Is Chelsea King's Alleged Killer a Serial Killer?


The recent discovery of two missing teenage girls’ remains in San Diego County – within four days and 20 miles of each other – has sparked a seemingly unprecedented rage here over justice, correctional and mental health systems that have so many cracks they are leaking victims of sexual predators.

Never in my 13 years as an investigative newspaper reporter in San Diego - or the last five years that I’ve been a true crime author here - have I seen such intense anger or such incessant media coverage generated by a single local murder suspect or case. And it’s not just local media, the national cable crime news commentators have had the talking heads debating this case as well. I’ve also never seen a suspect apprehended so quickly after a teenager was reported missing.

Just three days after 17-year-old Chelsea King didn’t come back from a trail run at a community park in Rancho Bernardo, 30-year-old John Albert Gardner III was arrested on suspicion of her murder with the special circumstance allegation that he raped or attempted to rape her, which makes him eligible for the death penalty. Her body was found two days later in a shallow grave on the shore of nearby Lake Hodges.

Gardner, who completed his three years’ parole in 2008 after serving five years for molesting and assaulting a 13-year-old girl in 2000, was also charged with assault with the intent to commit rape or sexual assault of graduate student Candice Moncayo. Moncayo was attacked while running on a trail in the same area in December 2009 and has since identified Gardner as her attacker.

Four days after a body thought to be Chelsea’s was found, authorities got a tip about the whereabouts of 14-year-old Amber Dubois, who was last seen in front of her school on a Friday the 13th in February 2009. After a fruitless search for the past year, the Escondido police found her skeletal remains that Saturday afternoon in the isolated rugged area of Pala.

After much media pressure to discuss the possible connection between the two murder cases, the Escondido police acknowledged that Gardner is a “focus” of their investigation into Amber’s murder. (When Amber went missing, Gardner was living about two miles from her school.) But unlike the speedy charges in Chelsea’s case, which came almost immediately after authorities said they found his DNA on a pair of her underwear, Gardner has not been charged in Amber’s case.

So, the burning question is whether Gardner is guilty of both murders and the authorities just haven’t been able to gather enough evidence to prove it yet, or if he is simply the victim of circumstance and an easy target of the community-at-large’s frustration with society’s failure to keep sexual offenders like Gardner in check and these two girls safe.

The anger and frustration stems in part from a series of missed opportunities by “the system” to keep Gardner behind bars for longer: a psychiatrist’s initial recommendation to give him a much longer sentence, deeming Gardner a “bad guy” who “manifests significant predatory traits and is a danger to the community”; the DA’s decision to give him a plea deal that resulted in a fraction of the possible prison term; multiple missed chances to send him back to prison for parole violations; and now a reported dispute between prison and mental health clinicians about releasing him when they did.

We human beings like to draw conclusions based on patterns of events, and I can hear the defense arguing that the timing of the back-to-back discoveries of bodies is just a coincidence, and that the two cases are unrelated. Also, I can hear them argue that just because Gardner’s DNA was found on Chelsea’s underwear doesn’t mean that he killed her. Finally, even if the defense acknowledges that he did assault Chelsea and Moncayo on that isolated park trail, it could argue that his MO doesn’t fit with the scenario of picking up Amber in front of her school amid hundreds of other students. If any one of those statements is true, then another killer could still be on the loose.

The timing of the discovery of Amber’s body is a bit curious. Last August, two trained dogs brought in from Virginia and Maine through a private search tracked her “live” scent to that same general area, but a second search by dogs often used by the FBI could not replicate the result. Escondido police are not disclosing how or why they decided to revisit that area on that particular Saturday, and because of a gag order issued by a judge because of the media rampage, they won't do so anytime soon.

The two cases are also complicated by an overlap in law enforcement jurisdiction. Gardner’s last registered address was his grandmother’s house in Riverside County, about 50 miles to the north of the Rancho Bernardo/Escondio area, but he’d been kicked out of there and was staying with his mother in Rancho Bernardo when he was arrested (which means he apparently failed to reregister within the timespan required under Megan’s Law). There is yet another attempted teenage abduction case that is under investigation by Riverside County authorities, in which the suspect’s composite strongly resembles Gardner.

So that means that two sheriff’s departments, a police department and the FBI have been and will continue to coordinate efforts to gather evidence between now and August, when Gardner has his preliminary hearing. With all these investigative resources and power, it will be interesting to see what, if any, additional charges will be filed against him by then.

Meanwhile, the community is out for blood. And people want someone or something to blame - even if it's the faceless government - for the murders of Chelsea King and Amber Dubois.

Caitlin Rother, a Pulitzer-nominee who worked as a investigative newspaper reporter for nearly 20 years, is the author of four books, Body Parts, Twisted Triangle, Naked Addiction, and Poisoned Love, and is the co-author of Where Hope Begins. Her next book, Dead Reckoning, the story behind the murder of Tom and Jackie Hawks by Skylar Deleon and his clan of outlaws, including his wife, Jennifer, will be out in February 2011. For more information about Caitlin Rother, check out her Web site, caitlinrother.com.

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