LOS ANGELES (AP) — A new chapter in the strange saga of a man who claimed to be a member of the storied Rockefeller family has opened with the filing of a murder charge in the disappearance of a Southern California man more than 25 years ago.
Los Angeles prosecutors filed the charge Tuesday against Christian Gerhartsreiter, a 49-year-old German national who came to the United States as a teenager and then assumed many identities. One of them had been as Clark Rockefeller, a supposed heir to the Rockefeller oil fortune.
He became notorious after his arrest several years ago in Baltimore on a charge of kidnapping his daughter. By then, he had spun different and elaborate tales about his past, telling friends and acquaintances that he was a physicist, an art collector, a ship captain and a financial adviser who renegotiated debt for small countries.
Police had long considered him a person of interest in the killing of 27-year-old John Sohus in 1985 when Gerhartsreiter was living at the home of Sohus’ mother in San Marino, a wealthy Los Angeles suburb, the Los Angeles district attorney’s office said.
Sohus’ body was unearthed from the backyard of the house in 1994. An investigation determined he was killed by blunt force trauma to the head. Sohus’ wife, Linda, remained missing.
Gerharsreiter’s attorney in Boston, Jeffrey Denner, said he was surprised by the murder charge.
“Based on all the information that I have, I believe in his innocence,” Denner said. “I’m very interested in seeing what new evidence that the government has come up with that prompted them to the point of actually charging him.”
He said he planned to meet with his client Wednesday. “I need to sit down and speak with him at great length, which we will attempt to do tomorrow, and we will deal with the California authorities,” Denner said.
Gerhartsreiter used several aliases, including Christopher Chichester, during his time in San Marino. He vanished shortly after Sohus disappeared, prosecutors said.
He was arrested, tried and convicted in 2009 for the kidnapping of his 7-year-old daughter and is serving five years in a Massachusetts prison. No charges had been filed in the Sohus case until Tuesday.
Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles district attorney, said it could take as long as two months to arrange his extradition.
Prosecutors in his 2009 trial said Gerhartsreiter used aliases to move in wealthy circles in Boston, New York and Los Angeles. His strange story has become the subject of a TV movie.
His lawyer argued at trial that Rockefeller “snapped” after losing custody of his daughter to his wife of 12 years in a divorce.
Robison said Gerhartsreiter was linked to the disposal of a pickup truck owned by the Sohus couple, but she wouldn’t say whether new evidence had led prosecutors to charge him with murder.
“They looked at the totality of the evidence, and they believe it is enough to file on,” she said.
Gerhartsreiter faces 26 years to life in prison if convicted on the murder charge in California.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)