When 17-year-old Chelsea King disappeared in a park last week, authorities checked photographs of sex offenders registered in the San Diego area. John Albert Gardner III was not among them.
When a 16-year-old girl was attacked last year in Riverside County, authorities did a similar check of the sex offender registry. Again, Gardner was not among them.
In both investigations, Gardner eluded detection because he was registered as a sex offender in different counties.
As authorities search for Gardner's possible links to other cases, his trail highlights how sex offenders in California manage to avoid suspicion even under a system designed to keep close tabs on the state's most dangerous predators.
"Obviously there's loopholes and he seems to have found them, either by design or by happenstance," said Marc Klaas, who founded Klaaskids Foundation after his 12-year-old daughter Polly was abducted from a slumber party in 1993 and later found slain.
Gardner has attracted national attention ever since he was arrested in the rape and killing of King, a 17-year-old straight-A student whose body was believed to have been found in a shallow lakeside grave Tuesday.
Gardner, 30, is being held without bail after pleading not guilty Wednesday to Chelsea's murder and to attempted rape of another woman in December, a potential death penalty case. His public defender, Michael Popkins, did not address reporters after the arraignment.
Escondido police are also investigating if Gardner is tied to the disappearance of Amber Dubois, a 14-year-old who vanished a year ago while walking to school and carrying a $200 check to buy a pet lamb.
No suspects have ever been publicly identified.
"This has definitely got our attention," said Lt. Craig Carter.
Over the two years Gardner lived in Escondido, police had been in contact with him at least eight times. But a Lieutenant said those visits were related to his status as a registered sex offender -- in effect, check up visits.
Escondido police would not give any other information and would not confirm if those contacts were related to the search for missing teen Amber Dubois.
Investigators are looking into a possible connection to the Dubois case, in part, because he lived at an apartment complex about two miles from where she disappeared.
Gardner was registered as a sex offender because of his 2000 conviction for molesting a girl after luring her to his house with the Robin Williams movie "Patch Adams," about a doctor who uses humor to treat patients. He served five years of a six-year sentence, though his plea agreement allowed for nearly 11 years and a court-appointed psychiatrist urged "the maximum sentence allowed by law."
Gardner was a registered sex offender in Escondido, in San Diego County, from January 2008 to January 2010, with some gaps, Carter said. On Jan. 7 of this year, he registered as a sex offender 55 miles north in Lake Elsinore, in Riverside County.
Seven weeks later, King disappeared in San Diego, and Gardner's name didn't turn up on the list of neighborhood sex offenders because he had already registered that he moved north.
Authorities are also investigating the case of a 16-year-old girl who reported that she ran away after a man asked her for directions then tried to force her into a car at gunpoint on Oct. 28 in Lake Elsinore, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department said.
The suspect was described as a man 30 to 35 years old with a squarish jaw, brown eyes and a blond crew cut. A sketch appears similar to Gardner.
"There are similarities," Capt. Joseph Cleary told the Riverside Press-Enterprise. "If there is a connection, we will track it down."
Investigators checked out local sex offenders at the time, but not Gardner; he was registered as living in San Diego County, Sgt. Patrick Chavez said.
"He had not come onto our radar until January," when he notified authorities that he was living in an unincorporated village near Lake Elsinore, Chavez said.
California has required sex offenders to register with local police for 50 years, and began making the information available to the public in the mid-1990s. It now posts information about more than 63,000 offenders online through what's known as the Megan's Law database, named after a 7-year-old New Jersey girl killed by a child molester who had moved in nearby.
Gardner is not subject to Jessica's Law, which bars offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park and is supposed to require lifetime GPS monitoring of their whereabouts. California voters approved the law in 2006, after Gardner was paroled.
Brent King, Cheslea's father, declined to address shortcomings in how Gardner and other sexual predators are tracked.
"In due time, I'm going to have a lot to say about that," he said in a brief interview Thursday. "Now is not the right time. We need to heal first."
King said he was deeply thankful to law enforcement and volunteers who mounted a massive search for Chelsea and "every person who said a prayer for us."
"Thank you is not enough to say," he said.
Investigators are still trying to determine if Gardner is connected to the disappearance of Amber Dubois.
Her father, Maurice, believes there is a strong possibility that Gardner abducted his daughter, a few miles north of where Chelsea disappeared. He noted Amber and Chelsea had similar builds.
Amber, a member of Future Farmers of America, left home with $200 check to buy a lamb. It was never cashed.
"She was so excited to get to school that morning it was incredible," said Dubois, an electrical engineer near Los Angeles.
Gardner has two children of his own, according to residents at the apartment complex where the registered sex offender lived last year.
Residents said the two boys, about 4-years old, never stayed with him. Instead, their mother would bring them by and then leave with the children.
The residents said they were aware Gardner was a registered sex offender and passed out flyers in the complex to alert other residents.
The suspect has pleaded not guilty to murdering 17-year-old Chelsea King.
He Apparently Charmed Some
He shoveled snow and carried groceries for a neighbor. He cared for a sick girlfriend by pressing a cool cloth to her head all afternoon. A former high school girlfriend called him "the one person who has made me feel completely safe in this world."
Testimonies from family and friends in a 2000 child molestation case cast a sympathetic light on 30-year-old John Albert Gardner III, now accused of murdering 17-year-old girl Chelsea King while she was on a run and raping or attempting to rape her.
Gardner, who pleaded not guilty Wednesday to murder and assault with intent to commit rape, was linked to King's death from semen found in the victim's clothing, said California Department of Justice of spokesman Christine Gasparac.
A body that authorities believe is Chelsea's was discovered Tuesday in a shallow grave on the south shore of Lake Hodges in a wilderness area near a park where she was last seen five days earlier in running clothes. Her car was discovered at the park with her belongings inside.
Gardner stood silently in court, wrists shackled to his waist and eyes cast downward during Wednesday's brief hearing. Brent and Kelly King, Chelsea's parents, sat several rows back.
A court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Matthew Carroll, urged the "maximum sentence allowed by law" in 2000 for Gardner for molesting a 13-year-old neighbor at his home, according to court documents. He called him "an extremely poor candidate" for treatment because he refused to admit any responsibility.
Dr. Mark Kalish, who shares an office with Carroll, said his colleague was saddened and angered by the news about Gardner, feeling his advice was ignored.
"He didn't want there to be any ambiguity or doubt about his assessment," Kalish said. "How much bigger a red flag could Dr. Carroll have raised?"
A defense sentencing memorandum shows Gardner also had sympathizers.
Dr. Divy Kikani, a psychiatrist who treated Gardner for bipolar disorder, wrote that his patient was "extremely remorseful" for inappropriate sexual relations with two girls, ages 13 and 14. He said Gardner was "highly motivated" to get help.
Kikani didn't respond to phone messages Wednesday.
Gardner spent at least part of his childhood in the San Bernardino Mountains community of Running Springs and attended nearby Rim of the World High School, according to the document. He was convicted in 1998 of disturbing the peace in an incident that involved trespassing on campus, his only previous criminal record at the time.
"Never once in the whole time that I have known John have I ever felt threatened or scared," Jennifer Tripp, who began dating Gardner when she was a sophomore and he was a senior, wrote the judge. She declined to comment Wednesday when reached by The Associated Press.
Vergie Lightfoot, who lived four houses away, said Gardner volunteered to fix a septic tank and carry groceries. They talked over pie and coffee.
Beth Melban, his then-girlfriend, said she began dating Gardner when they worked at Big 5 Sporting Goods in San Diego and that she took the initiative to kiss him on a first date. Her parents were eager to meet him.
"I practically had to force myself on him and he even knew I liked him," she wrote the judge. "John has never been anything but kind and compassionate towards me."
Catherine Osborn, Gardner's mother, wrote the judge in 2000 that her son accepted "full responsibility for his actions."
Gardner faced a maximum of nearly 11 years in prison in 2000 under a plea agreement, but the judge accepted the prosecution's recommendation of six years. He was on parole for three years, until September 2008.
The district attorney's office has declined to comment on the 2000 case.
Gardner, who was required under state law to disclose his residence, registered in January to live in Lake Elsinore, north of San Diego, said John Hall, a spokesman for the Riverside County district attorney's office.
"He was not on our radar for any reason," Hall said.
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