A small, bespectacled German immigrant who invented a glamorous life for himself in the United States by posing as an heir to the fabled Rockefeller fortune has been sentenced to 27 years to life in prison for a California cold-case murder.
Representing himself after firing his lawyers, Christian Gerhartsreiter, 52, asserted that he did not commit the mid-1980s murder of John Sohus in the wealthy city of San Marino and asked to read a voluminous motion he had submitted to the court. Superior Court Judge George Lomeli refused.
Gerhartsreiter, who fooled friends, lovers and a wife during an extraordinary three-decade charade, entered the courtroom balancing in his arms a mountain of transcripts from his trial. He submitted a brief sentencing memorandum asking that he be given time served and probation. The judge rejected that.
The hearing on Thursday was marked by an emotional statement from Sohus' sister, who said some questions in the case would never be answered. She said that until his dying day, her father always asked, "Why John?"
Ellen Sohus told the judge: "You cannot give me back my brother. All I ask is that you hold Mr Gerhartsreiter accountable."
Asked if he had any last words for the court, Gerhartsreiter said, "I can only say again I want to assert my innocence. I did not commit the crime for which I was convicted."
Gerhartsreiter took over his own representation after a jury convicted him of first-degree murder over the death of Sohus, whose bones were found buried at the suburban San Marino home where the defendant had lived under the name Chris Chichester.
It was a heavily circumstantial case built 28 years after Sohus vanished. There was no DNA solution to a murder mystery. But discovery of the bones with a bag bearing the logo of a university once attended by the defendant added a crucial piece to the puzzle of the man who later called himself Clark Rockefeller.
Sohus, 27, a computer programmer who was the son of the defendant's landlady, vanished with his wife, Linda, in 1985. No trace of her has been found.
Gerhartsreiter was variously known as Chris Crowe, Chip Smith and as a Rockefeller while worming his way into high society, moving from New York to Connecticut and Boston. He married a wealthy woman and controlled her funds. But his identity unravelled when he kidnapped their daughter during a custody dispute.
The publicity led California authorities to revisit the Sohus disappearance.
He was near the end of his sentence for kidnapping his young daughter when he was charged with murder. Jurors took just six hours to convict him.