John Gardner pleads not guilty to murder, rape charges



City News Service

A registered sex offender pleaded not guilty today to murdering Poway High School senior Chelsea King, who vanished last week while jogging in northern Rancho Bernardo.

John Albert Gardner III, 30, was arrested Sunday in connection with the disappearance of the 17-year-old straight-A student and San Diego Youth Symphony French horn player.

Gardner said little during his brief arraignment in downtown San Diego. The not guilty plea was entered on his behalf by his attorney. He was ordered back to court Tuesday, and a preliminary hearing was tentatively scheduled for March 18.

Gardner was charged with murder for the death of Chelsea, and assault with the intent to commit rape for an earlier attack on another woman, according to District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. The murder charge includes a sentence-enhancing allegation of murder during the commission of a rape or attempted rape.

The defendant could face the death penalty if convicted. A decision on what penalty Gardner will face will be determined after the preliminary hearing.

“We know this has rocked San Diego, rocked all of us,” Dumanis said. “It is a sad day indeed where we have to file criminal charges. We want to make sure that justice is done for Chelsea and we want to make sure that we do everything we can to preserve the case and to make sure that the person responsible is held accountable.”

The assault charge stems from a Dec. 27 attack on a Colorado woman who was in San Diego on a family visit. The woman was running alone near Lake Hodges when Gardner allegedly tackled her and demanded money. The 22-year-old victim, who managed to escape after elbowing the assailant in the face, left town before she could work with investigators on a sketch of the assailant, according to police.

That attack occurred not far from where a body believed to be Chelsea was found early Tuesday afternoon in a shallow grave.

“Although positive identification has not been made, there is (a) strong likelihood that we have found Chelsea,” Sheriff Bill Gore several hours later, shortly after breaking the news to the girl’s parents.

A member of a law enforcement dive team found the body shortly after 1 p.m. in a remote, secluded spot on the south side of the lake, about 10 feet from the water’s edge, Gore said.

The body was covered by a layer of earth and debris about a half-mile from where Chelsea, an avid runner, had parked her car at Rancho Bernardo Community Park on Thursday afternoon, according to Gore. A positive identification was expected within a few days, he said.

Since Chelsea’s family reported her missing, a number of law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, pitched in to find her, scouring the Lake Hodges area by foot, air and boat, using sonar in underwater searches. An estimated 6,000 volunteers helped look for her since Thursday evening.

The sheriff has said physical evidence led them to Gardner, but declined to elaborate. Chelsea’s mother later told news outlets her daughter’s underwear had been found near where the girl went missing.

Detectives have linked Gardner to another attack late last year on a jogger in the same open-space area where Chelsea was last seen, according to police.

Authorities say they also are investigating whether Gardner might be responsible for the February 2009 disappearance of Escondido High School freshman Amber Dubois, who was 14 when she vanished while walking to campus.

According to public records, Gardner was convicted of assaulting and molesting a girl in 2000. The victim, a 13-year-old neighbor, said he repeatedly punched her in the face and fondled her at his mother’s townhouse, which is about a mile from Rancho Bernardo Community Park. The girl said she went to the residence after Gardner invited her in to watch a movie.

Gardner was sentenced to six years in prison and served five before he was released in September 2005. He was on probation until 2008. He registered as a sex offender using his grandmother’s Lake Elsinore address but reportedly had been staying with his mother lately.

San Diego police received a report around 5:40 a.m. Wednesday that someone had vandalized the townhome of the defendant’s parents on Matinal Road in Rancho Bernardo, spray-painting on the garage door the words, “Chelseas (sic) blood is on you. Move out.”

Dr. Matthew Carroll, a psychiatrist who interviewed Gardner following the 2000 assault, described him as “callous” and lacking remorse, making him “an extremely poor candidate for any sexual offender treatment,” according to court records.

“It is my opinion that (Gardner) would be a continued danger to underage girls in the community,” Carroll wrote as he recommended the maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

A memorandum from the District Attorney’s Office said prosecutors asked for a six-year sentence to resolve the case without a trial and to spare the victim from testifying.

Linda Boltman’s then-14-year-old daughter was the victim’s best friend and testified at Gardner’s preliminary hearing in the case. Boltman told news stations Wednesday that she was upset authorities never notified her daughter or her family that Gardner had been released from prison.

Gardner was released in 2007. In 2008, California voters approved a crime victims’ bill of rights act known as Marsy’s Law. It created a notification system for victims, witnesses and others who requested information on an inmate’s release, escape, death or criminal appeal.

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