The man whose face – and scowl – San Diegans will forever remember in connection to the murders of two teens looks different these days – a stark contrast to his appearance in 2010.
It’s been more than four years since John Albert Gardner III was sentenced to life in prison. Today, officials say the inmate’s life behind bars is very quiet compared to the uproar his crimes caused in San Diego.
Gardner was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole on May 15, 2010, for raping and killing Escondido teenager Amber Dubois and Poway teenager Chelsea King. The highly-publicized cases sent shock waves through San Diego County.
In June 2010, Gardner was transferred to California State Prison-Corcoran to begin serving his sentence.
Today, Terry Thornton, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), said Gardner is still housed in the Protective Housing Unit (PHU) at the prison and lives an unremarkable existence.
“Officials at California State Prison-Corcoran tell me that inmate Gardner is quiet,” Thornton told NBC 7. “There are no discipline issues.”
Thornton said the PHU – designated for high-profile inmates segregated from other inmates – was activated at the facility in 1992. It’s a small unit with only 24 cells and a maximum capacity of 47 inmates but typically only houses between 15 and 25 offenders.
“It houses inmates whose high notoriety has caused public interest in their cases and is likely to result in great bodily harm if he is placed in general population housing. The PHU also houses inmates whose safety would be endangered by general population housing,” Thornton explained. This can include inmates who have testified in major cases against organized criminal organizations and prison gangs.”
Thornton said some of the inmates besides Gardner who live in the PHU include infamous serial killer and cult leader Charles Manson, Mexican serial killer Juan Corona and Phillip Garrido, the man convicted of kidnapping and raping California girl Jaycee Lee Dugard.
The CDCR spokesperson said the PHU is operated like any other general population unit. Each day, a hot breakfast, sack lunch and hot dinner are served to each inmate. That food is delivered by CDCR staff to the unit, not general population inmates.
Thornton said PHU inmates go to a dayroom and can go to the yard every day. The PHU offers education programs, contact visits, jobs, phone calls and televisions in the inmates’ cells.
“There is a designated day for PHU inmates to go to the law library in a nearby facility,” Thornton said. “When PHU inmates are in the law library, there are no other general population inmates there.”
As in all state prisons, visitation hours are held twice a week on Saturdays and Sundays but because the PHU is so small, Thornton said visits can last longer.
“The PHU is typically very quiet,” Thornton added.
Thornton said the CDCR does not release central files on any offenders, so more specific details on Gardner’s incarceration were unavailable.
The CDCR did release Gardner’s latest prison photograph, however, dated Apr. 4, 2014. In the picture, the bearded and scruffy 35-year-old Gardner looks much different than he did at his 2010 sentencing.
Next month, it’ll be four years since former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger approved Chelsea’s Law (Assembly Bill 1844), a bill that increased penalties, parole provisions and oversight for sex offenders in the state. It was officially signed into legislation in February 2011.
The bill was championed by Nathan Fletcher and the family of Chelsea King.
As Gardner lives a muted life in prison, the families of his young victims continue to make their voices heard.
Chelsea’s parents, Brent and Kelly King, run the Chelsea’s Light Foundation, a non-profit organization aimed at supporting youth and spreading positive change in the community.
Amber’s mother, Carrie McGonigle, formed the search and rescue group, Team Amber, to help families find their missing loved ones. Through her search efforts, McGonigle helped find the remains of missing nursing student Michelle Le in September 2011.