The preliminary murder trial began today in a Los Angeles County courtroom for a man who once claimed he was Clark Rockefeller, an heir to the famous American aristocracy.
Now, 50-year-old Christian Gerhartsreiter is a convicted kidnapper accused in a decades-old cold case facing an additional 25 years to life in prison, CNN said.
The preliminary hearing is expected to last six days. The prosecution may call 30 to 40 witnesses in a case built on 9,000 pages of investigation and 83 CDs, DVDs videotapes, CNN reported.
Among the first called to testify was Jose Perez, whose father discovered human remains while digging a swimming pool in 1994. Perez was driving a bulldozer when he uncovered something in the dirt, and his father made the grisly discovery inside a bag.
"He looked inside it, and he mouthed to me that there were bones in it," Perez told the court, according to the Los Angeles Times. "He thought it was a dog, but it didn't look like a dog. I told him to drop it, and he did. It was a human skull."
The remains belonged to John Sohus, a computer engineer who disappeared in 1985. Investigators had trouble connecting the remains to the 27-year-old Sohus through DNA because he was adopted. It was a DNA sample from Lori Moltz, Sohus’s half-sister, that broke the case against a man with a sordid past.
Gerhartsreiter arrived in the United States from Germany in the 1970s. Court heard he assumed many aliases, including Christopher Chichester, Clark Rockefeller, Christopher Crowe, C. Crowe Mountbatten and Charles (Chip) Smith. He married a woman on the east coast for a green card before moving to San Marino, California, in the 1980s, police said.
The prosecution says a Chris Chichester rented guest quarters from Ruth Sohus, whose son John and his wife, Linda, lived with her.
Ruth Sohus reported the couple missing after they didn’t return from a trip to Europe. Police said they found blood evidence in the guest quarters, but Chichester disappeared before police could question him. One neighbour said Chichester borrowed a chainsaw around that time, and another reported seeing a freshly dug up patch of ground on the property.
Gerhartsreiter has claimed at various times to be a film student, art dealer, ship’s captain, physicist, financial adviser and English royalty, police said. Under the guise of a Rockefeller, he married and had a daughter with a wealthy woman in Boston. She later divorced him after hiring a private investigator to look into his past.
The convoluted details captured the attention of Hollywood, which cast Eric McCormack to star in a TV movie based on Gerhartsreiter’s life called, “Who is Clark Rockefeller?”
He was eventually convicted for kidnapping his 7-year-old daughter in 2008, Associated Press said. During that trial, defence lawyers said he is legally insane and a delusional disorder led Gerhartsreiter to snatch the girl during a supervised visit.
The preliminary hearing continues.
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