What’s in a name? Well a lot as you will discover.
In April 2013, in a Los Angeles Superior Court, Christian ‘Karl’ Gerhartsreiter was convicted of the 1st-degree-murder of his landlord’s son dating back to 1985. The jury of six men and six women decided that the circumstantial evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt that this man who had passed himself as a successful film producer, a Baronet and a member of the Rockefeller family, among other fabrications, had killed John Sohus, 27, and buried his body in the backyard of the Sohus’ family home.
He was now able to add the title of convicted murderer to the long series of titles and names he had used, or should I say borrowed, throughout the years.
We could say it all started in 1978, when a young couple from California travelling in a remote part of Germany decided to pick up a 17-year-old hitchhiker by the name of Christian Gerhartsreiter. After socializing with him and spending the night at his parents’ house, they realized that this young German had a real fascination with the United States. He was well- versed in American music, movies and culture and his dream was to move to the US. They became his ticket to ride and with their help, he landed in, of all places, Berlin, Connecticut where he attended high school prior to moving on to the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
Christian managed to get a green card by marrying a young lady with nothing to gain but a new last name while he would gain the privilege of staying in the country. It was a sign of things to come.
After completing his studies, he moved to Los Angeles where his plans included becoming a movie producer. After staying in South Pasadena, he ended up in San Marino, a wealthy enclave where he hoped to meet influential people. He wormed his way into the guest house of an older lady named Ruth ‘Didi’ Sohus who had a weakness for the bottle, a rather pathetic life and a total lack of interest in gardening. He could come and go as he pleased without his new acquaintances finding out he was living in the back house instead of the main residence. It was the perfect front.
Christian was two years into this rental arrangement when Didi’s son John got married and decided to move into his mother’s house with his new bride Linda. It was a ménage à trois made out of convenience and the young couple was staying there mostly to regroup and work on their future plans. But Didi the drunkard and Linda the unicorn painter were not getting along and John the Dungeons and Dragons nut was stuck in the middle.
Christian was quietly living in the back and according to the Sohuses’ friends, did not socialize with them. In fact, they hardly had any contact. Not long afterwards, the couple vanished. A missing persons report was filed and the police came out to investigate. According to Didi and a few others, Linda had told them they were going on a secret mission; John was already gone and she would soon follow.
Their friends eventually received postcards from Europe signed by John and Linda. That was enough for the police to back off. When an officer had knocked on the door of the guest house to talk to the occupant, Christian, who was now Christopher Mountbatten Chichester, had opened the door stark naked and that was enough to rebuff the policeman. Christopher was not questioned and that was the extent of the investigation.
That was in 1985, and in their defense, the cops and the media were busy chasing the infamous Night Stalker and could not allocate resources to a case that appeared to be more about two people wanting to travel and explore the world than about foul play.
Two weeks later, Christopher Chichester moved out with his suitcase and his fancy business cards that displayed a crest and his title of thirteenth Baronet as well as a motto that said ‘Firm en foi.’ It is hard to believe that the educated upper crust of San Marino bought the story of this German national posing as British royalty, but they did. He even told them that he was the nephew of the renowned world explorer Francis Chichester, captain of the Gypsy Moth who had navigated the globe.
Not unlike the play Six Degrees of Separation, which was based on the true story of an imposter who pretended to be Sidney Poitier’s son in order to infiltrate some upper crust circles, Christian knew the value of a name. No one in San Marino would have given him the time of day if his name was German or common so he played name dropping and watched them a-coming.
Three years later, a pickup truck that used to belong to the Sohuses turned up in Greenwich, Connecticut during a transfer of ownership. It raised flags all the way to San Marino and the authorities wanted to know who had the vehicle and why. They traced it to a Christopher Crowe, formerly known as Christopher Chichester and they tried to contact him for questioning.
But this Christopher was having none of it. He had now introduced himself to the community as movie director Cameron Crowe’s brother and as a movie producer himself. He even had a poster of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that identified him as the producer. It was much better than the old business card trick.
He went as far as showing some of the shows to his new friends while explaining to them how he had set up certain shots. But this ‘producer’ was not going to talk to the authorities, no siree!
Our name thief had a girlfriend at the time and she helped him evade police; he told her he was chased by bad people who were posing as cops. He even said he was somehow related to the queen of England and that they wanted to kidnap his family. Persuasion was definitely his game because she believed him. She covered it up so well that he proposed marriage in return. And so it went.
He took her on a trip to Maine and while making a reservation at a fancy restaurant, he realized that if he gave the name Rockefeller, the best table was available; otherwise, there was nothing open. What’s in a name? Everything it seems. So he spontaneously gave the name Clark Rockefeller to the maître D’ and it became a keeper. A very bold move, considering that many residents of the area were real Rockefellers.
This new identity was born in 1994. That same year, the new owner of the San Marino home where the Sohuses had lived, dug up the backyard to install a swimming pool and found human bones. They were identified as belonging to John Sohus. His wife’s remains were not found and she had not been heard from since 1985.
The plot thickened and the police once again did not really dig very deep or follow the chain of names all the way to Clark Rockefeller. This time, it was not the Night Stalker but the Nicole Brown Simpson case that was occupying all of their resources. In the meantime, Clark had dropped his loyal and gullible Japanese girlfriend of seven years whom he had proposed marriage to, and had moved on to greener pastures.
He ended up marrying Sandy Boss who was quite a catch. She was rich, a Harvard MBA and the youngest partner in the history of a huge worldwide Management firm called McKinsey. And she also fell hook, line and sinker for his stories. She thought she was marrying a Rockefeller so her vision became blurry. What’s in a name?
The couple, who eventually had a daughter, settled in Manhattan; Sandy working and taking care of business and Clark establishing himself as a Rockefeller. In the past, he had talked himself into a job selling bonds for S.N. Phelps and Company, and after being fired, became head of bond trading at Nikko Securities. Needless to say, he had no expertise in this area but was smart enough to have passed the tests. He also talked himself into a membership at the Yacht Club of Greenwich, Connecticut. As a Rockefeller, he mostly kept busy with his prestigious collection of fake paintings.
In 1998, he met writer Walter Kirn who became a long term friend. Walter was a very bright man who also fell for the Rockefeller honey trap. They met when Clark inquired about adopting a paralyzed Gordon setter from the Humane Society who had dispatched Walter because he had gone to Princeton and had what it takes to deal with such a ‘prestigious’ client. Walter was told by Clark that he would have a chef cooking for the dog and that a famous animal acupuncturist lived in his building. He went all out and it worked perfectly.
On the home front, the Rockefellers were having marital problems and in 2008, the relationship came to a breaking point. This is when the chickens came home to roost. Clark and Sandy’s daughter, who was named Reigh aka Snooks, became the point of contention in the divorce. Clark initially received custody of the child. Unhappy about the decision, Sandy’s father decided to have him investigated by a PI.
They were shocked to find out that Clark Rockefeller did not exist and that there was no trace of him before 1994. He was a fraud and his past was a blank page. It gave them leverage to renegotiate the settlement and the custody arrangements.
His former wife told him that if he would fess up about his identity, she would give him custody. But he refused, asked her for a settlement of $800,000 in gold and declared he would accept supervised visitations instead. She gave him what he wanted but on his second scheduled supervised visit, he kidnapped his daughter.
He had a getaway plan that he executed to perfection and ended up in Baltimore with daughter in tow. This time, the law was on his trail and they did not let up until they found him. His new identity was Chip Smith. He had picked a commoner name to be able to blend in. Nobody would notice a Smith but who could go on the lam with a name like Rockefeller?
The FBI had stepped in because the parental abduction was tied to the Rockefeller name. They soon found him after a realtor who had seen him on television called the tip line. He was handcuffed and taken to the station. The fun began when they fingerprinted him. They realized that he was wanted in connection with a cold case in San Marino.
After discussing his numerous identities with ‘Chip’, they brought up the subject of the murder and that is when he turned silent and asked for a lawyer. He received five years in prison for the kidnapping and did his time mostly at the Los Angeles jail. He was subsequently tried for the murder of John Sohus.
It took a long time to fully investigate the disappearance of the Sohuses and John’s murder because the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Cold Case Unit had about 20,000 homicides that were backlogged and they only had six full-time investigators. But the kidnapping and the name Rockefeller made the media take notice and that is all it took to put the police and the FBI on his scent. What’s in a name?
According to Kirn, even though he was German, Clark had learned English by watching Gilligan’s Island religiously and had modeled his accent on Thurston Howell III. He could also sing all the tunes and enjoyed it immensely. That is one of the elements that had cemented their friendship. Being from the same generation, they also shared many other interests.
Without the tragic and sinister disappearance of the couple, I would have somehow enjoyed this guy’s commitment to reinvention and appreciated the humor behind it; seeing the upper crust deceived because of their deep-rooted snobbery is not at all unpleasant.
When Clark was found out, Walter Kirn is probably the only one who was honest enough to admit that he was fooled by this fake Rockefeller. Most of the others tried to preserve their ego by saying they knew something was off or that he was ‘strange.’ In fact, they had not thought anything was strange or they would have exposed him sooner.
Kirn followed the trial and it was a circumstantial case at best. There was no motive and from all accounts, Christopher hardly had any contact with John or his wife. The police had speculated that Linda might have had an affair with him but it was unlikely that this 6-foot-tall redhead would have been of any use to him. During trial, a lot of solid and somewhat convincing circumstantial evidence came in.
First, he was living in the guest house at the time of the murder and the body of John Sohus was discovered buried behind it. It made him a definite person of interest. The body had been cut in three parts with a saw and a neighbor who happened to be a respected judge, remembered lending ‘Chichester’ his electrical saw at that specific time. The head was found wrapped in a University of Wisconsin book bag where he had been a student and it was from the same era. Pretty incriminating so far but clearly not sufficient. A USC bag was also used to wrap the body and Christopher had been auditing classes there.
At the time of the murder, a neighbor had smelled horrible smoke coming out of the guest house chimney and had approached the tenant about it before getting ready to call the police. The suspect had told the concerned neighbor that he was burning carpet. He had tried to sell it to a different neighbor first but was turned down because there was a blood stain on it.
The fact that the suspect was driving the couple’s truck two years after they disappeared was also a strong incriminating element that came up at trial. How else would it have been in his possession? Even if the prosecution did not provide a motive for this crime, the circumstances were lining up.
Even if John’s wife Linda was still officially missing and could have been the one who murdered her husband before fleeing, it was very unlikely that a jury would buy this story. Linda was a fantasy artist who painted unicorns, centaurs and fairies. A naive woman who worked at a science fiction store called Dangerous Visions, Linda could have easily bought the conspiracy theories of her neighbor because of her own world of fantasy.
So her story of ‘covert mission’ sounded more like it came directly from the mouth of their neighbor than her own. She told friends that the CIA wanted her for her art. It is believed that after he killed John, Christopher told Linda that her husband had gone on a secret mission and she would soon join him. We can only let our imagination run wild on what really happened to poor Linda afterwards.
The U.S. Border and Customs Protection agency was able to confirm that Linda had never left the United States which explained why the Parisian postcards signed by Linda were fakes. The stamps, after forensic examination, revealed that they had been licked by a man and not a woman, and it was not John.
They found a collection of postcards from around the world at the defendant’s address and it appears he had pulled that trick before; a card signed by Christian was sent from England while it was confirmed he was in the US. Still very circumstantial but one more piece of the puzzle.
On the other hand, Lydia Marano, Linda’s former boss, had stated that she had received two reference calls indicating Linda had applied for a job and a credit card after her disappearance. Ruth Sohus’s credit cards were stolen and used at several businesses in New York during that time period. So it almost sounds like Linda could have left with Chichester.
One of the strangest pieces of evidence in this case came from guests ‘Christopher’ had invited to a trivial pursuit party behind the guest house. They had seen disturbed earth right where the body was dug up. At the time, they were told that the digging was due to some plumbing problems. But it was later proven that there were no pipes in that specific area. It is rather disturbing to imagine him playing a trivia game near a burial mound but reality is often stranger than fiction.
The suspect had also inquired to a friend about the best way to dispose of a 50 gallon drum filled with chemicals. His friend mentioned the National forest as the best location. The torso portion of John’s remains was found in a drum but on the property.
The journalists reported that the defendant appeared cold and ‘creepy’ in the courtroom and it might have influenced the jury. It should not have but it is definitely known to happen. He had been renamed the ‘Bavarian Prick’ by many of the people he screwed over and by the public at large.
Christian said he took debate and argument in College and prosecutor Balian checked it out. During the trial, after declaring it was the first time Christian had told the truth, he flashed a University transcript in his face to show he had received a D- in that course. It seemed to amuse many. Pretty irrelevant if you ask me but they were deconstructing him piece by piece and enjoying his humiliation. During most of the trial, Balian was an affable man but he probably brought up the grades to make sure no one was falling for the genius routine or to destabilize ‘Christian’ further because the evidence was not that strong.
Most of the trial witnesses were highly educated and were either trading in Eurobonds, working in high end jobs or being superior court judges. And the jury was very urban so ‘Christian, Christopher, Clark, Chip de la Pudding Pop’ did not fare well. How dare he try to insert himself among the elite?
Christian’s defense was pretty simple: he was a con man, a silly liar, a fake who took advantage of old ladies and naive girls but he was never a violent man and he would never have killed John. He had no motive and did not change his identity to flee. He was totally innocent and changing his identity was part of his lifestyle and not a dark attempt at evading a murder. And the finger was pointed at Linda but with subtlety.
The fact that Christian fired his two high-priced Boston attorneys and ended up representing himself during the sentencing phase, did not help his case either. That was his chance to point directly at Linda and it backfired. And his local co-counsel, who looked like a real Valley girl with long blond hair, high heels and prominent cleavage, had brought a weird and distracting vibe to the whole process.
It would have surprised me greatly if that urban jury would have taken a long time to deliberate. They were going to spit him out and fast. It took them only five hours. And that name dropper wearing a blue blazer and loafers without socks was sent to jail for 27 years.
We might never know the motive for this alleged murder and what happened to Linda. Was it a heat of the moment attack? Did John discover his lies? It would have been simpler to move on as he often had. He had nothing to gain financially but it seems plausible that it happened, even if the evidence was very circumstantial. It was really more about his character. Would he have been found guilty if he was not a con man?
According to Walter Kirn, if you want to understand society’s class system, you have to look at how their murders are investigated. And very wisely, Kirn calls this one ‘the Eleanor Rigby case’: all the lonely people. The victims did not have many friends, the old lady did not really have friends and Christian Gerhartsreiter never had a real friend either. Only people he was trying to steal from or deceive in order to belong to the right circle.
This is a real testimony to insecurity, loneliness and what happens to people who have no one. This case became high profile only because Christian was pretending to be someone who happened to be a Rockefeller. It would not have received any attention otherwise. Nobody would have cared about the kidnapping of the little girl if it was not attached to this prestigious name.
So what’s in a name? Your status, your reputation, your ancestry, the respect and opportunities you are entitled to, and at times, oblivion. But for the lonely Bavarian kid dreaming of being someone in America and not realizing the importance of building his own accomplishments, a coveted name brought him down in the end.
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?