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Convicted killer John Albert Gardner III a possible assault suspect in three counties, police say

May 17, 2010 | 12:22 pm

Convicted killer and rapist John Albert Gardner III is being investigated as a possible suspect in assaults in San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, law enforcement officials said Monday.

"We believe he's involved in other cases, not necessarily murder," said Lt. Dennis Brugos, head of the San Diego Sheriff's Department homicide detail. A multi-agency "Gardner task force" is at work, he said.

Brugos said investigators talked to Gardner for two hours Friday after he was sentenced for murder in the deaths of Chelsea King, 17, and Amber Dubois, 14, in northern San Diego County. He declined to say in how many cases Gardner was considered a potential suspect.

Brugos' comments came as law enforcement agencies broke their silence on the King and Dubois murders.

At a news conference, Escondido police said that in the weeks after Amber's Feb. 13, 2009, disappearance an officer questioned Gardner when a woman said he was stalking her in his car. The officer found an open container of alcohol in Gardner's car and a 3-year-old child, the son of Gardner's girlfriend.

The incident occured about a mile from where Amber had last been seen walking to class at Escondido High School.

The officer, who knew Gardner was a registered sex offender, let Gardner go and did not report the incident to a task force that Escondido police had formed to look for Amber, according to Escondido Capt. Bob Benton. Ten months later, Gardner killed Chelsea King.

Escondido police had a  dozen contacts with Gardner while he lived in Escondido, but he was never considered a suspect in Amber's disappearance, officials said. 

Still, Escondido Police Chief Jim Maher said, "I have full confidence in my police department."

Maher said he doubted that evidence linking Gardner to Amber's disappearance would have developed even if the information about the stop had been given to the task force.

Gardner was sentenced Friday in San Diego Superior Court to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The sentence was part of a plea bargain in which the 31-year-old registered sex offender escaped the death penalty in exchange for pleading guilty to murdering both teenagers during rape attempts.

During much of the high-profile investigation after Chelsea's disappearance on Feb. 25 of this year, a judicial gag order kept attorneys and other law enforcement personnel from discussing the case publicly or releasing documents.

After Gardner pleaded guilty last month, a judge lifted the gag order on April 22 -- although Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis successfully urged all law enforcement personnel to remain silent. Although the search warrants were released, as required by law, other documents were withheld.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, the Escondido Police Department and the county medical examiner all rejected requests from the media.

In announcing the plea bargain in April, Dumanis said that without it, her office did not have enough evidence to convict Gardner for Amber’s murder and seek the death penalty.

After being arrested for Chelsea's murder, Gardner led officials to Amber’s remains on condition the information not be used to file a murder charge against him. Officials began searching for other evidence that would link him to the murder and could be used to seek the death penalty.

Brugos said evidence was collected at the mountainous site where Amber's remains were found. He declined to give details.

At the news conference,  Dumanis and Deputy Dist. Atty. Kristen Spieler declined to talk specifics about the failed investigation that led to the plea bargain or the plea deal itself although Spieler said it was frustrating that no evidence linking Gardner to Amber's murder could be found.

Gardner was arrested for Chelsea's murder after investigators found a pair of her underwear with her blood and his semen on it near the jogging path at Lake Hodges where she had gone running.

One of the search warrants released after the guilty plea showed that two utility company workers had told authorities after Gardner's arrest and the discovery of Amber's remains that they had seen people who looked like Gardner and Amber in a car similar to Gardner's. The sighting was in the area northeast of Escondido, where Amber's remains were later found.

The victims' parents had sought in court to block the release of information about the crimes that they say would increase the agony of the families. Each family has also criticized segments of the news coverage, particularly the decision of a television station to broadcast a jailhouse interview with Gardner after his guilty plea in April.

Before his arrest, Gardner was a registered sex offender. He served five years in prison for an attack on a 13-year-old girl.

Chelsea's family has urged the Legislature to adopt "Chelsea's law," which would allow life sentences for sex criminals who attack minors.

-- Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: John Albert Gardner III, center, lowers his during his sentencing, Friday, May 14, 2010 in San Diego. Gardener, a sex offender who admitted murdering the two teenage girls, including one who once lived in Illinois, was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Gardner 's attorneys Michael Popkins, left, and Mel Epley sit by his side. Credit: Nelvin C. Cepeda / Pool