A Predator Among Us?

The sex offender charged with murdering Chelsea King is now a suspect in another teen’s death. Caitlin Rother on whether a killer has been lurking in San Diego—and whether Megan’s Law helped.

AP Photos

As if one missing teenager found dead in San Diego County wasn’t enough, the nightmare continues.

Only four days after investigators pulled 17-year-old Chelsea King’s body from a shallow grave on the shore of Lake Hodges, a tipster sent police 20 miles north to the remote, rugged area of Pala, where they found the skeletal remains of 14-year-old Amber Dubois this weekend. Amber was last seen in front of her school in Escondido, carrying a check to buy a lamb for her Future Farmers of America project.

Over the past year, Amber had become a poster child for missing teenage girls, her photo featured on the cover of People magazine. And, just like Chelsea, the quest to bring her home drew huge support from the community, with hundreds of volunteers coming out consistently to look for her.

“Sex offenders are really good at what they do. They will take any step to access potential victims.”

It was no coincidence that Amber’s father, Maurice Dubois, attended the arraignment last week for the man arrested February 28 on suspicion of Chelsea’s murder and possible rape: 30-year-old John Albert Gardner III. And although a gag order issued yesterday prevented Dubois from discussing Gardner’s potential involvement in Amber’s death, Dubois’ presence in court underscores the vast speculation raging across the nation that the unemployed construction worker murdered both girls.

Caitlin Rother: Why Chelsea’s Murder Scares UsGardner, in turn, has become the unwitting target for the nation’s anger and frustration that existing sexual predator laws aren’t tough enough, as talk ranging from chemical and actual castration to lifelong incarceration runs rampant across the airwaves. The rape allegation makes him eligible for the death penalty, and some people are already ready to string him up.

The specific question people are asking here in San Diego, and to some degree, given the case’s profile, around the country: shouldn’t Megan’s Law have prevented Chelsea King’s murder? Or can sexual offenders like Gardner simply drive through its loopholes on the interstate—and under society’s radar—quietly changing residencies, free to do their ghastly (and in Gardner’s case, still very alleged) deeds.

Megan’s Law requires sexual offenders to register their home addresses a minimum of once a year within five days of their birthday. If deemed “sexually violent predators,” they must register every 90 days and if they’re transients, every 30 days. All offenders are required to register within five days of moving or becoming homeless. California passed its own version in 2006, known as Jessica’s Law, which also prevents parolees from living within 2,000 feet of schools or parks.

Gardner, who had wanted to be a math teacher or a police officer when he grew up, ended up serving five years of a six-year sentence for molesting a 13-year-old in 2000. In light of recent events, many are complaining that his sentence was too lenient. They are also blasting the plea bargain forged by the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office that allowed him to serve concurrent terms for his crimes rather than a nearly 11-year sentence. The anger is heightened by 20/20 hindsight at a psychiatrist’s recommendation for the maximum sentence, coupled with a warning that Gardner was “an extremely poor candidate for any sexual offender treatment.”

The close confluence of Amber’s and Chelsea’s deaths has caused the media to focus a brighter spotlight on police efforts in the region. Gardner has now been labeled a “focus” of the homicide investigation into Amber’s death by the Escondido police; they had come up empty-handed until they got the tip Saturday about the remains, which were confirmed to be Amber’s through dental records that same day. Escondido police, who have not disclosed the tipster’s identity, are coordinating with the Sheriff’s Departments in San Diego and Riverside counties, and the FBI to investigate the two teenagers’ cases.

Gardner was on a list of registered sex offenders who lived within several miles of Amber Dubois’s school off and on from 2007 through January 2010, and Amber’s grandmother said the family had “begged” Escondido police to investigate him further. Gardner moved January 5, 2010, and re-registered January 7—within the required five days—at his grandmother’s house in Lake Elsinore, which is 54 miles to the north, in Riverside County.

“He wasn’t red-flagged in any way,” said Riverside sheriff’s Sgt. Joe Borja. “We didn’t receive any information from Escondido indicating that he was a problem.”

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And although Riverside deputies routinely check on sexual offenders, Borja said, they hadn’t yet had an occasion to do so. Deputies responded to report of a disturbance at Gardner’s grandmother’s house on February 17, but no one was there when they arrived.

In a 45-minute interview with KFI Radio in Los Angeles, an unidentified man who claimed to be a close relative of Gardner’s said he was the one who called the sheriff’s that night after he told Gardner to leave and they argued. He said Gardner drove south to stay with at his mother’s townhouse in Rancho Bernardo on February 20. If that’s all true, then Gardner appears to have broken the law by failing to report that he had moved from the Lake Elsinore address, and to either re-register at his mother’s or admit he was a transient.

Five days later, Chelsea King went missing during a run in a community park in Rancho Bernardo, and her body was found next to the trail on the lakeshore March 2. Four days after that, Amber’s remains were discovered east of Interstate 15 (I-15), the route between Gardner’s mother’s and grandmother’s houses. Gardner was cited on that freeway for speeding in a gold Pontiac last June.

According to the probation report from his molestation case in 2000, which was unsealed by the judge yesterday, Gardner’s mother, Catherine Osborn, married a man who nine-year-old Gardner thought was “an awesome dad,” but who did not handle young children well. Gardner said he lived with his father, also named John Albert Gardner, for a year after his parents’ divorce, but returned to live with Osborn after having problems in school.

Asked how he was treated growing up, Gardner said he suffered from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and took 18 different medications, including Ritalin, Paxil and Wellbutrin.

“He said also that his father spanked him with a belt and felt that he went over the line to abusiveness,” the report said. “[He] said that this was the normal punishment for misbehaving and repeated that his father just did not do well with young children.” It was unclear whether he meant his real father, who died in Iowa in 2008, or his step-father, who divorced Osborn in 1998.

“The defendant’s relationship with his mother is somewhat strained at times because they share a small apartment and get on each other’s nerves,” the report said. “[He] said it would be better if they each had their own places.”

The probation report quoted the findings of the same court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Matthew Carroll, who noted that Gardner’s IQ was 113, and that he’d finished high school with a good grade point average of 3.2—without taking any of the drugs he’d claimed he’d taken for mental problems. Seeing no other behavioral problems, the doctor differed with Gardner’s previous diagnosis of bipolar disorder, saying, “The defendant does not suffer from a psychotic disorder. He is simply a bad guy who is inordinately interested in young girls… He manifests significant predatory traits and is a danger to the community.”

Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan’s Law and the Crime Victim Center, said Gardner’s roaming from place to place—between his mother’s, girlfriends’ and grandmother’s homes—is quite common among sexual offenders. So she believes that more, albeit costly, supervision of this predator population is needed to make the law more effective.

“Bottom line is Megan’s Law does work, but the community has to be an active participant by reporting sex offenders that they may believe are in violation of local registration and other types of employment laws,” said Ahearn, whose agency staffs a nationwide tip line. “Sex offenders are really good at what they do. They will take any step to access potential victims.”

Gardner has also been charged in the assault, with the intent to commit rape or sexual assault, of Candice Moncayo. This 22-year-old graduate student was running the trails at Lake Hodges in December when she was attacked by “an overweight man wearing jeans.” News reports say she has since identified Gardner in a photo lineup or composite as her attacker. Meanwhile, Riverside authorities are investigating an assault and attempted kidnapping on a juvenile girl in October by an armed man driving a 1990s gold sedan, whose description and composite resembles Gardner’s. If these links pan out—still an enormous, speculative if—than San Diego has had a serial predator in its midst. And the questions of what was done to protect the community will only increase.

Pulitzer nominee Caitlin Rother, a former investigative reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune, is the author of five crime books—Poisoned Love, Twisted Triangle, Body Parts and the thriller Naked Addiction—and co-author of Where Hope Begins.