Update: After she disappeared over a year ago, the remains of Amber Dubois, another local teen, were found about 25 miles north of where Chelsea King died. John Gardner is a suspect, though time will tell if he was involved.
We live in big-city suburbia. In our neighborhood, we drive our kids to school, drive ourselves along busy freeways to work, and crawl home in the evenings, rolling down our garage doors as we drive in. We seldom walk our streets, we mostly shop online, we barely know our neighbors.
And then something happens that forces folks out of their homes, gathers them together and reminds them they belong to a community.
This time last week, 17-year-old Chelsea King was running through a neighborhood park, when a man attacked, raped and killed her. The killer dragged Chelsea’s body further down the jogging path and buried her in a shallow grave on the river bank.
When she didn’t return home and her car was found parked at Lake Hodges, just north of where we live, family friends, schoolmates and neighbors immediately began organizing search parties. Detectives were on the case quickly, news media spread the story, and support exploded on Facebook and Twitter.
On Sunday over 1600 San Diegans combed the area around Lake Hodges in drenching rain, searching for signs of Chelsea. Monday, a work day, saw another 1000-plus volunteers out in the area, and the official Chelsea King Search Center soon had over 17,000 fans on its Facebook page. Local businesses donated banners and flyers, meals for volunteers, phones and telecommunications, transportation and other supplies.
A bit about this lovely girl. Chelsea was a straight-A student, a cross-country runner, a student tutor and community volunteer. She played the French Horn in the San Diego Youth Symphony, and represents one of far too many blonde-haired, blue eyed girls who have disappeared or been brutally raped and killed in San Diego over the ten or so years that we have lived here.
And whenever a girl like this goes missing and the larger community responds, we are reminded that she comes from a privileged home and neighborhood, and that hundreds of less affluent Californian children are taken each year from their homes, never to be searched for on this scale, never to be found. That their communities don’t have the financial wherewithal, the social clout or perhaps even the sheer will to launch a campaign and garner the kind of attention that Chelsea’s case did. We see these childrens’ faces only on late-night news reports, on milk cartons, on the walls of Walmart store exits as we hurry by.
But here’s the thing. None of this should matter. Because when a child goes missing? When she is raped, killed, buried? She is gone. Regardless of the fact that her family lives in a gated community or that she drove a nice car and was waiting to select the right college to attend, Chelsea is gone.
The man accused of her rape and murder was arrested even before her body was found. John Albert Gardner III’s semen was on her underwear, found near the crime scene. And before he was even arrested, he’d been linked to an assault in December 2009 and several other crimes.
Gardner is a convicted sex offender who served five years a decade ago for violently assaulting a 13-year-old girl at his mother’s home in Rancho Bernardo*. The criminal psychologist who assessed him at the time pushed for the stiffest sentence possible (11 years) because he felt strongly that Gardner would continue to be a danger to underage girls in the community and that he would re-offend. Gardner received a six-year sentence and served five.
Gardner has pleaded not guilty, our community is reeling, and Chelsea King’s parents and younger brother are trying somehow to come to terms with the fact that their “Angel” will never return.
People in Poway, Rancho Bernardo and Greater San Diego are sad and angry. Very, very angry. Thousands attended a candlelight vigil the night after her body was found, and the Chelsea King Search Center has transitioned into Chelsea’s Light on Facebook, a virtual community 18,000 strong that is vowing to work for change to sexual offender laws.
I have a sense that, as the months unfold, we will see unprecedented action on the part of people in our neighborhoods to do right by Chelsea. If any good comes of this, let it be that we understand better how sexual predators operate, and deal with their acts and sentencing appropriately. More to follow.
- Chelsea King Case Timeline
- Facebook Groups:
- Chelsea’s Light (Facebook)
* The same community where Chelsea was killed.