To understand why the murder of 17-year-old Chelsea King has emerged as a national tragedy and a local obsession, take a look at her hometown, the mountainous suburb of Poway—motto: “City in the Country”—and neighboring Rancho Bernardo, California. White upper-middle-class families move to these places to insulate themselves from hard realities outside their perceived gates of security.
There was no delay in response here, no skeptical or naysaying police used to dealing with runaways. The day after she didn’t return from a run in a community park in Rancho Bernardo, Chelsea’s fellow students, their parents, and other locals began to scour the park surrounds, and blanketed the entire county with fliers, some driving as far as Arizona to post them. Soon, a reported 4,000 people had come out to help. Everyone seemed hellbent on bringing Chelsea home.
Some of Chelsea’s former classmates have been asking to sleep in their parents’ rooms, while others are asking for nightlights.
The media joined in as well, covering every tiny piece of news as it developed, leading the local nightly TV news with a rare 10 or 15 minutes of related headline stories. The San Diego Union-Tribune, which just got a new editor, gave the story the same heavy play on its front and inside A-section pages. The public was gripped, wanting to know more. And more.
“I believe this case struck a nerve with everyone and hit us all so hard because every detail from the disappearance, to the search, to the arrest, to the discovery of a body was covered in such brutal detail by all forms of media that it captivated and horrified all of us as each of the events unfolded,” says Geoff Patnoe, who heads a local public-affairs firm and is the father of two daughters, ages 2 and 4. “We felt helpless, vulnerable and devastated for what Chelsea endured and for what her family was experiencing.”
• Caitlin Rother: Is A Predator Among Us?When, after five days, a body thought to be Chelsea’s was found buried in a shallow grave along the south shore of nearby Lake Hodges, the serenity of this inner sanctum had been pierced. Something precious was taken, people here say, not only from Chelsea’s fellow students at Poway High School, but from teens and parents across the entire county of San Diego. That angst, which spread nationally through media coverage, has also gone viral on the fan pages of Facebook.
“This has shattered everybody’s world. Everybody’s security,” says Traci Barker-Ball, Poway High School’s crisis counselor and Chelsea’s peer-counseling adviser. “If it can happen to Chelsea in the middle of the afternoon, it could happen to anyone anytime because Chelsea was not a risk-taker.”
Some of Chelsea’s former classmates have been asking to sleep in their parents’ rooms, while others are asking for nightlights. Their parents—and others across the county—say they are more worried now than ever about letting their teenagers go out alone—anywhere, and especially where they might run into men.
Much of the sadness stems from the victim. Chelsea, a sunny smiling strawberry blonde with bright blue eyes, was not only a straight-A student taking Advanced Placement courses, she was also an environmentalist, and had recently become a vegetarian because she felt an animal shouldn’t have to die so she could eat. It’s possible that she went to the river park that day to scout the area for a cleanup she and a friend had planned to do there that weekend.
“She was all about making the world a better place,” Barker-Ball said.
When she didn’t come home from her run and her black BMW was found near the Piedras Pintadas, or Painted Rocks, trail, her parents immediately knew something was amiss.
Just three days after she disappeared, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department arrested a man on suspicion for her murder in the nearby city of Escondido. The suspect was a 30-year-old registered sex offender named John Albert Gardner III, who had been linked to Chelsea through an undisclosed piece of evidence. Gardner, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound man who spent five years in prison for molesting a 13-year-old girl in 2000, was required to provide his DNA as part of his case. One news report stated that his semen was found on an article of Chelsea’s clothing. Sexual predators are known to take trophies, such as underwear, from their escapades so they can relive their crimes.
Along with the murder charge came a special circumstance allegation that Gardner also engaged in rape or attempted rape, which makes him eligible for the death penalty. He was also charged with assault with the intent to commit rape or sexual assault of another woman who was attacked in the same area in December 2009, named in court papers only as “Candice M.”
Speculation has also spread that Gardner could be responsible for another missing high-school student: Amber Dubois, a 14-year-old who was last seen in front of Escondido High School, with a check in her pocket to purchase a lamb for her 4-H project, just after 7 a.m. on February 13, 2009. (“We’re not going to leave anything out, so if there’s a connection, then we’re certainly going to be working closely with the Sheriff’s Department on this,” says Escondido Police Lt. Craig Carter.)
The anger has spread, too. While Chelsea’s fellow students built her a shrine of flowers, candles, and messages of love on the school fence, vandals spray-painted a nasty message of hate on the garage door where Gardner’s mother lives, suggesting that she move.
Citizens have decried the local district attorney’s office for the plea bargain that got Gardner what they see as a lenient six-year sentence for lewd and lascivious conduct and three years’ probation, ending in 2008. “I’m frustrated and I think Dr. Carroll is frustrated,” says psychiatrist Mark Kalish, referring to his colleague, the court-appointed psychiatrist on Gardner’s case, who tried to warn the judge that Gardner “would be a continued danger to underage girls in the community.” “I mean we try to do a good job and it gets ignored, apparently.”
And lawmakers at all levels have jumped on the bandwagon for tougher laws and longer prison sentences for sexual offenders. Even California Attorney General Jerry Brown, who is running for governor, chimed in.
Given this climate, the police and DA’s office have recently gone into a communications lockdown, including a “no comment” to Kalish’s remarks. Paul Levikow, spokesman for the current district attorney, Bonnie Dumanis, said the shutdown was necessary “to get the defendant a fair trial. We want the state of California to get a fair trial, too.”
Meanwhile, the citizens worry. “What else around me isn’t safe that I once perceived to be?” asked Jeremy Fritz, who graduated from Rancho Bernardo High School in 2000. And Karen Pearlman, a trail runner in her thirties, won’t run near where Chelsea was found.
“I think it just affected people because it was such a loss,” says Dick Bobertz, the executive director of the park where Chelsea was found. “She would have been everybody’s first pick for a daughter.”
Caitlin Rother, a former Pulitzer-nominated investigative reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune, is the author or co-author of six crime books, including Poisoned Love, Twisted Triangle, Naked Addiction, and Body Parts.