Last week, the body of Chelsea King, a 17-year-old high school student from Poway, California, near San Diego, was discovered in a shallow grave. She went for a run in a park on February 25, 2010, and never returned.
John Albert Gardner III, of nearby Lake Elsinore, was charged with her murder and rape, or attempted rape.
Gardner was a convicted sex offender. In May 2000, he pleaded guilty to molesting a 13-year-old girl. In that case, he was a month shy of his 21st birthday. The victim knew Gardner—they had been neighbors. She and a friend were waiting for a school bus when Gardner drove up and offered them a ride. He then lured the victim to his mother’s townhouse to watch a movie.
Gardner started massaging and kissing the victim. She protested. Gardner picked her up—he was twice her size. When the girl continued to protest, he hit her in the face and tried to take her clothes off. Eventually the girl escaped and ran traumatized to a neighbor’s house, pulling her pants up on the way.
The evidence against Gardner was clear and overwhelming—he could have been sentenced to as long as 30 years. He received a six-year prison term, served five years, and was released in 2005. He was then on parole for three years, until September 2008.
At the time of Gardner’s sentencing in the 2000 case, a court-appointed psychiatrist recommended the maximum prison term. Dr. Matthew Carroll described Gardner as callous and lacking remorse, “making him an extremely poor candidate for any sexual offender treatment.”
“It is my opinion that (the defendant) would be a continued danger to underage girls in the community,” Dr. Carroll wrote. Unfortunately, he was right.
Gardner has now been linked with an attack on 23-year-old Candice Moncayo in December. Moncayo was running on the same path that Chelsea King was on, but elbowed Gardner in the face and was able to escape. She identified her assailant from mug shots in the media.
Gardner may have been the man who asked a 16-year-old girl for directions and then tried to force her into his car at gunpoint on October 28, 2009, in Lake Elsinore. She ran away. The girl’s description of her assailant resembles Gardner.
Authorities are also investigating whether Gardner may have been involved in the disappearance of 14-year-old Amber Dubois, who vanished while walking to Escondido High School on February 13, 2009. At the time, Gardner lived in Escondido. The girl’s remains were found on March 6.
Dr. Matthew Carroll is angry that his recommendation in the assault on the 13-year-old was ignored, according to colleagues who spoke with the media. The Associated Press reported:
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. He laid it out there and he was essentially ignored by the district attorney’s office,” Kalish said. “How much bigger a red flag could Dr. Carroll have raised?”
Kalish said Carroll was referring calls to him because his colleague, who does work for the county, did not want to discuss the case publicly.
Carroll, a court-appointed psychiatrist, reached his conclusion because Gardner took no responsibility, despite evidence, described in the prosecution sentencing memorandum, of the girl’s frantic escape.
“How are you going to treat someone who says you got the wrong guy?” Kalish said. “This girl ran out of (his) house with her pants down. Come on!”
The sentencing memorandum filed by San Diego prosecutors lays out the sordid facts of the case. In arguing against probation, it clearly states that John Albert Gardner was not remorseful:
Defendant has not expressed one scintilla of remorse to the police, the probation officer, the victim or the victim’s family. Rather, he continues to victimize others and has the unmitigated gall to further victimize the victim’s mother by labeling her “vicious” and claiming she committed the attack upon her own daughter. Since defendant expresses absolutely no remorse, it is even less likely that he will be rehabilitated on probation, since acknowledging wrongdoing is a necessary precursor to making the changes necessary to correct the criminal behavior. Even the interviewing psychologist stated that “the defendant takes no responsibility whatsoever for his actions …”
The report stated that John Albert Gardner was a danger to society. It acknowledged that Dr. Matthew Carroll stated the perpetrator “would be a continued danger to underage girls in the community” and recommended the “maximum sentence allowed by law.” The report even states:
Defendant’s lack of remorse in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt and his prior admissions of committing the crime show that he can be expected to re-offend when he gets the opportunity to do so.
So why did Gardner get off easy? Why was he allowed to plea bargain down to lesser offenses, and serve time for his offenses concurrently, when he could have been forced to serve them consecutively?
Apparently because the assault on the 13-year-old was his first serious offense.
Under California law, when a defendant has no prior record, or an insignificant record, this is a mitigating circumstance that can be considered in sentencing. Gardner’s sentencing report stated:
The People acknowledge this circumstance in mitigation. This is the reason the People are not requesting that defendant “be given the maximum sentence allowed by law” as was even recommended by the staff psychiatrist who interviewed the defendant regarding this crime.
John Albert Gardner had people who believed in him. His defense lawyers also submitted a sentencing memorandum. According to news reports, it highlighted how he shoveled snow and carried groceries for a neighbor, cared for a sick girlfriend and made another girlfriend feel “completely safe in the world.”
“John has never been anything but kind and compassionate towards me,” wrote Beth Melban, his girlfriend at the time of his conviction.
Dr. Divy Kikani, another psychiatrist, treated Gardner for bipolar disorder, and wrote that he was “extremely remorseful” and “highly motivated” to get help. Gardner’s mother, Catherine Osborn, wrote to the judge in the 2000 case that he accepted “full responsibility for his actions.”
A different ending?
While some people believed in John Albert Gardner, the prosecutors convincingly argued that he showed no remorse, was a danger to society, and was likely to re-offend. Yet they apparently thought they were being tough enough in requesting a prison sentence of six years, given that Gardner had no prior record.
So the perp did his time, completed his parole, and then allegedly assaulted again, this time with fatal consequences.
Could it have turned out differently? I don’t know. When I first heard about this case, I was all set to go on a rant about stupid judges not knowing sociopathic predators when they showed up guilty in their courtrooms. But like much that happens in life, this case was not black and white.
The assault on the 13-year-old did not actually turn into a rape, and the perpetrator at the time was under 21. One psychiatrist said Gardner was a threat, the other said he was remorseful. Gardner had other people charmed—we all know how that happens—and they wrote letters in his defense. Perhaps prosecutors thought that going for a longer sentence could have resulted in an appeal. And perhaps, given the overcrowding in California prisons, the courts are under subtle pressure to keep sentences low.
Everything seems so obvious in hindsight. But I suspect that when prosecutors and the courts are in the midst of making decisions, even when they try to protect society, they’re not always going to get it right.