RANCHO BERNARDO — A registered sex offender pleaded not guilty March 3 to the fatal sexual attack on 17-year-old Chelsea King as she jogged near Lake Hodges in a case that the district attorney said has “rocked” San Diego.
John Albert Gardner III, 30, is charged with the first-degree murder of King and the special circumstance charge of committing the crime during the rape or attempted rape of the Poway High School senior.
With the addition of the special circumstance allegation, prosecutors now have the option of seeking the death penalty. A decision on the matter will be made at a later date by District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis after extensive meetings with the victim’s family, prosecutors and the defendant’s attorney.
King vanished Feb. 25 while running near Lake Hodges in Rancho Bernardo. Police arrested the Lake Elsinore man two days later in Escondido after linking physical evidence on an article of King’s clothing found at the crime scene to him.
Gardner is also charged with an additional count of assault with the intent to commit rape in connection to a Dec. 27 attack. While authorities have linked Gardner to an assault that day on a 22-year-old Colorado woman who fended off her attacker in a Rancho Bernardo park, prosecutors declined to specify whether the charge applied to that alleged assault.
Less than 24 hours before Gardner’s arraignment Wednesday in a downtown San Diego Superior courtroom, authorities recovered a body believed to be King’s from a shallow grave near the shore on the south side of the lake, just a half-mile from her vehicle.
Dressed in county jail blues, Gardner stood emotionless with his eyes fixed on the courtroom floor only looking up occasionally throughout the brief hearing.
Because his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Michael Popkins, did not challenge the court’s no-bail hold, evidence wasn’t presented; therefore, details about the case remain scant and will likely remain so until Gardner’s preliminary hearing, which is set for March 18.
Following the hearing, Dumanis reaffirmed her office’s commitment to trying cases in the court and not in the media, adding that the press will receive answers as evidence is presented in the courtroom.
“We want to make sure 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 the person responsible is held accountable,” Dumanis said at a press conference.
In 2000, Gardner pleaded guilty to molesting a 13-year-old female in his parents’ Rancho Bernardo home where he had been living at that time. The teenage girl escaped but not before being beaten and sexually assaulted. In accordance with his plea agreement, Gardner received six years in prison of which he served five. Following his release in 2005, the defendant remained on parole for three years, until September 2008.
Despite being listed as a Lake Elsinore resident, Gardner had been living at his parents’ residence at the time of King’s disappearance. Escondido police said Gardner resided in Escondido when Amber Dubois went missing in February 2009.
Dubois, who was 14 at the time, disappeared on her way to Escondido High School. While speculation is spreading that Gardner may have ties to Dubois’ disappearance, authorities say the matter is still under investigation.
Amber’s father, Maurice “Moe” Dubois, said Escondido police and the sheriff’s department are working in conjunction on Amber’s case as well as searching for clues at King’s crime scene to determine if evidence exists to link his daughter’s disappearance to Gardner.
Maurice Dubois, who spoke at the press conference, offered his support and condolences to the King family. “I promise you Chelsea is going to be in our hearts for the rest of our lives,” he said.