Police officer says neighbor told of ‘Rockefeller’ digging in yard where body was later found
LOS ANGELES — A former San Marino, Calif., police officer testified today in the murder trial of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter that a neighbor reported seeing Gerhartsreiter digging in the yard where the remains of John Sohus would be found years later.
Joe Lucero testified in Los Angeles Superior Court, where Gerhartsreiter, the con man who called himself Clark Rockefeller in Boston, is on trial for killing Sohus.
Lucero testified that he responded in May 1994 to the San Marino home that was once owned by the Sohus family, after a crew digging a pool foundation came across human bones.
Lucero was quite familiar with the tight-knit, upscale community, having been active in the neighborhood watch program, and meeting about once a week with residents.
He testified that when he arrived at the house where the remains were found, he noticed what appeared to be a plastic or fiberglass drum-type container protruding from the dig site. He stayed for several hours before turning the scene over to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
During his time at the house, Lucero said, some residents came to the scene to tell police “they had seen things in the past.”
One neighbor, Lucero said, had once observed “Chichester” digging in the backyard. Authorities say Gerhartsreiter was using the name Christopher Chichester at the time.
Also today, Dana Glad Farrar testified that she met the defendant in 1984 at the University of Southern California, when she was a student there. She said Gerhartsreiter introduced himself as Christopher Chichester, “the 13th baronet,” a wealthy film producer from South Africa.
“There were a lot of inconsistencies. He had a really old car,” Farrar said. Gerhartsreiter seemed to always be hungry and would show up at her house looking for meals. “He never picked up a check. He bought me a doughnut after we saw ‘Double Indemnity.’”
Her testimony sometimes drew laughs from onlookers in the courtroom. When defense attorney Brad Bailey suggested that Chichester seemed well-connected at the USC film school, enough so to get her and her friends into a party with producer George Lucas, she responded, “Yeah, but we had to jump through the bushes.”
Farrar said Chichester invited her to a gathering at his residence in the summer of 1985 to play Trivial Pursuit, a board game, in the back yard.
When she arrived, she noticed several people sitting at a table playing the game by twilight and sipping on iced tea. She also noticed a large mound of displaced dirt, approximately 2 to 3 feet wide and five to eight feet long.
“‘What’s going on with your yard, Chris? It’s all dug up,’” she said she asked Chichester. “He said he had been having plumbing problems,” she testified.
Earlier, Jose Perez Jr. testified. He found Sohus’s remains while digging out the yard at 1920 Loring Road on May 5, 1994.
Perez, who worked for his father’s San Diego, Calif.-based business, California Excavations, which specializes in digging swimming pools, was operating a Bobcat excavator.
“We hit a pocket of what we thought was trash. My father started pulling it out. He dragged it to the side and started poking around in it,” Perez said.
The company was selling the displaced soil to a local nursery and had to separate out any debris, he said.
Perez said he hit a fiberglass box in the hard, rocky, clay-like soil. His father pulled bags out of the box and started poking through it with a piece of rebar, pulling out a skull.
“Bones!” the father exclaimed, bringing all excavation to a halt.
Perez, his brother, his father, and another laborer gathered around the bags.
“We called the police,” Perez said. Within minutes, the work site was transformed into a crime scene.
Perez estimated it would have taken him six or seven hours “with breaks” to dig a hole the size of the one the remains were buried in. He said he would have needed not only a shovel, but a pickax because the soil was so hard.
As he did on the first day of the trial Monday, Gerhartsreiter, 52, focused on the exhibit photos as they were flashed on a large projection screen and jotted down notes on a legal pad.
The prosecution and defense gave their opening statements Monday. Gerhartsreiter in 1985 was living at a guest house owned by Didi Sohus, John Sohus’s mother. John and Linda Sohus, a young couple, were living in the main house. Linda Sohus has been missing since 1985 and authorities presume she is also dead.
Gerhartsreiter made headlines in 2008 when he was prosecuted for abducting his 7-year-old daughter from a Boston street and his mysterious past was revealed, including the fact that he was not “Clark Rockefeller” as he had claimed, that he was actually a native of Germany, and that he had used about a half-dozen aliases and lived in several different parts of the United States.
His attorney, Bailey, claimed Monday that Rockefeller might be “odd” but he was not a murderer. Bailey also suggested that Linda Sohus might have killed her husband.
Martin Finucane and John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.