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Sex offender pleads not guilty in slaying of Chelsea King [Updated]

March 3, 2010 |  2:50 pm

A registered sex offender pleaded not guilty to the killing of Chelsea King, a 17-year-old last seen jogging near a San Diego County lake.

During a brief court hearing in San Diego, John Albert Gardner III, 30, said through an attorney that he denied killing King. Gardner, handcuffed and dressed in a jail jumpsuit, did not address the court.

Gardner was arrested Sunday afternoon outside a restaurant near Lake Hodges after unspecified evidence linked him to the crime, authorities said. The 230-pound Gardner, who is registered as living in Lake Elsinore, had been visiting his mother in Rancho Bernardo last week.

In 2000, Gardner pleaded guilty to molestation charges involving a 13-year-old girl.

He served five years of a six-year prison term and wore a global-positioning system tracking device until 2008, when his parole term ended.

A dive team found King's body on a tributary of Lake Hodges in a wooded area that had been the focus of an extensive search since Saturday, after a shoe was found there. A diver working his way up the tributary saw debris about 10 feet from the water. That discovery led to the grave.

The site is about half a mile from the parking lot at Rancho Bernardo Community Park, where King had left her car before heading out on the trail.

[Updated at 3:53 pm: San Diego County prosecutors said Gardner could be eligible for the death penalty with the charges filed today. The office will decide at a later date whether to seek the death penalty.]

-- Amina Khan in San Diego

Photo: San Diego police investigate vandalism at the home of Gardner's mother. Credit: Fox 5 San Diego