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Impostor charged in ’85 slaying in Calif.

‘Rockefeller’ faces extradition order

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By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / March 16, 2011

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The long saga of the man known as Clark Rockefeller, who went from his birthplace in Bavaria, Germany, to the poshest society circles across the United States before landing in a Massachusetts prison, took another turn yesterday when he was charged with murder in the 1985 slaying of his former landlord in California.

California authorities filed a complaint yesterday in a Los Angeles County courthouse seeking the return of the German national who was born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter to the West Coast so he can face charges of killing 27-year-old John Sohus.

“We’re seeking extradition,’’ said Jane Robison, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. “It has been more than 20 years that the victim’s family has had any justice.’’

Robison declined to describe evidence that led prosecutors to file charges or whether investigators are looking at Gerhartsreiter in the disappearance of John’s wife, Linda.

Gerhartsreiter , 50, is serving a sentence of four to five years in the North Central Correctional Institute at Gardner for the 2008 kidnapping of his daughter, Reigh, from a Back Bay street, a crime that drew international attention because of the many aliases Gerhartsreiter used to charm his way into tony circles in Boston, New York, New Hampshire, and California.

But the case took a sinister turn shortly after the kidnapping when California authorities said Gerhartsreiter was a person of interest in the disappearance of John and Linda Sohus, who let him stay in their guesthouse when he lived in San Marino, Calif., in the 1980s.

The couple disappeared in 1985, but human remains were found in the yard on the property less than 10 years later.

Yesterday, California officials confirmed for the first time that those remains belonged to John Sohus. The cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head, they said in a statement.

“We knew in our hearts that it was my brother,’’ Ellen Sohus, John’s younger sister, said yesterday in a telephone interview from her Arizona home.

She said that when she received the call from investigators about the charges she felt “huge relief.’’

“We feel like that this has been a very, very long ordeal over the last 25 years, and it gives us hope that we will have closure, finally,’’ Ellen Sohus said. “I’m just a bit overwhelmed right now.’’

Gerhartsreiter’s lawyer, Jeffrey Denner, who represented him during his 2009 kidnapping trial, said his client is innocent of murder.

“I have no doubt that Mr. Rockefeller [Gerhartsreiter] . . . isn’t even remotely involved in this very, very violent crime,’’ he said. “I am surprised. This is a 26-year-old murder, and they didn’t have enough to indict him then. I’m very curious to see what has changed.’’

Denner said he understands that “new forensic evidence’’ has been found. “I don’t know what it is yet,’’ he said.

A Suffolk County jury convicted Gerhartsreiter in June 2009 of parental kidnapping and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. He was acquitted of two lesser charges, assault and battery and providing a false name to police.

Jake Wark, spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, said prosecutors heard of the charges late yesterday.

“We’re ready to assist California authorities in whatever way possible,’’ he said.

Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Habib A. Balian filed the felony complaint yesterday morning at Alhambra Superior Court, Robison said. The complaint seeks Gerhartsreiter’s arrest and extradition from Massachusetts. Robison said that extradition could take several weeks, if not months.

Legal specialists said that Gerhartsreiter could be sent to California under an interstate agreement that allows the transfer of convicts between states to be prosecuted on other charges. Gerhartsreiter is entitled to a hearing in Massachusetts Superior court, where he could challenge the extradition.

Gerhartsreiter could argue he is not the man identified on the warrant and force prosecutors to prove he is the person wanted in California, said Elliot M. Weinstein, a criminal defense attorney in Boston. “Identity really becomes the critical issue, were Rockefeller [Gerhartsreiter] to challenge the request from California.’’

David Meier, a criminal defense lawyer and former Suffolk prosecutor, said it could take several months for Gerhartsreiter to be extradited if he challenges the motion.

“Presumably the government could use a variety of means to prove identity, whether it be fingerprints or perhaps more elaborate means, whether it be DNA or otherwise,’’ Meier said.

Until the 2008 kidnapping, Gerhartsreiter was a fixture in Boston society. Married to a high-level executive at McKinsey & Co., Gerhartsreiter lived in a Beacon Hill brownstone and let friends believe he was a member of the wealthy Rockefeller family, but was evasive when pressed about his ties to the family.

He kidnapped his daughter soon after his wife, Sandra Boss, filed for divorce and obtained custody of the child.

Friends initially expressed shock when they learned that he absconded with Reigh after shoving a social worker assigned to supervise the visit and taking off in a waiting sport utility vehicle.

“Had you told me that he was accused of murder before the kidnapping incident, I would have been shocked,’’ said Darryl Hopkins, the livery driver who became Gerhartsreiter’s unwitting getaway driver. But now, he said, “I’m not surprised at all.’’

Shelley Murphy and John M. Guilfoil of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.