"The picture of stabbing her is just not a memory I’d like. I thought I’d like it, but I didn’t. I like the raping part. I don’t like the killing part, especially if it’s bloody.”
That was John Albert Gardner III speaking matter-of-factly in a five-hour prison interview about his 2009 abduction/rape/murder of 14-year-old Amber Dubois of Escondido. Gardner uttered the chilling words while speaking with San Diego author Caitlin Rother, whose book, Lost Girls, comes out in early July from Pinnacle, an imprint of Kensington Publishing.
A year after murdering Amber, Gardner — a severely disturbed registered sex offender — captured, raped, and murdered 17-year-old Chelsea King of Poway, who lived near the Rancho Bernardo–area home of Gardner’s mother, with whom John often stayed. Not long before murdering Chelsea, Gardner had told a psychiatrist that he was in danger of hurting himself or others, but the shrink just sent him home with more medicine. “Five days later, John went on a suicidal binge of methamphetamine and other illicit drugs, which landed him in the emergency room,” writes Rother.
The night he murdered Chelsea, he was wildly out of control, writes Rother, who interviewed the mother (a psychiatric nurse), several of Gardner’s former girlfriends, and family members who had not previously opened up to researchers. In the prison interview, Rother asked him why he raped Chelsea. “In my state of mind at that time, I wanted to have sex, and I was going to have sex,” he replied. Rother then asked him why he killed the teenager: “Witness. Can’t tell if you’re not there to tell. If someone else was there, I would have killed them, too.”
This thoroughly reported and well-written book draws a terrifying portrait of a man who was sweet and cuddly one day and a crazed killer the next. A perfect storm of nature and nurture doomed him psychologically, and perfect storms of being at the wrong place at the wrong time doomed his teenage victims.
In detail, Rother describes the “complex mix of genetic and environmental risk factors — including addiction, alcoholism, physical abuse, mental illness, mental disorders…a rotating series of father figures, repeated moves from house to house, financial instability (including multiple bankruptcies), molestation and incest” that ultimately turned him into a monster.
In his teens, Gardner was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, paranoia, and conduct disorder, but he was never considered schizophrenic. He was clearly bipolar — one sign of which was “a high sex drive which can go into overdrive during a manic state, delusions of grandeur and of superhuman powers or skills,” writes Rother.
One of Gardner’s high school lovers said that in bed, Gardner was known as the Energizer Bunny. “He could go over and over and over repeatedly, and that could go on for, like, hours. And there wasn’t anything sexually he wasn’t willing to do. He was really focused on pleasing his partner.”
But fidelity was another matter. He admitted cheating on this girlfriend more than 80 times. She learned that at a friend’s party, he had had sex with five different girls in the course of the evening. He became the father of twin boys by still another young lady.
And, yet, in the prison interview, he told Rother, “I’d need years of therapy to get over the anger I have toward women.”
He also had sex with his aunt more than once, although these did not appear to be mania-induced episodes. He claimed she was the aggressor. She said he was. Needless to say, Gardner’s family background was dysfunctional; it was hardly surprising that he had drug and alcohol problems, as other family members had.
In May of 2000, when Gardner was 21, he pleaded guilty to two counts of lewd and lascivious acts and one count of false imprisonment. He confessed, “I unlawfully touched…a child under 14, by humping her with the intent to gratify my sexual desires. I also unlawfully touched…a child under 14 by touching her vaginal area with my hand.…” He also restrained her with violence.
But a forensic psychiatrist said Gardner “does not suffer from a psychotic disorder. He is simply a bad guy who is inordinately interested in young girls.” Gardner was a “danger to the community” but would not benefit from sexual offender treatment because he took no responsibility for his actions.
Gardner spent five years in prison. In 2003 he was placed in a prison mental health facility because he was a threat to himself and others. The next year he was talking about killing correctional officers. He also said he wanted to kill his attorney and the judge who sentenced him. He had a psychotic break. He completed parole in 2008, despite several term violations.
During parole, he was considered a “moderate-low risk sex offender — a group that has a 12.8 percent chance of reoffending in five years,” writes Rother. Moderate-low risk?
As the Amber/Chelsea story electrified San Diego and the worldwide media, many people asked why Gardner, with an egregious record known to law enforcement, was permitted to be a danger to society, and particularly young girls. Forensic psychiatrist Mark Kalish argued that the court in the 2000 case did have the information to foresee this tragedy. After all, a psychiatrist had told the judge that Gardner would be a continued danger to underage girls in the community. That psychiatrist had recommended the longest sentence possible under the law.
But others saw the situation differently. The State of California was in desperate financial shape. There wasn’t money to implement reforms. Chelsea’s Law, passed in 2010 to monitor sex offenders more closely, got off to a sputtering start for economic reasons but now may finally gain momentum.
Ultimately, Gardner was caught by DNA evidence — his semen was found on Chelsea’s panties. To avoid the death penalty, he confessed to both murders and is spending life in prison. Investigators haven’t found evidence of other murders he committed.
I doubt that there will be a better book on this tragedy than Rother’s. ■