LOS ANGELES — The only-in-America story of Clark Rockefeller begins on a lonely stretch of tree-lined German autobahn just outside the tiny Bavarian town of Siegsdorf—a midpoint between Munich and Salzburg in the shadow of the Alps—during the summer of 1978.
It nears its end today in the confines of a maximum-security downtown Los Angeles courtroom. There, jury selection will begin in the murder trial of Christian Gerhartsreiter, 52, a German national who once posed as a Rockefeller and moved among the elite of New England high society.
‘‘This is the part of the story we’ve all been waiting to see,’’ said Jan Eldnor, the San Marino barber known as Jann of Sweden. ‘‘The people I know, we all talk about it.’’
Before he was a Rockefeller, Gerhartsreiter was a German exchange student who lived in San Marino and called himself Christopher Chichester, XIII baronet. He found his way to California after stops in Connecticut and Wisconsin. When he arrived in 1982, it was with grand ideas of getting into the film business.
What he got himself into was a murder case and a role in a mystery that has intrigued the wealthy suburb of Los Angeles for several decades. Gerhartsreiter is accused of killing John Sohus, trisecting his body with a chain saw and burying it in the backyard of a house on Lorain Road.
He’s also suspected in the disappearance of Sohus’ wife, Linda, who hasn’t been seen since 1985.
May 5, 1994
For years, Joe Perez and his father dug pools in the backyards of hundreds of Southern California houses, but the job in the 1900 block of Lorain Road in San Marino would be one neither man would ever forget.
At a depth of about 4 feet, Perez—driving a small tractor—encountered what appeared to be a fiberglass box and some tattered plastic bags.
Perez’s dad fished through the bags with a piece of rebar and pulled out what remained of a human skull. Someone called the police. By day’s end, neighbors gathered in the street outside what was now a crime scene recalled Ruth ‘‘Didi’’ Sohus, the home’s former owner, and her strange tenant, Chris Chichester.
They remembered that Didi’s son John and his wife, Linda, disappeared — vanished without a trace actually—in 1985. Chris left town shortly after that and Didi had moved away and died suffering from a broken heart.
Detectives suspected the bones were all that remained of John Sohus. They named Chris Gerhartsreiter, whom they identified as a pretender with multiple aliases, as a person of interest in the death of John and the disappearance of Linda.
Little did anyone think it would be nearly 25 years before Chris turned up. When he did, he was no longer a Gerhartsreiter or even a Chichester — he was a Rockefeller. And, he was a suspect in a parental abduction that gripped the East Coast news media in the summer of 2008.
Court documents from Suffolk County show the kidnapping of Reigh Boss, Gerhartsreiter’s daughter, had been elaborately planned. In the midst of a contentious divorce with Reigh’s mother Sandy Boss, Gerhartsreiter—using the name Rockefeller — lost joint custody of the little girl and was only allowed to see her in a supervised setting.
In 2009, a jury convicted Gerhartsreiter of parental abduction and sentenced him to four-to-five years in state prison. It was about that time prosecutors and detectives in California began to put together the Sohus case.
Postcards and clues
Among the pieces were postcards from Paris sent to friends of Linda Sohus in April 1985, a couple of months after she vanished.
Among them was one addressed to Linda’s good friend Sue Coffman. It read: ‘‘Kinda missed New York (oops) — but this can be lived with—John and Linda’’.
Another showed up at Dangerous Visions, a quirky science fiction bookstore in Sherman Oaks that employed Linda, an aspiring artist.
‘‘Not quite New York, but not bad. See you later, Linda + John.’’
There was also the story cops heard from Didi when Linda’s sister filed a missing persons report and they came looking for her a few days after she vanished.
Didi told then-San Marino police Officer Thomas LeVeque that the couple were OK and had taken off on a secret mission at the behest of a shadowy government agent.
‘‘She said she could get in touch, but would not furnish information,’’ LeVeque, now with the Arcadia Police Department, said. ‘‘She said she had written to them and could contact them and the unknown source could reach them.’’
An examination of the postcards in 2008 by handwriting experts garnered mixed results. While two respected experts said there was no way Linda addressed the postcards, a third said it was likely she had.Continued...