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‘Rockefeller’ Impostor on Trial for Murder in L.A.

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, center, who went by the name Clark Rockefeller when he lived in Cornish, arrives for opening statements in his trial in Los Angeles yesterday. (Associated Press - Nick Ut)

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, center, who went by the name Clark Rockefeller when he lived in Cornish, arrives for opening statements in his trial in Los Angeles yesterday. (Associated Press - Nick Ut)

Los Angeles — A prosecutor told jurors yesterday he will prove a cold-case murder allegation against a German immigrant — and onetime Cornish resident — who spent years moving through U.S. society under a series of aliases, most notoriously posing as a member of the fabled Rockefeller family.

The prosecution’s outline, however, offered no suggestion of a motive for the killing and focused instead on the many identities and fabulous assertions of a man with a gift for deceit.

Christian Karl, known for 20 years as Clark Rockefeller, sat quietly listening yesterday to Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian’s opening statement, which wove a complicated web of circumstantial evidence. By the early 1990s, he was going by “Clark Rockefeller,” and lived in Cornish under that name from 2000 to 2007 with his then-wife, Sandra Boss.

Balian told of how Gerhartsreiter came to the United States, began inventing new identities and charmed his way into the lives of people from coast to coast.

At issue is the fate of a couple who befriended him in 1985 and vanished shortly afterward. The young husband’s bones were eventually unearthed from his backyard decades later, but his wife has never been found.

The defense was planning to outline its contention that there was no motive for the defendant to kill anyone nor is there sufficient proof to convict him.

Gerhartsreiter has pleaded not guilty to the killing of John Sohus, 27, who disappeared with his wife, Linda. At the time, Gerhartsreiter — using an alias — was a guest cottage tenant at the home of Sohus’ mother, where the couple lived.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the evidence will show that John and Linda Sohus are dead,” Balian said.

The most mysterious evidence is a series of postcards from Linda Sohus sent to friends and family from Paris after she disappeared. The handwriting was analyzed as hers, but the stamps — which were subject to DNA analysis — were licked by a man who wasn’t Gerhartsreiter, the prosecutor said.

Earlier this year, Balian said police found a storage locker rented by Gerhartsreiter in Baltimore. Inside they found postcards from international cities.

A possible explanation, said Balian, is that “the defendant has someone in Europe who mails postcards for him.”

The prosecution’s case is circumstantial, based on a bag of bones found buried at the property and the fuzzy memories of residents of San Marino, a wealthy Los Angeles suburb. The residents knew the defendant as Chris Chichester.

When Chichester suddenly vanished from San Marino following the departure of the Sohuses, residents didn’t connect him with the couple’s disappearance.

For Gerhartsreiter, it was the start of an odyssey across America, using the names Christopher Crowe, Chip Smith and Clark Rockefeller, a pretender to the fabled oil fortune. He lived in Cornish under the Rockefeller name from 2000 to 2007 with his then-wife, Sandra Boss.

Yesterday a gaunt, bespectacled Gerhartsreiter listened quietly as Balian connected the dots of the defendant’s later life.

Balian depicted him as a fabulist, a liar who made up extravagant stories about being a famous film director, the heir to a South African fortune and a descendant of British royalty. The defendant passed around business cards announcing himself as the 13th Baronet of England and once used the name Mountbatten, he said.

When police began asking questions about him, linking him to a truck owned by the Sohuses, he abandoned his $100,000 a year job as a Wall Street bond trader and went into hiding.

He was close to the end of a prison term for the kidnapping of his young daughter in a Boston custody dispute when the murder charge interrupted his chance to regain his freedom.