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US 'Rockefeller' con-man murder trial starts

Defendant Christian Gerhartsreiter listens during his murder trial on March 18, 2013 in Los Angeles
Defendant Christian Gerhartsreiter from Germany listens to the prosecutor during his murder trial at Los Angeles Superior Court on March 18, 2013 in Los Angeles. Gerhartsreiter, the alleged Rockefeller impostor, is accused of killing his landllord John So

A German man managed to pass himself off as a member of the storied Rockefeller family, "hiding in plain sight" for years after killing a young husband in California, US prosecutors said Monday.

But a lawyer for Christian Gerhartsreiter, who was only arrested 23 years after his ex-landlady's son John Sohus was killed in 1985, claimed the victim's wife could just as easily have been the murderer.

Defense attorney Brad Bailey conceded the German had used many false names and displayed at times "bizarre" behavior, but argued that Sohus' wife Linda -- who disappeared at the same time as her husband -- also acted strangely.

The balding and bespectacled Gerhartsreiter took extensive notes throughout Monday's first day of his murder trial in Los Angeles, expected to last three to four weeks.

Born in Bergen, Germany in 1961, he arrived in America in 1978 and changed his name to Christopher Chichester, variously pretending to be a Hollywood producer and a baronet.

Defendant Christian Gerhartsreiter (C) arrives for his murder trial on March 18, 2013 in Los Angeles, California
Defendant Christian Gerhartsreiter, from Germany, (C) arrives for the beginning of his murder trial at Los Angeles Superior Court on March 18, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.

After the alleged murder, he changed his name to Christopher Crowe, moved to the East Coast and became a well-paid bond trader, before then changing his name again to Clark Rockefeller, claiming to be a member of the storied US family, and getting married.

"For 12 years the evidence will tell you he was hiding in plain sight," prosecutor Habib Balian told jurors in his opening statement.

Sohus and his wife Linda were last seen in 1985, living in the home of his mother in San Marino, northeast of Los Angeles -- where Gerhartsreiter was a tenant in a backyard guest house, using the Chichester alias.

Sohus's remains were not found until nine years later, in 1994, while his wife has never been seen again, dead or alive.

The victim's body parts were unearthed when the home's new owners were digging a swimming pool in the back yard. The skull had been cracked by a blunt instrument, and there were blade wounds to his back and arm.

Defendant Christian Gerhartsreiter sits for jury selection for his murder trial, March 15, 2013, Los Angeles, California
Defendant Christian Gerhartsreiter from Germany sits during jury selection for his murder trial at Los Angeles Superior Court on March 15, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.

By this time Gerhartsreiter was living in New York as Christopher Crowe, making over $100,000 a year as a trader -- but he changed his name to Rockefeller when he got wind that police were looking for him.

After leaving his live-in Japanese girlfriend, he went to ground again before resurfacing as Rockefeller -- under which alias he met and married Sandra Boss, telling her he was born in New York and educated at Yale.

For over a decade he lived without a driver's license or bank account, never signed a lease or flew in an airplane for fear of being identified -- but he was eventually tracked down in 2008.

Gerhartsreiter, who has been in custody pending the trial, was shown in an NBC television interview after his arrest denying being German or killing Sohus.

"I grew up in New York. I'm quite sure I grew up in New York City," he said with a perfect American accent, in a clip played in court. "I believe in non-violence ... I've never hurt anyone," he added.

Gerhartsreiter's defense attorney Bailey then used his opening statement to call into question key elements of the prosecution case -- and to point the finger at the victim's wife.

Linda Sohus was 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, whereas Gerhartsreiter was 5 foot 6 inches and weighed 140 pounds, raising questions about who would have been more able to kill John Sohus.

Defendant Christian Gerhartsreiter (C) sits at his murder trial on March 18, 2013 in Los Angeles, California
Defendant Christian Gerhartsreiter, from Germany, (C) sits with his attorneys Jefferey Denner (R) and Brad Bailey as they listen to prosecutors during his murder trial at Los Angeles Superior Court on March 18, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.

Key evidence were postcards apparently sent by Linda Sohus from Paris, three months after the couple's disappearance. The prosecution said they were somehow sent by Gerhartsreiter, while his defense lawyer said she did in fact mail them.

"There not only will not be enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt it was our client. There will be enough evidence for you to reasonably conclude it could well have been John Sohus' vanished wife, Linda," he said.

If found guilty, Gerhartsreiter faces a possible prison sentence of 26 years to life, according to the prosecution.

He was found guilty in 2009 of kidnapping his seven-year-old daughter, and was sent to prison for five years.

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