By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / January 24, 2012
ALHAMBRA, Calif. – Just before he left San Marino in 1985, Christopher Chichester came by the home of a couple he knew, laid out a small Oriental rug in their driveway, and told them it was for sale, according to testimony in a criminal hearing yesterday.
Bettie Brown eyed it carefully, saw a quarter-sized stain, and promptly refused.
" 'Chris, this has some blood on it,’ ” her husband recalled she said.
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Chichester, whose real name is Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, quickly rolled up the rug and left, Robert Brown testified in an account confirmed by his wife, who took the stand after him.
The couple’s testimony was followed by a witness who said that in 1988 Gerhartsreiter gave him a small, white Nissan pickup truck, which belonged to Linda Sohus. Sohus disappeared in 1985 along with her husband, John.
The three witnesses provided the strongest testimony yet against Gerhartsreiter, who is accused of bludgeoning John Sohus to death and burying his remains in the backyard of the San Marino home where the defendant was a tenant. Linda Sohus was never seen alive again. Police believe she is dead.
Gerhartsreiter went by the name Clark Rockefeller around Boston in later years.
During the first three days of the preliminary hearing, which will determine whether the case of first-degree murder should go to trial, the prosecution struggled with witnesses whose memories had faded. Some who said they knew Gerhartsreiter in the 1980s were unable to identify him in the courtroom.
But yesterday, the Browns seemed confident on the stand in Alhambra Superior Court, recalling details from the past fairly easily. Gerhartsreiter’s Boston lawyers, Jeffrey Denner and Brad Bailey, have said that the prosecution’s case is circumstantial and that their client maintains his innocence.
During cross-examination, Bettie Brown acknowledged that she did not know for certain that the stain was blood.
But Robert Brown, 85, a retired engineer, testified to an odd conversation he had with Gerhartsreiter before he left. The younger man, who said he was a film school student, asked him where he might bury a drum full of chemicals left over from film processing, Brown said.
Brown suggested dumping it high in the San Gabriel Mountains.
When Gerhartsreiter left suddenly in 1985, Brown said he was not surprised.
"He was sort of a phantom anyhow,” he said. "He was just different.”
By 1986, Gerhartsreiter was living in Greenwich, Conn., where he met Christopher Bishop, a film student who testified that Gerhartsreiter introduced himself as Christopher Crowe, a film producer and brother of director Cameron Crowe.
Bishop, now an Episcopal priest, said the defendant gave him the Nissan for free. But when Bishop tried to obtain the car’s title from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, he learned there was a lien on the vehicle.
Gerhartsreiter refused to take the truck back, and Bishop decided to dump it at a railroad station.
Soon after, Greenwich police came by Bishop’s home and asked about Christopher Crowe. The truck, the officer said, was connected to a missing persons case, Bishop testified.
Bishop said he lied to the officer and told him he knew nothing of the truck.
"I didn’t want any involvement in this whole thing so I basically panicked,” Bishop said. "I tried to wash my hands of it. It was a bad move, but that’s what I did.”
Soon after the visit, Bishop said Gerhartsreiter called him. Furious, Bishop cursed at him and told him the police were asking about him.
Gerhartsreiter responded curtly, Bishop testified: " 'Got to go,’ ” he said. " 'Bye.’ ”
The couple had bought the Nissan just before they disappeared in 1985, a friend of Linda Sohus’s testified.
Around February 1985, Linda and John went to the home of her childhood friend, Susan Coffman to show off the truck. They planned to drive to Phoenix later in March for a science fiction convention, testified Coffman. Linda urged her friend to join them.
Later that February, Coffman said Linda called her to tell her that she and John were going to New York for a short trip. Linda told Coffman that John had received a call about a possible government job, and they were also interested in hiring her.
" 'What about our trip in March?’ ” Coffman said she asked.
" 'Oh, we’ll be back in time for that,’ ” Linda replied. " 'It’s only two weeks.’ ”
Susan Mayfield, Linda Sohus’s mother, said her daughter came by her Los Angeles home in February and asked if she could leave the Nissan briefly, while she and her husband were on the East Coast. Mayfield told her it was too inconvenient. She never saw her daughter again.
In April 1985, Coffman said she received a postcard signed by the couple and postmarked in Paris. The message was brief: "Kinda missed New York (oops) – but this can be lived with.”
Years later, when investigators began asking about the case, Coffman said she dug up a greeting card signed by Linda to compare the handwriting. They did not match, she said.
During cross-examination, Coffman acknowledged that she was not a professional handwriting analyst.
But following her testimony, prosecutors called a witness who said that after Gerhartsreiter left San Marino he called her to tell her that he was in Stockholm and on his way to Paris
If you have been accused of a crime and you need a lawyer to represent you please contact Brad Bailey at 781-589-2828