As our community begins to come out of a dazed state of disbelief over the senseless death of Chelsea King, there is a growing sense that “something” needs to be done.
Based on what we know so far, laws and procedures pertaining to sex offenders need to be thoroughly examined and strengthened. Fortunately, preliminary steps are being taken to do just that.
John Gardner III, a convicted sex offender, sits in a downtown jail, accused of raping and murdering King, a 17-year-old Poway High School student. He is also accused of assaulting a college student in December in the same Rancho Bernardo park where King began her final jog on Feb. 25. Meanwhile, Escondido police are saying that Gardner, who lived for two years in that city, is “a focus” in their investigation into the 2009 death of 14-year-old Amber Dubois, whose body was found Saturday in a remote region of Pala. She disappeared one morning while walking to school.
Gardner has pleaded not guilty to the charges and faces a preliminary hearing on Aug. 4. Whether he killed King, and possibly Dubois, will perhaps be a matter for a jury to decide many months from now. But circumstances in his life clearly point out the need for significant reforms in the way the State of California deals with sex offenders.
Gardner in 2000 was convicted of molesting and falsely imprisoning a 13-year-old Rancho Bernardo neighbor girl. The maximum sentence for those two offenses is 10 years. A psychiatrist who evaluated him at the time advocated for the maximum sentence, saying Gardner had not taken responsibility for the crime, and that he would be a danger to underage girls in the community. However, another psychiatrist who was treating him for bipolar disorder said that he had shown remorse.
Gardner received a six-year term and was released in September 2005, one year early. Had he received and served the full 10 years, he would still be in prison today.
Gardner completed three years of probation and registered as a sex offender under Megan’s Law. Incredibly, his “field file,” containing records of his contacts with his parole agents were reportedly destroyed by the state last fall.
When Chelsea went missing, Gardner was staying with his mother in Rancho Bernardo but listed Lake Elsinore as his address. If he had been staying with his mother for more than five days, he was required to notify authorities of his new address. No one in authority was keeping track of his whereabouts.
At a press conference Tuesday, Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, R-San Diego, announced he and the King family, working with local, regional and state officials, will embark on an intensive fact-finding mission intended to identify and correct flaws in the way that violent sex offenders are handled by the state. Ultimately, there will be a series of proposed legislative reforms, to be christened “Chelsea’s Law,” Fletcher said. While offering no specifics, he mentioned the possibilities of stiffer sentences, lifetime GPS tracking of offenders and preservation of all probation records.
Fletcher, whose district includes Poway, Rancho Bernardo and 4S Ranch, encouraged community members to offer their reform suggestions by calling his office at 858-689-6290 or e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Real reform will be difficult, but possible if enough people care. The best way to remember Chelsea King is to make sure the needed changes occur.