Following Gardner’s sentencing, officials reveal details of homicide investigations
By JAMES R. RIFFEL
City News ServiceAfter being ordered to spend the rest of his life in prison for the rape-murders of two North County teens, John Albert Gardner III possibly implicated himself in several unsolved assaults but confessed to no other slayings, officials said Monday.
“He didn’t shed a lot of light,” sheriff’s homicide Lt. Dennis Brugos told reporters during a panel discussion headed by many of the county’s top law enforcement officials, including Sheriff Bill Gore and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.
But Gardner’s statements to sheriff’s detectives during the post-sentencing interrogation Friday suggested the 31-year-old confessed killer “may have been involved in other criminal activity,” Brugos said. Those cases took place in San Diego, Riverside and possibly San Bernardino counties, but the lieutenant would not specify the nature of the assaults.
During the unusual multi-agency news conference at the sheriff’s Kearny Mesa headquarters, official provided in-depth time lines of investigations into the murders of Amber Dubois, a 14-year-old Escondido High School freshman who disappeared while walking to school on Feb. 13, 2009, and Chelsea King, 17, who went missing during a jog in Rancho Bernardo on Feb. 25 of this year.
They also disclosed the existence of a special task force charged with determining whether Gardner, who was sent to prison in 2000 for sexually assaulting a neighbor girl, is responsible for any other unsolved kidnappings, rapes or homicides.
Brugos said there are currently no open murder cases in San Diego County similar to those of Amber or Chelsea.
The investigative team, which consists of 30 personnel from nine area agencies, will continue its work for an indefinite period, authorities said.
Friday’s questioning of Gardner took place immediately after his sentencing hearing, and included investigators from the Sheriff’s Department, Escondido Police Department, FBI and the state Department of Justice, Brugos said.
“He was pretty vague,” Brugos said. “He didn’t say anything that would lead to bodies, which was our big concern.”
Gardner’s comments regarding the murder of Chelsea, a Poway High School senior, were “what we theorized happened and what the evidence supported,” Brugos said.
Officials with the Escondido Police Department would not disclose what Gardner said about Amber.
EPD Chief Jim Maher and Capt. Bob Benton faced tough questions about whether more could have been done to bring Gardner to justice after Amber disappeared.
In April 2009, a woman told a veteran officer that Gardner followed her, and when he was pulled over, he had an open container of alcohol and his girlfriend’s toddler in the vehicle, Benton said.
"(The officer) did everything he could under the law,” Benton said.
Gardner was cited for the open container of alcohol and sent on his way because the woman disappeared.
Benton said it would not have made a difference if Gardner was arrested then, because the Amber investigation focused on reports from witnesses who saw the girl in the company of a teenage boy. Gardner was in a compact car at the time, not a red truck as described, he said.
Benton said there were a dozen contacts between Gardner and the EPD from the time he got out of prison in 2006 to when he was arrested for the murders.
Maher said he has “full confidence in the police department,” but did say the performance of the EPD will be reviewed.
Connie Milton, the supervising criminalist in the sheriff’s crime laboratory, said trace evidence has been processed from cars to which Gardner had access, but there were no matches to other cases.
Though authorities at the news conference remained tight-lipped about some aspects of the cases, they spoke far more freely than right after Chelsea disappeared.
Official silence was confirmed when a judge slapped a gag order on the case, and search warrants were sealed.
Those warrants were unsealed after Gardner pleaded guilty last month to both murders. They revealed the discovery of underwear that contained DNA linking Gardner to Chelsea and disclosed a couple of incidents in which he followed girls or women in his car as they walked.
Gardner was sentenced Friday to a pair of consecutive life prison terms, plus 49 years.