Sex offender pleads not guilty in death of former Naperville teen

  • John Albert Gardner

    John Albert Gardner

  • Chelsea King

    Chelsea King

Published: 3/3/2010 11:34 AM | Updated: 3/4/2010 7:44 AM

A 30-year-old registered sex offender pleaded innocent Wednesday to charges he murdered a 17-year-old former Naperville girl who disappeared last week during a run through a San Diego park.

John Albert Gardner III also was charged with a "special circumstance" allegation of murder while committing or attempting a rape, a charge that could make him death-penalty eligible. Prosecutors said that decision will come later.

Gardner is also charged with assault with intent to commit rape in connection with an attack on a jogger in December of 2009.

Several of Chelsea's childhood friends were still gathered Wednesday at the home of the Rich Nowell family in Naperville. But Nowell said his daughter and her friends did not want to discuss the day's tragic developments.

Wearing a blue jail uniform, Gardner stared at the floor during most of the arraignment, lifting his eyes only as his public defender entered innocent pleas on each of the charges. He spoke only when answering "yes" when the judge asked if his attorney could speak on his behalf.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Joseph Brannigan ordered Gardner held in jail without bail and defense attorneys did not argue.

"Now that we have filed charges, our primary focus is obtaining justice for Chelsea King and her family," San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said. "This crime has rocked San Diego. It has rocked all of us."

Gardner's next court date will be a status hearing at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday followed by a March 18 preliminary hearing date.

Deputy District Attorney Kristen Spieler will prosecute the case. She said she is confident, despite the national media attention the case has attracted, that Gardner can get a fair trial in San Diego.

"We will be trying this case and presenting evidence in open court, not in the public or the media," she said.

Chelsea and her parents moved to San Diego from Naperville in January 2007 during the teen's freshman year at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora. Chelsea was born in California.

About 1,600 volunteers searched for Chelsea, a straight-A student and member of the San Diego Youth Symphony, on Sunday, while about 1,000 went out Monday, according to figures posted on the Facebook page her family created after her disappearance. In all, the family estimates about 4,000 volunteers helped looked for her.

Gardner has a history of criminal trouble with women. A San Diego television station, 10 News, reported that Gardner committed a forcible lewd act on a child in 2000. A 13-year-old girl accused him of repeatedly punching her in the face and fondling her at the Rancho Bernardo townhouse of Gardner's mother, which is about a mile from Rancho Bernardo Community Park, where Chelsea's car was discovered.

The 13-year-old said she went to the residence after Gardner invited her in to watch a movie.

Gardner was sentenced to six years in prison and served five years before he was released in September 2005.

He was on probation until 2008.

He registered as a sex offender, using his grandmother's Lake Elsinore address but reportedly had been staying with his mother lately, the station said.