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Gardner pleads guilty to murder of teen girls Chelsea King, Amber Dubois

April 16, 2010 |  2:32 pm

A 31-year-old registered sex offender pleaded guilty Friday to murdering two teenage girls in northern San Diego County in a plea bargain meant to spare him from the death penalty.

John Albert Gardner III, who served five years in prison for beating and molesting a 13-year-old girl, pleaded guilty to the murders of Chelsea King, 17, and Amber Dubois, 14.

Under the bargain, Gardner will be returned to prison for life without the possibility of parole. King, an honor student at Poway High School, disappeared Feb. 25 while jogging near Lake Hodges. Gardner was arrested three days later, reportedly on the strength of DNA evidence.

On March 2 law enforcement searchers found King’s body in a shallow grave 10 feet from the water’s edge. On March 6, the skeletal remains of Dubois were found buried in the rugged Pala area northeast of Escondido. She disappeared Feb. 13, 2009, while walking to class at Escondido High School.

Gardner on March 3 pleaded innocent to the murder and rape of King. The discovery of Dubois’ remains, after hundreds of volunteers had searched for months, led to speculation that Gardner had led authorities to the body. But until Friday’s hearing, his indictment for the murder of Dubois had not been public. His next court date in the King case had not been until August.

The hearing in San Diego Superior Court was hastily arranged, with prosecutors and defense counsel refusing to give a reason. Gardner’s arrest has sparked widespread public criticism over allegedly lax supervision of sex offenders.

-- Tony Perry in San Diego

Photos: Gardner in court last month (Associated Press); Amber and Chelsea (Handout art)