Rockefeller impostor faces sentence for murder

LOS ANGELES (AP) — In his invented lives, Christian Gerhartsreiter masqueraded as many significant people: an heir to the fabled Rockefeller fortune, a movie producer and a wizard of Wall Street among them.

The mask is gone now and the slight man who is facing the rest of his life in prison has two new identities: convicted murderer and attorney for himself.

He is due to be sentenced Thursday but has made it evident he will not go gently.

After firing his lawyers, Gerhartsreiter failed to file required paperwork asking for a new trial. He said in a phone interview with the Pasadena Star-News that he will seek to submit a motion of many thousands of words and wants to read it in open court.

It was uncertain if sentencing would proceed. Superior Court Judge George Lomeli said earlier he wants to go forward. But he said he would consider any new evidence.

“This is not a traditional motion,” Gerhartsreiter told the newspaper. “I have reviewed all of the evidence and it irrefutably shows I had nothing to do with this.”

Gerhartsreiter, 52, has insisted from the outset he is innocent of murder.

The German immigrant who fooled friends, lovers and a wife during an extraordinary three-decade charade took over his own representation after a jury convicted him of first-degree murder in the death of a man whose bones were found buried at a suburban San Marino home.

It was a heavily circumstantial case built 28 years after John Sohus vanished. There was no slam-dunk DNA solution to a murder mystery. But discovery of the bones buried for two decades in a backyard where the defendant had lived added a crucial piece to the puzzle of the man who later called himself Clark Rockefeller.

Sohus, a 27-year-old computer programmer who was the son of the defendant’s landlady, vanished with his wife, Linda, in 1985. No trace of her has been found. Gerhartsreiter hinted at a recent hearing that he might have information about her whereabouts.

At Gerhartsreiter’s trial, witnesses now old and frail testified about the stranger who came into their elegant town, befriending church members who invited him into their homes.

Their testimony exhumed the ghosts of the happy young newlyweds, who inexplicably vanished shortly before the man then known as Chris Chichester also disappeared.

It turned out he was off on a decades-long odyssey across the country. Variously known as Chris Crowe, Chip Smith and Clark Rockefeller, he wormed his way into high society and important jobs, married a wealthy woman and controlled her funds. But his identity unraveled when he kidnapped their daughter during a custody dispute.

The resulting publicity led California authorities to revisit the Sohus disappearance and the bones found in San Marino in 1994.

He was near the end of his sentence in Boston for kidnapping his young daughter, when he was charged with murder.

The California case was circumstantial, built from memories and bits and pieces of evidence, primarily the bones found with a bag bearing the logo of a university once attended by the defendant.

With the passage of time and lack of a motive, the prosecutor had a difficult challenge.

“Sometimes you’re afraid that this guy’s conned so many people for so many years that this will be the one last time he pulls off his last con,” Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian said after the verdict. “But that didn’t happen.”

Defense attorney Jeffrey Denner said that Gerhartsreiter probably was his own worst enemy.

“The way he went through life deceiving people did not make him very likable to the jury,” Denner said. “But that doesn’t make him a killer.”

Jurors took a scant six hours to convict him.

The prosecutor did not seek the death penalty, so Gerhartsreiter faces a maximum sentence of 27 years to life in prison.

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