LOS ANGELES — Testimony in the murder trial of a notorious Rockefeller impostor opened Tuesday with a witness telling how his excavation for a pool turned creepy when he discovered a human skull and a bag of bones.
“We were all kind of freaked out,” said Jose Perez, a heavy equipment operator who was digging for a pool in suburban San Marino in 1994 when he and his father discovered the human remains. They called police.
It had been a decade since Christian Gerhartsreiter, known to his San Marino neighbors as Chris Chichester, had disappeared.
The 52-year-old German immigrant is now on trial in the killing of John Sohus, the 27-year-old son of his landlady.
Sohus and his wife vanished in 1985, but his remains were identified soon after Perez's discovery. No trace of Linda Sohus has ever been found.
Jurors also heard on Tuesday from a friend who described the defendant as a very strange guy with a big hole covered with dirt in his yard. Gerhartsreiter lived as a tenant on Sohus' mother's property in 1984 and 1985.
Dana Glad Farrar, who knew the defendant when she was a film school student at the University of Southern California, testified that he invited her to a party in his yard to play Trivial Pursuit.
“As soon as I sat down, I noticed there was dirt in the yard that had been dug up,” she recalled.
“I said, `What's going on with your yard, Chris? It's all dug up,” Farrar testified. “He said he had plumbing problems.”
Farrar said Gerhartsreiter told her he was some sort of a film producer and she often saw him lingering at USC. She said he presented her with his card that had a crest and announced him as the 13th baronet of England.
“I didn't know what a baronet was,” she said. “I thought it was kind of phony.”
Farrar said her new friend claimed to be rich
“But there were inconsistencies,” she said. “He had a really old car.”
Also, he often showed up at her home at dinner time, obviously hungry. When they went out, she said, “He never picked up a check. But he once bought me a doughnut when we went to see `Double Indemnity.“'
She said he attached himself to her wealthy aunt who was part of the upper class suburb of San Marino and “liked to take people out to dinner.”
Gerhartsreiter later spent years moving through U.S. high society under a series of aliases, most notoriously posing as a member of the fabled Rockefeller family.
He has pleaded not guilty to killing Sohus. Opening statements in the trial were made on Monday, when Gerhartsreiter's attorney suggested that Linda Sohus was responsible for her husband's death. Neither side has offered a motive for the killing.
In his statement, prosecutor Habib Balian connected the dots of the defendant's later life. He depicted Gerhartsreiter as a liar who made up extravagant stories about being an heir to a South African fortune, a descendant of British royalty and a famous film director.
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.
In 2008, Farrar saw a photograph of Gerhartsreiter in the Los Angeles Times and realized he was the same person she knew as Chichester. She contacted friends at newspapers and has become a well-known witness in the case.
On Tuesday, Gerhartsreiter didn't react when Farrar identified him from across the courtroom.
Asked if she disliked him, she replied, “That's not true. I liked him a lot. But I haven't seen him in a long time.”
Defense attorney Brad Bailey asked if she reacted to seeing his picture by noting he had “beady eyes.”
“That doesn't sound very friendly, does it?” he asked.
“Well, he wasn't the person I knew, was he?” she said.
The day concluded with Boston police detective Joseph Leeman filling in jurors on Gerhartsreiter's immigration history and his use of multiple names after he emigrated from Germany at the age of 17.