Rockefeller Impostor's Ex-girlfriend Testifies

Published January 24, 2012 10:09PM (EST)

ALHAMBRA, Calif. (AP) — A Rockefeller impostor charged with murdering his California landlord 27 years ago lived the life of a hunted man in a plot that could have been plucked from a spy thriller, according to his former girlfriend's testimony Tuesday.

Mihoko Manabe said that after she got a call in 1988 from a Connecticut detective looking for her boyfriend, whom she knew as Christopher Crowe, he became panicked, had her dye his hair blonde, grew a beard, exchanged his glasses for contact lenses, and made plans to leave the country.

Manabe's testimony came in a preliminary hearing in which a judge will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to order a trial for Christian Gerhartsreiter, who used several aliases and is charged with killing 27-year-old John Sohus, the landlord who rented him a cottage on his property in the wealthy Los Angeles suburb of San Marino in the 1980s.

Sohus and his wife Linda disappeared shortly before Gerhartsreiter moved to Connecticut with the Sohus' truck. John Sohus' bones were found in the backyard of his home in 1994. His wife remains missing.

In its sixth day of testimony, the hearing was nearing its conclusion Tuesday. Prosecutors have presented a largely circumstantial case and have not offered any motive as to why Gerhartsreiter might have wanted to kill Sohus.

Manabe said she met the man she knew as Crowe in 1988 at a major New York City brokerage house where she worked as a translator and he headed the bonds desk.

After they moved in together, a Greenwich, Conn., detective called the apartment. She said Crowe told her the caller was not the police, "that he was somebody bad and that he was going to get him and not to tell him he was there. He said that his parents had gotten into trouble. They were in danger and because of that, he was also in danger."

He would not reveal any further details, but shortly after the call, he proposed to her, she said.

"Did you love him?" asked Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Habib Balian.

"I guess," she said. "He said he had to go into hiding. The gist of it was that because he was going to put me through this, he was going to marry me."

Crowe instructed her to disassociate herself from her friends and family, not to give out personal information and to open post office boxes to receive mail, she said.

Additionally, they had to walk on different sides of the street and enter their apartment building separately so the doorman wouldn't know they were together, she said.

She accompanied him one time to the German Embassy and was surprised to see he had a German passport in another name.

"He said he had a fake passport made and we were going to escape from whatever it was pursuing him and putting him in danger," she testified as Gerhartsreiter sat in front of her in a blue jail jumpsuit.

After his employer discovered his identification was bogus, he was fired and never worked again during their seven-year relationship, Manabe said.

She supported him and even got him a credit card under the name "Clark Rockefeller." He started using that name after he used it to obtain a good reservation at a restaurant and liked the reaction it provoked, she said.

Crowe reneged on the marriage plan, saying since they were living together, they had no need to get married, said Manabe, who broke up with Crowe in 1994 after she met her future husband.

On cross-examination by defense attorney Brad Bailey, Manabe said Crowe was never violent, except for one time when he angrily grabbed her arm after she accidentally left their dog in a hot car.

"He had a temper, but not in a physically violent way," she said. "He just was very caustic and derogatory. He could be very mean."

She said he was disdainful of people doing menial work and when asked whether he had treated her well, she said "No."

Another witness, Mary Cologne, testified Tuesday that she lived next door to Gerhartsreiter, whom she knew as "Chris Chichester," in San Marino. One day in 1985, she smelled something "terrible" and saw black smoke coming from his chimney.

He told her he was burning carpet, she said.

On Monday, friends of Chichester testified that he tried to sell them an Oriental rug that had a bloodstain on it shortly before he left San Marino.

By Salon Staff

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