LOS ANGELES (AP) — To his neighbors in an upscale Pasadena suburb, he was the man from nowhere, a newcomer who joined the church, ingratiated himself to elderly residents and called himself Chris Chichester.
They invited the stranger into their homes in San Marino, shared dinners with him and thought of him as a friend.
But he seemed to have no past and, when he suddenly vanished, it left everyone puzzled. The town folks didn’t immediately connect him with the disappearance of two other residents, Linda and John Sohus, who lived in the house where Chichester was a tenant.
That was 1985, the start of a wide-ranging odyssey across America for the man who would also call himself Christopher Crowe, Chip Smith and, most notoriously, Clark Rockefeller, a pretender to the fabled oil fortune.
Now he has another identity, his birth name: Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter (GAYR’-hahrtz-ry-tur), a German immigrant who is charged with murder in one of the most bizarre cold cases to hit the district attorney’s office in years.
Already serving time for the kidnapping of his young daughter in a Boston custody dispute, Gerhartsreiter was close to the end of his sentence and headed for freedom when the murder charge changed that. After a quarter century, authorities believed they had linked him to the disappearance of his old neighbor, John Sohus.
His trial, set for opening statements this week, will write the most important chapter in his colorful story, determining if he walks free or spends his life in prison.
“He is upbeat and he’s looking for closure,” defense attorney Jeffrey Denner. “He’s been in limbo with this case for so long. Of course he’d like it to be resolved in his favor.”
He is charged with murdering Sohus, a 27-year-old computer programmer who was linked to bones unearthed from the backyard of the home where he lived and Gerhartsreiter was a tenant. No trace has been found of Sohus’ wife, Linda.