DNA on a piece of King’s clothing found along the southern shore of the lake led to the arrest Sunday of registered sex offender John Albert Gardner III, according to law enforcement sources.
Gardner, who was arrested outside the restaurant Hernandez' Hideaway in Escondido, is not cooperating with sheriff’s investigators. He is in custody, held without bail, on suspicion of first-degree murder and rape.
Chelsea King, 17, went for a run after school on Thursday and never returned home. Her car was found at the Rancho Bernardo Glassman Community Park. Her cell phone, iPod and school clothes were found inside the car.
Gardner, 30, lives near Lake Elsinore but had been staying with his mother and stepfather at a home in the 17000 block of Matinal Road in Rancho Bernardo. Investigators searched that home and carried out items in several bags according to neighbors.
Detectives worked in teams performing line searches at the lake, going through reeds, snakes and vegetation, along a 14-mile stretch of shoreline, according to sheriff's department spokesperson Jan Caldwell.
"Our focus is to find Chelsea and to bring her home," said Caldwell saying that deputies will continue to search as long as the search and rescue people believe it is the thing to do, "We all have hope."
In an interview with MSNBC on Monday, Chelsea's father said he was thankful for the arrest of a suspect in the case.
"First off, we're unbelievably grateful that this person is no longer able to be on the street. And we're unbelievably grateful that we have somebody that can more than likely lead us to our daughter, ” said Brent King. “And that's what we're hoping for is that we're led to our daughter, that's what we're doing."
Chelsea's mother reiterated that their main focus is to find their daughter. “We need our light back, we need our daughter back, and that's all we care about right now is getting her home," Kelly King said.
Prosecutors in a prior sexual assault conviction described Gardner as having “an unnatural interest in very young girls.”
Gardner was charged with four felony counts in March of 2000 after he approached two girls waiting at a school bus stop and offered them a ride to school. One of the girls agreed to go to Gardner’s home to watch movies. Once there, according to court documents, Gardner pulled her pants and underwear down and hit her repeatedly in the face while rubbing himself and touching her.
According to court records, Gardner’s 2000 victim said “he had his hand on my mouth and I couldn’t breathe and I got pretty fuzzy after he hit me and I’m not sure if I blacked out.” The girl, then 13, got away with one shoe on and ran into a neighbor’s garage.
Gardner jumped in his car and left the scene. The crimes occurred about a month before his 21st birthday.
He was charged with three counts of forcible lewd act upon a child and one count of false Imprisonment by violence, menace, fraud or deceit. On May 31, two months later, he pleaded guilty to two counts of forcible lewd act and the single count of false imprisonment.
Gardner faced a maximum prison sentence of 10 years and 8 months. On September 13, 2000 he was sentenced to six years in state prison, and ordered to pay a $1200 fine.
In the sentencing summary, prosecutors considered Gardner’s actions “extremely predatory, and this makes him very dangerous despite his minor prior record. When combined with his callous attitude and refusal to admit any wrongdoing, defendant demonstrates that he is an extreme danger to others and needs to be imprisoned to protect society.”
The court records indicate that the district attorney did not seek the maximum sentence only because Gardner had no significant record of prior criminal conduct.
There’s a strong possibility that the suspect may be connected to a separate attack on a jogger December 27 in the same area, Gore said. When a reporter asked him if he thought the suspect was connected to the Feb. 2009 disappearance of Amber Dubois, Gore replied, “We’re looking into that.”
"I think there is a good possibility that Gardner may be linked to Amber's disappearance,” Amber’s mother Carrie McGonigle said Sunday night. “I pray that he isn't because it would be the worst case scenario for my daughter. I am praying for Chelsea’s' family."
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