John Gardner pleads guilty to murdering King and Dubois


City News Service

A convicted sex offender pleaded guilty Friday to killing a 17-year-old Poway High School senior and a 14-year-old Escondido High School freshman, and he was expected to be sentenced to two consecutive life prison terms without the possibility of parole.

John Albert Gardner III, 31, also faces an additional 33 years to life in prison for assaulting a woman Dec. 27.

Gardner, whose plea spares him from a possible death sentence, is scheduled to be sentenced June 1. His plea also bars him from filing an appeal of his conviction and sentence.

Gardner admitted attacking, raping and killing 17-year-old Chelsea King, who disappeared after going for a run Feb. 25 at Rancho Bernardo Community Park. The avid runner and straight-A student’s body was discovered five days later in a shallow grave near a tributary of nearby Lake Hodges — not far from Gardner’s mother’s home.

The defendant admitted attacking King while she was jogging, taking her to a remote area where he raped and strangled her and buried her in a shallow grave.

Gardner admitted that he killed King within an hour of attacking her.

He also admitted killing 14-year-old Amber Dubois, who vanished while walking to Escondido High School in February 2009. Her skeletal remains were found last month in Pala.

Gardner admitted taking Dubois to Pala, where he raped and stabbed her before burying her in a shallow grave. The defendant said he killed Dubois with 90 minutes of his initial contact with her.

The defendant also pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a woman in Rancho Bernardo Community Park last Dec. 27.

Gardner entered his guilty pleas moments after prosecutors charged him with Dubois’ murder and rape.

Before the defendant entered his pleas, Superior Court Judge David Danielsen informed Gardner that he would be spending the rest of his life in prison. Gardner will also be deemed a sexually violent predator. the judge told him.

Defense attorneys Michael Popkins and Mel Epley refused comment after the court hearing, but District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis briefed reporters on the reason Gardner was allowed to plead guilty.

“The murders of Chelsea King and Amber Dubois have shaken the collective soul of our community and beyond,” she said.

Dumanis said that on March 5, three days after Gardner was arraigned on charges he murdered King, the defendant led authorities to Dubois’ body.

The only promise made to Gardner, Dumanis said, was that the information could not be used against him in court.

No other evidence, including DNA, was found to tie Gardner to Dubois’ murder, and prosecutors knew they couldn’t make a case against the defendant, Dumanis said.

She said the death penalty was still on the table in the King case, but recently Gardner offered to plead guilty to both murders and admitted killing both girls and assaulting the woman in Rancho Bernardo Park.

“By accepting this guilty plea, we are obtaining a conviction for the murder of Amber that we would not otherwise have been able to obtain,” Dumanis said.

Both the King and Dubois families agreed that accepting the defendant’s offer to plead guilty was the best solution that could be attained, the district attorney said.

“We do know that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole means the defendant will die in prison,’' Dumanis said.

Maurice Dubois, Amber’s father, thanked everyone in law enforcement who worked to find his daughter for more than a year.

“As you can imagine, this turn of events in the case came as a surprise to us when we were informed about the details yesterday,” he said. “As a parent, I am thankful for the work put forth by the D.A.'s office and the defense team in coming forth with a resolution in the case and allowing us to have justice and closure for Amber’s case.’'

Brent King, Chelsea’s father, also made a brief statement to reporters.

“We stand here because of a despicable, evil act committed against our beautiful daughter, Chelsea, committed against our family and committed against our community,’' he said.

“The decision whether to give our blessing to the district attorney’s proposal was torturous,” King said. “While our unequivocal first choice is the death penalty, we acknowledge that in California that penalty has become an empty promise.”

King said a multi-year court proceeding would have had a destructive effect on their 13-year-old son, Tyler.

The father also said his family’s acceptance of the plea allowed them to help the grieving Dubois family.

“The Dubois family has been through unthinkable hell the past 14 months,” Brent King said. “We couldn’t imagine the confession to Amber’s murder never seeing the light of day, leaving an eternal question mark.”

King said now that there will be no trial, his family can move forward and bring about changes in the law to protect children.

“There is nothing satisfying about this moment,” he said. “It is only one more unbearably painful day that we will have to carry in our memory as long as we live.’'

In 2000, Gardner was sentenced to six years in prison after pleading guilty to assaulting a 13-year-old girl at his mother’s home. He was released after five years.

The District Attorney’s Office said it offered Gardner a plea deal in that case to spare his young victim from testifying at trial. The offer came despite a psychiatrist’s recommendation that Gardner receive the maximum sentence of 30 years in prison because he showed no remorse and would continue to be a threat to children.