Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian called on witnesses Wednesday who had evaluated skeletal remains firsthand to testify at the preliminary hearing for the Rockefeller impostor charged with a 1985 San Marino murder. Balian is aiming to prove sufficient evidence exists for the case to go to trial.
January 19, 2012
Media from around the globe, including Patch, descended on the Alhambra Courthouse Wednesday for the first day of the preliminary hearing of a man who has been linked to numerous aliases and is charged with the 1985 San Marino murder of his landlady’s son, John Sohus.
Most notably, defendant Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter has claimed to be Clark Rockefeller, part of the famed, well-to-do American family.
In San Marino, Gerhartsreiter was known as Christopher Chichester, a royal descendant who reportedly charmed people in the community and was a regular at city functions.
Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian is attempting to show that sufficient evidence exists for the case to go to trial.
Patch previously reported that over 11,000 pages of discovery exist in the case, in addition to DVDs and VHS tapes, and defense attorney Brad Bailey previously told Patch he expects the case to go to trial.
Bailey and fellow defense attorney Jeffrey Denner requested Wednesday that their client be referred to as “Clark Rockefeller” in the court proceedings since that is how they and their law firm have referred to him, but Judge Jared Moses denied the request, “given that Christian Gerhartsreiter is his name.”
Balian called six people to the stand, including Jose Perez, who was working at California Excavations to dig a residential pool when he and his father came across human remains in a plastic bag in the backyard of 1920 Lorain Road on May 5, 1994.
Perez called police at the time and flagged down Officer Kevlin Wong, who was working with the San Marino Police Department and driving down the street at the time.
Wong was also called to testify Wednesday, and said he observed a plastic trash bag with what appeared to be a skull on top when he arrived at 1920 Lorain Road that day in 1994, and also secured the scene with police tape.
Wednesday afternoon, forensic pathologist Frank Sheridan, who estimated he has performed about 8,000 autopsies over his lifetime, shared his expert opinion that fractures found on the skull discovered in the Lorain Road backyard were “peri-mortem,” meaning they occurred at or shortly before the time of death.
Sheridan observed that the margins of the skull fractures were discolored, which is caused by decomposition fluid getting in the fractures, a characteristic of peri-mortem wounds.
Balian displayed photos before the court of the fractured skull from two different angles—one from the front showing a prominent upside-down Y-shaped fracture and one of the right side of the skull that showed multiple fractures.
The skull fractures, “were very strongly suggestive of an object where at least part of the impact surface is curved,” said Sheridan, who believed a blunt object and “considerable force” caused at least one blow to the front of the head, and at least two to the right side.
When Balian asked Sheridan if he could determine cause of death of the person to whom the skull belonged, Sheridan said the fractures “very clearly could have been fatal in the absence of medical care and even with medical care could have been fatal.”
Denner asked Sheridan if the fractured skull had been reconstructed (for investigative purposes) and Sheridan said it had been reconstructed twice, by two separate agencies.
“Any opinion on who the person was?” Denner asked Sheridan, regarding the person to whom the skull belonged.
“No,” said Sheridan.
Anthropologist Identified Skeletal Remains
Balian also questioned former physical anthropologist Judith Daye, who had been called to the Lorain Road scene in 1994 to collect and analyze the human remains that were found to help determine details like age, stature, race and gender.
Daye described what she saw at the scene in 1994:
One area had a bag with skull parts and human hair and that bag was inside of another bag, Daye recalled. She said the bags had been fastened with what appeared to be an old-fashioned telephone cord.
In another area close by Daye had seen what appeared to be a fiberglass cylinder with a protruding plastic-wrapped item that appeared to be a leg in a pair of jeans. A sock was in the dirt, where a foot would have been.
Daye said she had also seen a pelvis sticking out of the top of the jeans.
Boots and a zipper were also found at the scene by a detective, in Daye’s presence.
Daye had determined at the time of her initial report in May 1994 that the skeletal remains belonged to one person, a male, who ranged in height from 5 feet, four inches to five feet, seven inches.
At first she reported the race as mongoloid—possibly someone of Asian descent—but later amended her report in October 1994 to change the race to Caucasoid (Caucasian), since a colleague pointed out a detail Daye had overlooked.
Denner asked Daye repeatedly if the October amendment meant the results of her May report were inaccurate and Daye said race was the main difference in the reports.
The Murder Charge
When Gerhartsreiter was convicted of kidnapping his young daughter “Snooks” during a 2007 supervised visit, police looked into his identity and discovered he was not a Rockefeller, but in fact someone wanted for questioning in the murder of San Marino man John Sohus, who went missing with his wife in 1985.
Gerhartsreiter was charged in 2011 with the murder of John Sohus after the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department re-opened the case and found DNA evidence at the crime scene that linked Gerhartsreiter to the crime, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore previously told Patch.
Gerhartsreiter is charged with murdering John Sohus by using a blunt object, according to the criminal complaint.
The bones of Sohus were found in 1994 in the backyard of the Lorain Road home John shared with his wife, Linda, and mother Didi. Gerhartsreiter lived in a guesthouse on the property but fled San Marino shortly after the couple disappeared, telling people the Sohuses were away on a secret government mission. Linda Sohus has never been found.
The preliminary hearing for Gerhartsreiter will continue Thursday and is expected to last six to eight days.
Check back on Patch for updates on this case.