Dateline   |  April 17, 2013

April 17: 'Behind Closed Doors', Part 5

After years of running from the law, the man known as Clark Rockefeller faces trial for murder

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> the state of california knew it was a high stakes gamble to try and prove a trial, but the conman calling himself clark whose real name was christian karl gerhartsreiter. after all, the case rested heavily on pieces of circumstantial evidence 28 years

>> it was going to take a smart jury to put those together. we didn't have a smoking gun.

>> gerhartsreiter pleaded not guilty and hired a pair of prominent boston attorneys to defend him, jeffrey denner and brad bailey.

>> there was no motive. there was no reason he would have done this.

>> we are on the record in the matter of people versus gerhartsreiter.

>> still, when the trial opened last month, prosecutor habib offered a series of friends and neighbors from around the time that john and linda sohus disappeared. jurors learned about the bloodstains found years later inside the guest house and then testimony from a neighbor suggesting the tenant had been trying to destroy possible evidence.

>> i called him and said, chris, what are you burning in the fireplace?

>> what was his response?

>> i'm burning carpet.

>> when church friends said the defendant had tried to sell her a rug with a strange spot.

>> i thought it was a little like blood.

>> whose chain saw was it?

>> it was mine.

>> they heard the story about the borrowed chain saw . now, what did that mean?

>> for approximately how long, to the best of your estimation, was it that he had this chain saw ?

>> several months.

>> and dana ferrare took the stand to describe the party the defendant hosted just yards from the dug up patch of soil.

>> it looked like someone had dug up the lawn, and there was crumbled dirt on top like someone had just been digging there. i said, what's going on with your yard, chris? it's all dug up.

>> what did he say?

>> he said that he had been having plumbing problems.

>> there is no plumbing to the left of that red line .

>> he has a party, hosts a party feet away from where he buried a victim?

>> yes. i can't explain it. but he did.

>> but perhaps the strongest piece of circumstantial evidence tying the defendant to the murder was this. john sohus' skull had been found wrapped in two plastic university book bags , one from usc, the other from the university of wisconsin at milwaukee .

>> and during the background on gerhartsreiter, he had attended both those universities.

>> a physical connection finally between the conman's real life and those bones in the ground. more evidence? after his san marino days, after the murder witnesses said, the conman was no longer the expansive raconteur eager to work the room, but was instead living like a fugitive.

>> he told me he was from pasadena, california , that his father was an anesthesiologist, and his mother was a child actress .

>> in the late '80s, mihoko manabe lived with the defendant, then calling himself christopher crowe , an unusual guy, manabe testified, who became paranoid and obsessed with privacy after a detective called about the truck traced to his latest phony name, john and linda sohus' truck.

>> after the call, he was markedly different.

>> how was it markedly different?

>> the furtiveness, the cutting off of all social ties .

>> the defendant told manabe it wasn't a detective who called, but someone out to get him and his family. she said he suggested they marry and go into hiding.

>> he grew a beard and mustache.

>> what else?

>> and he started to wear contacts. i helped color his hair.

>> and while he was still living with manabe, he picked a new phony name out of thin air, and it was a beaut. at first it was to get a table in a packed restaurant.

>> they say, who can we make the reservation for? and he says, clark rockefeller .

>> manabe dumped him, but he never dumped the rockefeller name. it would help win his biggest catch ever, his gold plated wife sandra boss, and keep his secret safe for years.

>> who did he introduce himself to you?

>> clark rockefeller ?

>> did you ever doubt what he was telling you?

>> in hindsight, i wish i had, but no, no, i assumed what he was telling me was true.

>> sandra boss had spent the years since that public kidnapping case shunning the limelight, doing everything she could to get as far from her ex-husband as possible. she even moved overseas to london with their daughter. but now as a witness to the prosecution, she would have to divulge details of their life together, details the prosecution hoped would show how she'd been used as a cover, unwittingly help a killer hide in plain sight.

>> i liked him. i thought he was very intelligent and funny, quirky, very charming.

>> the stanford graduate told how back when she was getting her mba at harvard, they clicked while play acting at a clue themed party.

>> you were supposed to come as a character, and i was miss scarlet .

>> was the defendant in character?

>> yes.

>> who was he?

>> he was professor plum .

>> what did he tell you about himself? is

>> he said that he was raised in new york, that he grew up in a townhouse on the east side , sutton place . he went to yale beginning at 14 for math.

>> did he claim to you association with the well-known rockefeller family ? gl yes.

>> how so?

>> constantly. this rockefeller doesn't like me because i got angry with him when he was a child at a party.

>> they married in 1995 -- or did they? according to boss, she later learned that rockefeller had figured out how to tie the knot without leaving a paper trail .

>> we went through a wedding ceremony in the quaker meeting house in nantucket. he claimed at the time that he had filed all of the paperwork so that it was recognized as a legal marriage except that he hadn't done so. so it wasn't. i'd never been married before. i didn't really know how these things worked. so idiotically didn't think about it.

>> the prosecution suggested that, with his marriage to boss, the conman had hit a double jackpot. she earned north of $1 million a year, giving her house husband and stay at home dad control of the lavish family budget.

>> is that your signature?

>> yes. he said it was more convenient for him to pay the bills if he had checks that were signed.

>> and with no bank accounts of his oin own, he could live the life of a rockefeller in boston's insular beacon hill , where few were likely to ask awkward or incriminating questions.

>> he was very clear right from the start that he had a high need for privacy because of his famous family.

>> boss recalled that he stopped traveling by plane once i.d. was required, and perhaps most telling for the prosecution, she testified that her husband vowed to never go to two places -- california , where john sohus was murdered, and connecticut , where police had once looked for him in connection with the sohus' truck.

>> i do not enter the state of connecticut . i will touch my feet on its soil. he was very specific about connecticut .

>> what about california ?

>> california , he also said that he hated and would not visit.

>> but deep into their marriage, his life of carefully crafted invisibility began coming apart, melting away with lie after lie, says frank gerardo, who's written a book about the case.

>> he told her that his mother was really a child actress by the name of ann carter . and she said, wait a minute. when we first met, you told me your mom's name was mary. now you're telling me your mom's name was ann carter .

>> did you just put your finger on the fatal flaw, that in the end, he just couldn't not lie? he couldn't help himself?

>> this man, clark rockefeller , couldn't keep his lies straight.

>> by then, sandra boss told the court, her marriage was in serious trouble, headed toward divorce. but the private investigators she hired were stymied over a basic question.

>> they couldn't tell me who i was married to.

>> eventually, she and the world found out who clark rockefeller really was, and prosecutors believed they'd made the case that he was more than just a conman, he was a murderer.

>> christian karl gerhartsreiter, he's guilty of murder.

>> but the defense was ready to attack each item of damning, but circumstantial evidence , and to point the jury to the figure hovering over the case, the more likely suspect, the defense would argue, the victim's missing wife, linda .