In a dramatic turn in two high profile murder cases, John Albert Gardner III pleaded guilty Friday to murdering both Chelsea King and Amber Dubois, ending weeks of speculation. He will not face the death penalty because of a plea deal.
Gardner, 31, wearing a dark blue jail jumpsuit with his shackled arms hanging at his sides, said nothing but "yes" repeatedly as San Diego Superior Court Judge David Danielsen asked him for his pleas at a status conference Friday.
He pleaded guilty to kidnapping, raping and stabbing Amber one and a half hours after he met her. He also admitted dragging Chelsea to a remote area where he raped, strangled and buried her -- and pleaded guilty to attempting to rape another woman who was jogging in Rancho Bernardo Community Park last year. (Hear the victim's story)
In the plea deal, Gardner will avoid the death penalty and get two consecutive life terms without parole and a third life term with a minimum of 33 years. He relinquished his right to appeal. Click here for details about the charges
“The defendant will die in prison,” District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said.
She said Gardner led authorities to the 14-year-old Escondido teen’s body on March 5 with the agreement that it couldn’t be used against him in court. There was no evidence at the scene linking Gardner to Amber’s murder, Dumanis said.
“We could not make a case. We kept the information about how we located Amber’s body secret to protect the integrity of the case,” Dumanis said.
The District Attorney’s office took the plea deal in order to gain murder convictions in both cases.
“This was a solemn decision,” Dumanis said. “Nothing can replace the lives of Chelsea King and Amber Dubois, but today is another step as their families come to terms with their loss.”
Prosecutor Kristen Spieler told the judge the victims' families agreed to the plea agreement.
Chelsea’s father, Brent King, said the decision to give his blessing was torturous. His first choice for Gardner was the death penalty but said it’s an empty promise in California. He also accepted the deal because of his young son and to give the Dubois family some closure. The Kings hugged after he finished his statement, with Kelly's eyes closed, for at a long, tragic moment.
After the hearing, Dumanis turned around to speak to Chelsea King's parents. Kelly King was visibly distraught as her husband comforted her. Amber’s father, Maurice Dubois, waited patiently for the Kings to speak to Dumanis, before leaving the courtroom with the Kings.
Amber vanished in February 2009 and the investigation produced few solid leads until Chelsea disappeared Feb. 25 near the site where Amber went missing.
Gardner was arrested three days later and initially pleaded not guilty to murdering Chelsea.
Chelsea's body was discovered March 2 in a shallow lakeside grave after a massive search. Prosecutors say Gardner was linked to the crime by DNA found on Chelsea's clothing.
Amber Dubois' bones were discovered March 6 in a rugged, remote area north of San Diego. She vanished with a $200 check to purchase a lamb she was to raise for Future Farmers of America. The check was never cashed.
Search warrant documents posted online by Los Angeles radio station KFI640AM show investigators removed a number of items from John Gardner’s home on March 9, 2010, including shovels, pick axes, digging tools and articles of clothing -- just days after police found the body of missing teen Amber Dubois.
Among them was an affidavit where investigators listed specific items they were looking for in a search of Garner’s Lake Elsinore home including rope, tape, handcuffs and other restraining devices, human hair, tissues or fluids, jeans, sneakers, and several shirts including a black T-shirt with writing that said “Hard Rock Café Baghdad on the front with ‘Farsy’ script underneath the print.”
A receipt lists the items taken from the home. They include a pick ax and a shovel taken from the front of the house by the front door. From the shed in the backyard, officials took 10 shovels, two pick axes and a yellow plastic carrier with digging tools. They also seized a pair of Reebok shoes size 12, five pairs of jeans and a white T-shirt with Hard Iraq Café Baghdad size 2XL from Gardner’s bedroom.
Gardner served five years in prison after pleading guilty in 2000 to molesting a 13-year-old neighbor girl. Records show he later violated parole by moving too close to a school but was allowed to remain free.
Gardner's history of parole violations has led to calls to strengthen California's already stringent laws on sex predators.
Chelsea's parents, Brent and Kelly King, have traveled to Sacramento to announce the introduction of "Chelsea's Law," which would send some child molesters to prison for life after a first conviction and monitor others with tracking technology until they die.
Gardner will be sentenced June 1 at 1.30 p.m.
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