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‘Rockefeller’ insists he’s no killer

Lawyers say he’ll fight Calif. charge

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By Shelley Murphy and Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / March 17, 2011

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LOS ANGELES — He duped people from coast to coast using various aliases, passed himself off as wealthy socialite Clark Rockefeller, and is in a Massachusetts prison for kidnapping his daughter off a Boston street. But he absolutely insists he is no murderer.

A day after he was charged with the 1985 slaying of his former landlord’s son in California, Christian K. Gerhartsreiter, who calls himself Rockefeller, professed his innocence and vowed to fight the charge, his lawyers said yesterday.

“He’s anxious to get this resolved and to clear his name,’’ said Boston attorney Jeffrey Denner, who along with attorney Brad Bailey, met with their 50-year-old client for two hours yesterday morning at the North Central Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in Gardner, Mass.

“He has consistently proclaimed his innocence,’’ Bailey said. “We are going to fight this every step of the way. This is not a strong case. This is an old case.’’

Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles district attorney’s office, said prosecutors are confident that they have enough evidence to convince a jury to convict Gerhartsreiter of the decades-old murder of 27-year-old John Sohus, who disappeared from a San Marino home owned by his mother while Gerhartsreiter was renting a guesthouse on the property.

“We wouldn’t have charged him if we didn’t believe a jury would find beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty,’’ Robison said. “We believe that the totality of evidence is overwhelm ing in pointing to his guilt.’’

Law enforcement officials said newer technology helped them positively identify the remains of Sohus several months ago, decades after they had been discovered.

“That was an important turn of events,’’ Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, said yesterday. “I’m not going to get into the evidence other than to say that, after 26 years, the sheriff’s office and the district attorney’s office are now convinced they have the right man.’’

Two law enforcement officials briefed on the investigation confirmed yesterday that investigators were able to identify Sohus by matching DNA from the bones to that of a relative of Sohus who was recently tracked down. Efforts to confirm the identity of the victim earlier were hindered because Sohus was adopted. California authorities said Sohus died of blunt trauma.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles district attorney’s office charged Gerhartsreiter with the murder of Sohus, who along with his wife Linda, vanished from their San Marino home in February 1985. Gerhartsreiter, who had been using the alias Christopher Chichester while renting the guesthouse, vanished shortly afterward, according to authorities.

The investigation into what happened to Linda Sohus is ongoing and investigators have yet to locate her or her remains, Whitmore said.

In a declaration filed in Alhambra Superior Court along with the complaint charging Gerhartsreiter with murder, Timothy Miley, an investigator in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department homicide bureau, wrote that he had reviewed 177 pages of written reports and statements that supported the case.

California authorities said they will ask Massachusetts authorities to extradite Gerhartsreiter to California to face the murder charge and expect it to take a couple of months.

“This man is a master of disguises, but those days are over,’’ said Whitmore, adding that the district attorney and sheriff’s office “is planning to move forward to bring this man to justice, to long overdue justice.’’

Gerhartsreiter is serving a four- to five-year sentence for the 2008 kidnapping of his then 7-year-old daughter, Reigh, from a street in Boston’s Back Bay and is expected to be eligible for release in that case in mid-2012. The case drew international attention because of the many aliases used by Gerhartsreiter, who came to the United States from Germany in 1978 and used various aliases to con his way into tony circles in Boston, New York, New Hampshire, and California.

After his arrest for the kidnapping, California authorities discovered his fingerprints matched those of the man wanted for questioning in the disappearance of the Sohuses.

When the couple initially disappeared, some of their friends received postcards from Europe, purportedly sent by Linda Sohus, raising questions about whether they had been written by someone else.

In 1988, Gerhartsreiter was stopped in Greenwich, Conn., trying to sell John Sohus’s 1985 Nissan pick-up truck, and using yet another alias. But the truck had not been reported stolen and police let him go.

Denner said there was a “perfectly reasonable transaction’’ that resulted in Gerhartsreiter legally having possession of the truck. In 1994, workers digging to install a swimming pool on the property where the Sohuses had lived uncovered human remains wrapped in plastic. Authorities suspected they were the remains of John Sohus, and confirmed it only recently.

Yesterday, Gerhartsreiter’s lawyers said their client had “very limited interactions’’ with the couple and had no animosity toward them. “He has no idea what happened to Linda,’’ Denner said. “He has no idea what happened to John.’’

Gerhartsreiter has been living in a dormitory in the prison’s general population and until recently was working a low-level job in the dining area, his lawyers said.

Denner said his client is eccentric, but not violent.

“I’ve known this man for three years,’’ Denner said. “There’s nothing in his character that would suggest he’d kill anybody, much less John Sohus.’’

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com., Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.