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Crime News Dateline

California Couple Mysteriously Disappears After Crossing Paths With Strange Guest House Tenant

Before disappearing, John and Linda Sohus had lived on the same property as a mysterious tenant calling himself Christopher Chichester — but after the couple vanished in 1985, detectives would learn Chichester was not the man he claimed to be.

By Jill Sederstrom

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was a man of mystery, easily slipping into a new identity whenever it suited him — but was he also a cold-blooded killer? 

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It would take investigators nearly three decades to unravel the mysterious disappearance of California couple John and Linda Sohus. But even now, there are some unanswered questions about what happened to the newlyweds, who vanished after telling friends they were going on a trip to see about a “secret” job offer, according to Dateline: Secrets Uncovered. 

To friends, John and Linda had been well-suited. While they shared common interests like a love of sci-fi and fantasy, Linda’s more outgoing personality was a complement to her husband’s more quiet demeanor.

 “I certainly had the sense that they were soulmates,” John’s childhood friend Patrick Rayermann recalled.

With little money of their own, the couple was beginning their new life in John’s childhood San Marino home with his mother, Didi Sohus, a woman known to overindulge in her cocktails. The arrangement was difficult for Linda who allegedly told her close friend Sue Coffman, “His mom is a drunk and a smoker and I don’t really like being around her and the smoke and everything.” 

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While Linda described her mother-in-law as a “poor old lady,” she also admitted to Coffman that she tried to “avoid her like crazy.” 

The home’s spacious guest house in the back could have been the perfect arrangement to give the new couple a little space and privacy, but it was already occupied by a tenant who called himself Christopher Chichester. 

Chichester claimed to be a baronet, a minor member of British royalty, and said he was in California to study theater at University of Southern California.

John Sohus, featured on Dateline 1123

“He was very interesting to talk to on many subjects, he was very bright, he knew about a lot of things. He was witty. You know, it was a lot of fun to hang out with him,” Chichester’s friend Dana Farrar recalled.

Despite the close living quarters, friends said John and Linda were enjoying their new married life and were planning to go with Coffman on a trip to a sci-fi convention in a new pickup truck that they proudly just bought. 

But before the date of the convention approached in 1985, Coffman said Linda called and told her the couple was going to New York because John had an “interview with a government job.” They planned to return to California before the trip to the sci-fi convention — but the couple never came back.

Linda’s cats were abandoned at a pets hotel, which just didn’t seem right to Coffman.

Her cats were the absolute loves of her life,” she said.

Concerned, Coffman went to talk to Didi, but an intoxicated Didi insisted the couple was fine and had traveled to Paris, France.

To Coffman, the explanation seemed unusual and she decided to report John and Linda to police as missing persons. San Marino Police briefly investigated the report, but they didn’t have much to go on, especially with Didi’s insistence that her son and his new wife were on a secret job interview.

“I mean she truly believed that he was off on a secret mission job and that’s what she had been told,” Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Detective Dolores Scott said.

The story about the couple’s whereabouts even gained credibility after Coffman and others received postcards from France hand-written by Linda. 

“Kinda missed New York (oops) — but this can be lived with — John & Linda,” the postcard to Coffman read.

But the relief wouldn’t last long. In July 1985, a frantic Didi called police because Chichester had suddenly moved out of her guest house without warning. It turned out he had been the one who was telling her about John’s supposed secret job interview and without him, she had no way to reach her son.

“She’s just concerned that the only person she’s been contacting them through was missing now too,” Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Detective Timothy Miley said.

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Didi died a few years later without ever finding out what happened to her son and the case went cold for nearly a decade until 1994 when the new homeowners of the Sohus residence decided to put in a pool and made a grisly discovery in the backyard. 

They found the remains of John Sohus buried in the ground. A medical examiner determined that he had suffered six stab wounds to the back and multiple blows to the head before his death. They also found traces of blood using a Luminol test in the guest house, but they couldn’t determine for sure at the time whether it was human or animal blood. 

After making the disturbing discovery, investigators scoured the backyard, but they found no sign of Linda, who remains missing to this day.

Detectives set about trying to track down Chichester and learned that after leaving California he had taken on a new identity and was living in Connecticut under the name Christopher Crowe. They also learned he had been in possession of John and Linda’s beloved truck.

They discovered his real name was Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, and he was a German national who had come to the United States years ago. But before investigators were able to bring him in for questioning, he disappeared again. 

This time, Gerhartsreiter selected a much more famous surname, choosing to go by Clark Rockefeller. He claimed to be part of the wealthy American Rockefeller family once led by patriarch and oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, and started a new life, wooing big money business consultant Sandra Boss with his impressive new identity.

“I thought he was very intelligent and funny and quirky,” she’d later testify. 

The couple exchanged vows during an intimate ceremony in Nantucket and had a daughter together they affectionately called Snooks. 

But by the summer of 2008, their 12-year marriage had fallen apart and amid a heated custody battle Gerhartsreiter — still posing as Clark Rockefeller — kidnapped his 7-year-old daughter and fled, sparking a national manhunt for the father and daughter. 

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Six days after they disappeared, Gerhartsreiter and his daughter were discovered, but the time on the run also had another unintended consequence. The national media attention and FBI’s wanted posters caught the eye of many in California who had once known Christopher Chichester and they realized it was the very same man.

The murder case of John Sohus was quickly reopened.

“We got a lot of phone calls. A lot of people who did not come forward in ‘94 came forward in 2008, so there were some new pieces of information that we got as a result of the publicity,” Miley said.

However, even after his arrest in the custody case, Gerhartsreiter was staying silent. 

When asked in a national television interview by Natalie Morales whether he killed John and Linda Sohus, Gerhartsreiter responded, “My entire life I’ve always been a pacifist.” 

“I am a Quaker and I believe in non-violence and I can fairly certainly say that I’ve never hurt anyone,” he continued. 

To Miley, the odd response seemed like “the closest thing to a confession I had ever seen” and authorities began building a circumstantial case against Gerhartsreiter.

Farrar recalled attending a backyard Trivial Pursuit party on the property where the body would later be found and noticing an area of the lawn that looked freshly dug up. 

“I said to him, you know, what’s with your yard? What’s happened to your yard? And he just said 'Well, I’m having plumbing problems,'” she recalled.

Another neighbor testified that she remembered Gerhartsreiter, then living as Chichester, burning something odd around the time of the murders and a church acquaintance reported lending him a chainsaw.

There was also that blood evidence in the guest house and the fact that John’s head had been wrapped in bags from two university bookstores, one from USC and another from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Both were schools that Gerhartsreiter had attended. 

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Boss also testified that during their marriage, Gerhartsreiter had refused to travel to either California or Connecticut.

During the trial, Gerhartsreiter’s attorneys tried to point suspicion toward the still-missing Linda, referencing those postcards she seemingly sent from France.

While investigators admitted they looked into that possibility, they didn’t believe the evidence pointed toward Linda as the killer. 

“We just couldn’t find anything sinister or any plausible reason why she would do this or that she had the means to disappear and start a new life,” Miley said.

Defense attorneys also pointed to the lack of physical evidence in the case and no apparent motive for Gerhartsreiter to want to kill John.

But a jury sided with prosecutors and took only a few hours to convict Gerhartsreiter of first-degree murder.

He was sentenced to 27 years to life behind bars, finally putting an end to the con man.