A defense attorney told a Los Angeles jury Monday that the missing wife of a man slain a quarter century ago could be the real killer, rather than the Rockefeller impostor now on trial.
Attorney Brad Bailey, disclosing his defense for the first time, made his assertion after a prosecutor said he will prove a cold-case murder allegation against Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German immigrant 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 opening statement offered no suggestion of a motive for the 1985 killing. It focused instead on the many identities and fabulous assertions of a man who posed for decades as Clark Rockefeller.
Bailey responded that every piece of circumstantial evidence outlined by Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian could point to Linda Sohus as the killer of her husband, John.
She vanished at the same time that he did in 1985 but no trace of her has been found. John Sohus' bones were dug up from the backyard of a home where Gerhartsreiter lived as a tenant on Sohus' mother's property.
Bailey said there are no witnesses to the killing or burial of Sohus and prosecutors have little more evidence than the bizarre behavior and multiple identities of Gerhartsreiter to paint him as a murderer.
"It's just as reasonable to conclude that John Sohus was killed by someone else...his still missing wife," said Bailey.
If jurors accept that theory, he said, that provides reasonable doubt of Gerhartsreiter's guilt.
He acknowledged that the defendant was "a strange guy," but he said Linda Sohus also acted strangely and may have had a motive to kill her husband.
The prosecution's outline, however, offered a web of circumstantial evidence.
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 what happened to the Sohus 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.
Gerhartsreiter,52, has pleaded not guilty to the killing of John Sohus, a 27-year-old computer programmer.
Anticipating the defense theory, Balian told jurors: "Ladies and gentlemen, the evidence will show that John and Linda Sohus are dead."
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.
Balian said that police earlier this year 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 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.
Testimony was to begin Tuesday.
A gaunt, bespectacled Gerhartsreiter listened quietly on Monday 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.