John Gardner sentenced to life for killing Amber Dubois and Chelsea King
After the parents of his two murder victims made anguished and angry comments about their loss, registered sex offender John Albert Gardner III was formally sentenced Friday to life in prison without the chance of parole.
The families of Amber Dubois, 14, and Chelsea King, 17, spoke in a San Diego County Superior Court of the bright, innocent lives that were violently destroyed by Gardner.
The courtroom was packed with family members, investigators and reporters -- many of whom had tears in their eyes. One of his victims, who managed to get away from him during the attack, also addressed the courtroom.
The Dubois family played a home video showing an energetic teen who was a member of the 4-H Club in high school and who loved spending time with her grandmother and keeping in touch with friends on the Internet.
The King family also played a video and spoke of their daughter as a perfect child, an honors student destined for college and a career helping others.
Gardner sat at a table in green prison clothes, looking down, tears rolling down his face.
Gardner, 31, pleaded guilty last month to murdering the teens, both during rape attempts. He admitted strangling Chelsea and stabbing Amber. As part of a plea bargain, he was spared the death penalty.
Amber disappeared in February 2009 while walking to class at Escondido High School. King vanished a year later while jogging near Lake Hodges. A pair of panties found on the jogging path two days later led investigators to Gardner, whose DNA was in a state database after his five-year prison sentence for attacking a 13-year-old girl.
After his arrest for the King murder, Gardner admitted killing Amber and led investigators to her remains northeast of Escondido.
In a television interview while in jail, Gardner said he was seized by an uncontrollable rage and could not stop when he began attacking the two victims. He blamed a life full of disappointment and maltreatment.
Both families have called for changes in how the criminal justice system treats sex offenders. The King family, with the backing of a state legislator and Gov. Schwarzenegger, has called for a “Chelsea’s Law” that would give life sentences to sex offenders who attack minors, and also requiring a lifetime of GPS monitoring for sex criminals.
Amber’s mother and father have criticized the system for letting Gardner out of prison early and for not putting him back behind bars when he was found to be violating his parole, among other things, by living close to a school.
Chelsea's father called Gardner “a creature.” Amber's father said Gardner was an animal-like “predator” that should never have been let loose.
The case has also occasioned confrontation between the local media and both the court system and law enforcement agencies. The King and Dubois families have pleaded with the courts and law enforcement to restrict the information provided about the attacks. Superior Court judges have required court hearings before releasing search warrants, normally a routine event.
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Escondido Police Department and county medical examiner have all declined to release documents about their investigation, the arrest of Gardner and the autopsies done on the victims. Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis has asked officials not to discuss the case with reporters.
Such official silence has left unanswered the questions about how diligently the Escondido police searched for Amber and what considerations led Dumanis to decide to accept a plea bargain.
Before Dumanis’ request to be silent, Escondido police told the North County Times that they had had several contacts with Gardner before and after Amber's appearance and apparently knew he was a sex offender but did not consider him a suspect.
A search warrant filed after his arrest indicated the Escondido police stopped Gardner just days after Amber's disappearance a few blocks from Escondido High after a woman reported that he was following her.
In his interview with KFMB-Channel 8, Gardner said the idea of a plea bargain was brought to him by his attorneys and that he had not requested it.
In his interview with the television station, Gardner said, “I hate myself, I really do. There is no taking back what I did, and if I could, yes I would. Are you kidding me?
"But I was out of control. If I was able to stop myself in the middle of it, I would have, and I could not. I was out of control."
-- Tony Perry in San Diego
Photo: Fox 5 San Diego