ALHAMBRA, Calif. — During cocktail hour at a Manhattan art gallery in May 2008, German-born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter politely introduced himself to socialite Roxane West as someone he was not.
"I was standing there looking at a painting and he came over ... a gentleman," West remembered. He introduced himself as Clark Rockefeller, a member of the storied New York family, charming West as he had done many other women, mostly wealthy but sometimes not.
Despite his smooth demeanor, prosecutors say, Gerhartsreiter was a serial con artist and a rough customer.
This week, Gerhartsreiter and his defense lawyers attended a preliminary hearing in Alhambra Superior Court, where he was ordered Wednesday to stand trial in the 1985 murder of John Sohus. The victim’s remains were unearthed in 1994 at a San Marino property owned by Sohus' mother. Gerhartsreiter once lived there in a guesthouse.
"Dateline NBC" details the new developments in the decades-old case in a one-hour special report Friday at 10 p.m. ET. NBC News' Mike Taibbi retraces Gerhartsreiter’s shape-shifting cross-country journey and evidence that has surfaced after so many years.
"He's always maintained his innocence," said attorney Jeffrey Denner. "At the end of the day he believes he will be vindicated."
When he first arrived in San Marino in the 1980s, Gerhartsreiter identified himself as “Christopher Chichester, the 13th baronet of Chichester.” Meredith Brucker, who became a regular acquaintance of Chichester's, told NBC News that he tempered his alleged aristocracy with a quick likeability.
"I just called him Chichester," Brucker said. "He even laughed about it being pretentious, so he was self-deprecating."
By day, he claimed to take filmmaking classes at the University of Southern California, even starring in his own student horror film. By night, he enchanted wealthy widows at San Marino's Church of Our Savior social events.
"My father introduced us,” said Carol Campbell, who was then a college student, describing a date with Chichester. "I assumed it was lunch, but instead we went on a series of errands, like to the post office. It didn't add up.”
Later he asked Cori Woods out on a date to the movies. Woods was 12 years old at the time.
"My mom said a very definitive 'no,' and then after that, it got a little weird," Woods said. "He started asking other inappropriate girls out ... not age-appropriate."
Chichester was living at the time in the guesthouse of Ruth Sohus, the divorced mother of an only son, John.
John and his wife, Linda, suddenly packed up one day in 1985 and left to pursue secretive government jobs in Paris, leaving Ruth alone with Chichester.
Chichester, who had been the point of contact for the overseas jobs, continually reassured Ruth that John and Linda were doing fine. Detectives later speculated that he also assumed the role of surrogate son to Ruth Sohus while John was gone.
But in spring 1985, John and Linda Sohus were reported missing, and a few months later Christopher Chichester left San Marino, heading East. He discarded his business card emblazoned with the Chichester heraldic arms and put on "the Rockefeller Suit," as reporter Mark Seal characterized it in his book "The Man in the Rockefeller Suit."
Clark Rockefeller was every bit as charming as Christopher Chichester, and just as quirky.
Socialite Roxane West showed NBC News several coy and strange text messages she received from him:
“I did want to tell you that I find you superbly ... never mind,” read one. “Perhaps go to Central Park and kiss for an hour or so?”
“In a submarine. Crowded. Strange — thought of you just a minute ago.”
"The texts were so wild and so farfetched," said West. "You would giggle and go, 'Where does he come up with this stuff?'"
Rockefeller settled on Boston's Beacon Hill, where he lived as husband to Harvard MBA Sandra Boss and as a loving father to their daughter.
He appeared genuinely happy, said neighbor Amy Patt. "I saw Clark as a doting father,” she said. “He would carry her on his shoulder. He would gloat about how smart she was."
But when Boss divorced Rockefeller in 2008, taking their daughter with her, Rockefeller kidnapped the girl. He was quickly caught, and his trail of lies tracked back to California.
While he was convicted of his daughter’s kidnapping in 2008, Gerhartsreiter maintains he is innocent of killing John Sohus.
As for his years posing as Chichester and Rockefeller, Gerhartstreiter gave a simple reply to the FBI in trancsripts obtained by The Boston Globe:
"If you're born short, you want to be bigger."
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