Gerhartsreiter trial will test insanity defense article page player in wide format.
By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / May 26, 2009
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The case is called Commonwealth v. Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, but like many things about the high-profile trial that starts this week in Boston, even that is in dispute.

Prosecutors say the defendant is a Bavarian-born con man named Gerhartsreiter who has used a slew of aliases over the past 30 years and abducted his young daughter on a Back Bay street last July in a crime that made international news.

His lawyers say the defendant is a loving father who should be referred to in court as Clark Rockefeller, the name he used for years and one that led people to think he was a scion of the famous dynasty. Rockefeller, his lawyers say, was legally insane when he abducted his daughter. A forensic psychologist hired by the defense says the man she calls Rockefeller is mentally ill and "a diagnosis unto himself."

Whatever one calls the 48-year-old defendant, few cases in the annals of Boston area crime are more bizarre than the one scheduled to go to trial today on the ninth floor of Suffolk Superior Court. And not just because the man who calls himself Rockefeller may be, according to state prosecutors, the first defendant in Massachusetts to claim insanity as a defense against a charge of custodial kidnapping.

Gerhartsreiter has also been labeled a "person of interest" in the 1985 disappearance and presumed killings of a California couple, John and Linda Sohus, in San Marino, an affluent Los Angeles suburb. Although it is unlikely that a Los Angeles County grand jury investigation in that case will come up at the Boston trial, the possibility of murder charges in California hangs over the defendant like a sword of Damocles.

And then there is the defendant himself. With his thinning hair and the thick black eyeglasses and sheepish smile he wore in court hearings and jailhouse interviews following his arrest, he looked more like Woody Allen than a defendant in one of the most highly publicized criminal cases in the nation.

"It's got everything that a hit TV series would have," said Darryl Hopkins, the 55-year-old livery driver who acted as an unwitting getaway driver for Gerhartsreiter, of the case. "It's got wealth, it's got fame, it's got the Rockefeller name." Hopkins is expected to testify for the state at the trial.

Among the other expected prosecution witnesses are Gerhartsreiter's ex-wife Sandra L. Boss, a high-flying executive at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and mother of Reigh Storrow Mills Boss, the 7-year-old who was abducted; the defendant's previous ex-wife, Amy Jersild Duhnke, the Wisconsin woman who prosecutors say he wed in Madison in 1981 to obtain a green card when he was known as Gerhartsreiter; and Howard Yaffe, the social worker whom the defendant allegedly shoved when Reigh was abducted during a visit Yaffe was supervising.

Boss, a Harvard Business School graduate whom Gerhartsreiter allegedly duped into believing he was a Rockefeller, is expected to testify about their courtship, wedding on Nantucket, and marriage that ended in a bitter divorce in December 2007.

The defendant does not plan to take the stand.

Because defense lawyer Jeffrey A. Denner is expected to concede that his client took Reigh without permission, the trial will ultimately become a duel over his sanity and whether he should be held responsible.

Jurors are expected to hear several expert opinions and those of people who knew and encountered Gerhartsreiter.

Catherine T.J. Howe, a forensic psychologist from Salem hired by the defense, said in a March affidavit that she had examined the man she called Clark Rockefeller three times and concluded his "thinking and perceptions are disordered."

"The evaluation is still preliminary, but there are indications of grandiose delusions, illogical thinking, and misperceptions of reality," she wrote. She added, "The ongoing examination appears to reveal a man who is a diagnosis unto himself."

Dr. Keith Ablow, a Newburyport forensic psychiatrist who has written several thrillers about a forensic psychiatrist and is a commentator for Fox News, is also scheduled to testify for the defense. He has not made his diagnosis public.

Assistant Suffolk District Attorney David A. Deakin plans to call James A. Chu, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard who is on the staff of McLean Hospital. He, too, has not publicly revealed his conclusions.

The insanity defense is seldom successful and is typically a defense of last resort, said John H. LaChance, a Framingham lawyer who used it unsuccessfully in 2006 when defending inmate Joseph Druce against charges that he strangled the defrocked priest John Geoghan in prison.

Jurors are inherently skeptical of psychiatric testimony, LaChance said, and they often brush aside the views of defense and prosecution experts in favor of the assessments of ordinary people who encountered the defendant.

"I think that in the Clark Rockefeller case, the real problem is going to be whether the jury perceives that he's strange enough or lacks substantial capacity as a result of a major mental illness," said LaChance, who is not involved in the case. "The way that prosecutors try to break down an insanity defense is to show that the event that took place was carefully planned and executed and that the person had to know what was going on and had to know it was wrong."

According to authorities, Gerhartsreiter is the German-born son of a modest Bavarian couple and he came to the United States as a student in 1978. Since then, they say, he has lived under a dozen aliases and claimed aristocratic pedigrees to ingratiate himself into tony circles from Los Angeles to Beacon Hill.

On the afternoon of Sunday, July 27, last year, the man who called himself Clark Rockefeller was walking along Marlborough Street with his daughter, nicknamed "Snooks," and Yaffe, a clinical social worker assigned to supervise the visit. Boss and Reigh had moved to London, and this was the first visit Gerhartsreiter had had with his daughter since the divorce.

Suddenly, authorities say, Gerhartsreiter shoved Yaffe aside and hustled his daughter into a waiting Chevrolet SUV driven by Hopkins. Gerhartsreiter had previously told the livery driver he wanted to avoid a clingy male friend. Yaffe grabbed the rear passenger door, but Gerhartsreiter had Hopkins drive off, and the social worker fell to the ground, suffering minor injuries.

Gerhartsreiter then had a friend drive him and his daughter to New York, authorities say. The friend was unaware that Reigh had allegedly been abducted.

The kidnapping triggered an international manhunt and prompted Boss to make an emotional plea to her former husband for the girl's return.

On Aug. 2, FBI agents arrested Gerhartsreiter in Baltimore, where he had purchased a house with $432,000 in cashier's checks and had identified himself as Charles "Chip" Smith, a ship's captain, authorities said. Reigh was safely reunited with Boss.

Gerhartsreiter was charged with custodial kidnapping, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (the SUV), assault and battery, and giving a false name to a police officer. The most serious charge, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.

Jury selection is expected to start today, and the trial is expected to run two or three weeks. Denner may renew an unsuccessful motion to move it elsewhere in Massachusetts because, he contends, extensive pretrial publicity in Boston makes it impossible for his client to get a fair trial.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at