of human remains -- found wrapped in what was later identified as a USC bookstore bag with the Trojans logo -- included "a jawbone, portions of a skull, hair, decomposed after many years," Balian said. Most of the skull was found inside another plastic bag bearing the logo of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, a school that Gerhartsreiter attended.
Leading forensic experts will testify that Sohus was hit with a blunt instrument three times, each time with "enough force to crush the skull," Balian said. The prosecutor said clothing also showed evidence of Sohus being cut.
Gerhartsreiter -- a slight, balding man wearing wire-rimmed glasses rather than the heavy black plastic rims he was often photographed in -- sat silent through the litany of his many alleged identities.
The defendant began lying almost immediately after entering the U.S. from his native Germany on Oct. 16, 1978, Balian said, telling an American he'd met in Germany that he was working as a ski instructor.
High school classmate Ed Savio will testify that he "noticed something peculiar, something strange," Balian said.
"The defendant was experimenting with different personalities," using different names and mannerisms to see what worked, he said.
Through the years he told some he met that his parents had died in a crash or that he was the son of an architect, a lawyer, an anesthesiologist or a government scientist.
In San Marino, Gerhartsreiter carried business cards saying he was the 13th baronet of England, while he told friends in Connecticut that he was an executive producer for "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and writer-director Cameron Crowe's brother.
In 1985, Gerhartsreiter lived in the guesthouse of the San Marino residence where Sohus and his wife Linda lived with Sohus' mother Didi. Gerhartsreiter killed Sohus in February of that year and then faked the couple's disappearance, Balian said, leaving Didi believing that her beloved son had abandoned her.
But defense attorney Brad Bailey said that his client's "odd, peculiar and bizarre behavior" was not evidence of murder, but only speculation.
"What this case is going to be all about is 'Whodunit?"' Bailey told the jurors.
The attorney said the defense would not dispute that the bones were Solus' remains or that he was murdered by blunt force trauma. He agreed that Gerhartsreiter had "undisputably, undeniably" used different names, but said he was hardly "the first person in this city to try and reinvent himself."
Repeatedly referring to the case as a "quite old, quite cold, story still untold," Bailey said there would be no eyewitnesses to the murder.
"No one ever saw anyone put John Sohus' bones in those bags," there will be "no one who said they saw John Sohus' body buried in that backyard."
In fact, Bailey said, "It's just as reasonable, if not more so, that John Sohus could have been killed by someone else" and "not just an unnamed stranger, not the proverbial one-armed man ... (but) John Sohus' still missing wife Linda."
Three postcards written in Linda Sohus' hand were later postmarked from Paris -- though Linda never had a passport, according to the prosecution -- and sent to her mother, her boss at a bookstore and a friend with whom the couple was planning a vacation.
The prosecutor said Sohus told a friend before she disappeared that her husband was going to interview back East for a "top secret government job" and that she may have written the postcards believing it was necessary to hide her whereabouts from friends and family.
The prosecution expects to call witnesses to testify that Linda would not have disappeared without a word, leaving all the couple's possessions behind and later even missing her grandmother's funeral. And the stamps on the cards were licked by a man, not Linda, according to Balian.
"The evidence will show you that John and Linda Sohus are dead," Balian said.
But Bailey disagreed, also focusing on the stamps.
"Linda Sohus cannot be ruled out as a source of the DNA on those postcards," he said, "Our client can."
Bailey said Linda's behavior was "just as odd, just as bizarre, just as unexplainable, just as suspicious as (Gerhartsreiter's) was." She had a fake name of her own, Cody, and "her own fantasy world," according to Bailey, and told people different stories about her near-term plans before disappearing.
Bailey also made much of Linda's size compared with his client. She was 6 feet tall and weighed about 200 pounds, he said, while Gerhartsreiter was 5 foot 6 inches and about 140 pounds.
He suggested that she may have had motive to "end her marriage and use her size and her heft to strike those deadly blows and murder her husband and then 'poof,' simply disappear," the defense attorney said, later adding that the plastic bags with university logos could have been used to intentionally frame his client.
After the couple went missing and police investigators went to the San Marino house to ask questions, Gerhartsreiter himself disappeared, using the names Christopher Chichester and Christopher Crowe, among others, and heading to Greenwich, Connecticut.
He got a series of jobs as a bond and securities trader, ultimately ending up making more than $100,000 in salary while working for Kidder, Peabody & Co. He conned a woman into going into hiding with him when police tried to find him at the securities firm, convincing her that his parents had been kidnapped.
Later, as Clark Rockefeller, Gerhartsreiter married Sandra Boss, a Harvard graduate and the two had a child. The defendant never worked again, held a bank account or signed any legal documents, and never told his wife his true identity, Balian said.
Even after Sohus' remains were recovered -- the result of a San Marino Police Department detective reopening a cold case -- and Gerhartsreiter was arrested, he was "still attempting to convince the world" he was someone else, Balian said.
The prosecutor played back a televised interview with NBC in which Gerhartsreiter, already the subject of national speculation, identified himself as Clark Rockefeller and told viewers "I'm quite sure I grew up in New York City" and denied killing Sohus, saying "I'm a Quaker, I believe in non- violence. I can certainly say that I've never hurt anyone."
The defense referenced the interview as well.
"This man that they say was hiding for years after this murder ... went on national television," which prompted those who had known Gerhartsreiter to come forward, while Linda "erased all traces of her past," the defense attorney said. He also pointed to fingerprinting required for the defendant's job as a bond trader as evidence that "will show that he's not covering his tracks."
Gerhartsreiter faces up to 26 years to life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder.
"The exact same evidence they say proves he's guilty, in our opinion, shows he's innocent," Bailey said.
The trial will resume, with witness testimony, at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.