ALHAMBRA, Calif. — A witness in the murder case against a man who posed as an heir to the Rockefeller fortune testified Thursday that he lent the defendant a chain saw while the two were living in San Marino in the 1980s.
William Stewart, now a Superior Court judge, said he was a lawyer when he met Christian Gerhartsreiter, then known as Christopher Chichester, at his church.
In late 1984 or early 1985, Chichester asked to borrow an electric chain saw from him, according to Stewart.
"He said he had a problem with a branch on a tree that was scratching a window," Stewart said.
He said Chichester kept the tool for several months, returning it just before leaving town in the spring of 1985.
"He said that he didn't use it, and I was relieved because I thought that he might hurt himself," Stewart said.
Chichester said he was leaving because of family problems in Connecticut, Stewart said.
"I never saw him after that until today," he said.
The hearing for Gerhartsreiter will determine whether there is enough evidence to put him on trial for the apparent bludgeoning death of John Sohus that only came to light when the victim's bones were dug up at the former home of John and Linda Sohus in 1994, nearly 10 years after the couple vanished. Gerhartsreiter was a tenant in the guesthouse at the home.
When John and Linda Sohus disappeared, their families were initially unconcerned because they believed that the newlywed couple were on a secret mission for the government, other testimony Thursday showed.
Gerhartsreiter is charged only with killing 27-year-old John Sohus; no sign of Linda Sohus has been found.
Witnesses called Thursday included former San Marino police officers who took reports about the disappearance at a time when it was uncertain whether a crime had occurred.
Thomas LeVeque said he interviewed John Sohus' mother, Ruth, and Linda Sohus' sister, Catherine Mayfield, and thought the disappearance "was rather unusual."
Ruth Sohus claimed to have a secret source that she could not reveal because it would endanger the couple, he said.
"She said that she had written to them and she could make contact with them," LeVeque said.
But as time went on and the couple did not reappear, Ruth Sohus repeatedly called police to ask for help, he said.
Lili Hadsell, now police chief of Baldwin Park, said she had many contacts with Ruth Sohus as a patrol officer in San Marino.
"Every time I went out there it escalated and escalated," she said. "It started out that she reported they were gone but wasn't super concerned. She believed they were working."
At one point, Hadsell said, Ruth Sohus stated that the couple was working for the parents of a man living in their guesthouse who was known as Christopher Chichester.
When bills arrived, she gave them to Chichester and he said he was forwarding them, the witness testified.
But then Chichester disappeared as well.
"She had become nervous and scared that something had happened to John and Linda," Hadsell testified.
Later in the day, more details emerged about the Sohus family. A former neighbor, Marianne Kent, 81, said she was close friends with Ruth Sohus and their sons were the same age and played together.
However, when she was asked to identify the man who lived in the Sohus guesthouse in the 1980s, she pointed to someone across the courtroom and not to Gerhartsreiter. She said she could not identify the defendant.
Many of the witnesses in the preliminary hearing have had difficulty remembering details because so many years have passed.
Kent said that John Sohus was a diabetic and was coddled by his mother.
"He could do no wrong," she said. She loved him very deeply."
After his disappearance, she said the mother sank into alcoholism and eventually was forced to sell her home which had been in the family for generations.
Another witness, Harry Sherwood, a U.S. Army major, said he was the grandson of Ruth Sohus who had children from a former marriage. He said he came to visit her when he was 14, a few months after John and Linda had disappeared.
He remembered that in their room, "everything was as they left it_ the clothing, her artwork, all of their stuff."
He said that even John Sohus' diabetic supplies were left on a counter in the bathroom.
"It just looked like someone was gone for the day, not gone forever," he said.
Earlier in the preliminary hearing, a construction worker described discovering the skull and bones in bags stuffed in a box while excavating a swimming pool.
A medical examiner testified that the skull had multiple fractures inflicted by a blunt object, possibly a baseball bat.
Gerhartsreiter has previously been exposed as a veteran impostor. On the East Coast he claimed to be "Clark Rockefeller," a member of the famous family, and married a woman with whom he had a daughter. She divorced him when she found out he had duped her.
Last year he was convicted of kidnapping his daughter in Boston during a custody dispute. Gerhartsreiter is serving a four- to five-year prison sentence for that crime. He would be eligible for parole this year if he was not facing the California charge, which could bring him 26 years to life in prison if he is convicted.