Gardner pleads not guilty to Chelsea King murder

Sunday, March 7, 2010

John Albert Gardner III pleaded not guilty in to the rape and murder of 17-year-old Poway, California resident Chelsea King during a short arraignment held in San Diego Superior Court on Wednesday. King disappeared February 25 while jogging in a park near Lake Hodges in Escondido. A body believed to be King's was found Tuesday near the lake shore. DNA matching of semen found on the victim's clothing identified Gardner as a suspect, according to a spokesperson for the California Department of Justice. Gardner was arrested Sunday near Lake Hodges.

A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for March 18.

The murder charge carries the special circumstance of being committed during a rape. Deputy District Attorney Kristen Spieler stated that the special circumstance makes Gardner eligible for the death penalty. The charges carry a penalty of 25 years to life if prosecutors choose not to pursue the death penalty.

Gardner is listed in California's registered sex offender database with a home address in Lake Elsinore, about 75 miles north of San Diego. He had been visiting his mother at her Rancho Bernardo townhouse at the time of King's murder.

King had planned on going on a run in Rancho Bernardo Community Park on the afternoon of February 25. Her family called police when she did not return home at dark. King's BMW was found in the park's parking lot, locked, with her cell phone and other belongings inside. Nothing indicated that anything violent had occurred in the vehicle.

About 125 professionally-trained search-and-rescue volunteers combed through an area between the park and Lake Hodges. 6,000 other volunteers searched areas around North County, coordinated by the Texas-based Laura Recovery Center. Searchers found a body about 1 p.m. (13:00) local time (2100 UTC) on Tuesday, in a shallow grave about ten feet from a tributary that leads to the lake. The search had already covered that area but had missed the body. A diver searching the tributary spotted it from the water. According to San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, there is a "strong likelihood" that the body is King's; however, the District Attorney's office does not plan to release positive identification until the preliminary hearing.

San Diego police say they have connected Gardner to a December 27 attack on a 22-year-old jogger in the same park where King disappeared. Gardner is also under investigation in the February 2009 disappearance of 14-year-old Amber Dubois in Escondido. In May 2000, Gardner was convicted of a forcible lewd act on a child and false imprisonment. A 13-year-old female neighbor accused him of molesting her and punching her repeatedly in the head.

Should Gardner's 2000 case have been handled differently?

In the 2000 case, prosecutors had originally charged Gardner with more-violent crimes that could have put him in prison for 30 years. They granted Gardner a plea agreement allowing him to be charged with lesser crimes — and receive a shorter sentence — in order to "spare the victim the trauma of testifying". With the reduced charges, Gardner faced 11 years in prison. The judge agreed to the prosecution's recommendation that the sentence be reduced to six years. Gardner served five years and was released in 2005. He wore a tracking device until his probation ended in 2008.

Dr. Matthew Carroll, the staff psychiatrist who interviewed Gardner in 2000 stated that "the defendant takes no responsibility whatsoever for his actions..." and that "it is my opinion that [the defendant] would be a continued danger to underage girls in the community." However, Dr. Divy Kikani, a psychiatrist who had treated Gardner for bipolar disorder, said that Gardner was "extremely remorseful" and "highly motivated" to get help. A then-girlfriend, ex-girlfriend, and Gardner's mother all expressed support for him in the 2000 case.

Chelsea King's parents, Brent and Kelly King, are arguing for changes in sex offender laws following their daughter's death. Kelly King stated that current law "lets every child in this country down."