Defendant in Chelsea King murder charmed some

Published: 3/4/2010 7:42 AM | Updated: 3/4/2010 7:43 AM

SAN DIEGO -- He shoveled snow and carried groceries for a neighbor. He cared for a sick girlfriend by pressing a cool cloth to her head all afternoon. A former high school girlfriend called him "the one person who has made me feel completely safe in this world."

Testimonies from family and friends in a 2000 child molestation case cast a sympathetic light on 30-year-old John Albert Gardner III, now accused of murdering 17-year-old girl Chelsea King while she was on a run and raping or attempting to rape her.

Gardner, who pleaded not guilty Wednesday to murder and assault with intent to commit rape, was linked to King's death from semen found in the victim's clothing, said California Department of Justice of spokesman Christine Gasparac.

A body that authorities believe is Chelsea's was discovered Tuesday in a shallow grave on the south shore of Lake Hodges in a wilderness area near a park where she was last seen five days earlier in running clothes. Her car was discovered at the park with her belongings inside.

Gardner stood silently in court, wrists shackled to his waist and eyes cast downward during Wednesday's brief hearing. Brent and Kelly King, Chelsea's parents, sat several rows back.

"We know that this has rocked San Diego," said District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. "It has rocked all of us."

A court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Matthew Carroll, urged the "maximum sentence allowed by law" in 2000 for Gardner for molesting a 13-year-old neighbor at his home, according to court documents. He called him "an extremely poor candidate" for treatment because he refused to admit any responsibility.

Dr. Mark Kalish, who shares an office with Carroll, said his colleague was saddened and angered by the news about Gardner, feeling his advice was ignored.

"He didn't want there to be any ambiguity or doubt about his assessment," Kalish said. "How much bigger a red flag could Dr. Carroll have raised?"

A defense sentencing memorandum shows Gardner also had sympathizers.

Dr. Divy Kikani, a psychiatrist who treated Gardner for bipolar disorder, wrote that his patient was "extremely remorseful" for inappropriate sexual relations with two girls, ages 13 and 14. He said Gardner was "highly motivated" to get help.

Kikani didn't respond to phone messages Wednesday.

Gardner spent at least part of his childhood in the San Bernardino Mountains community of Running Springs and attended nearby Rim of the World High School, according to the document. He was convicted in 1998 of disturbing the peace in an incident that involved trespassing on campus, his only previous criminal record at the time.

"Never once in the whole time that I have known John have I ever felt threatened or scared," Jennifer Tripp, who began dating Gardner when she was a sophomore and he was a senior, wrote the judge. She declined to comment Wednesday when reached by The Associated Press.

Vergie Lightfoot, who lived four houses away, said Gardner volunteered to fix a septic tank and carry groceries. They talked over pie and coffee.

Beth Melban, his then-girlfriend, said she began dating Gardner when they worked at Big 5 Sporting Goods in San Diego and that she took the initiative to kiss him on a first date. Her parents were eager to meet him.

"I practically had to force myself on him and he even knew I liked him," she wrote the judge. "John has never been anything but kind and compassionate towards me."

Catherine Osborn, Gardner's mother, wrote the judge in 2000 that her son accepted "full responsibility for his actions."

A spray-painted message was found on the garage of her home in San Diego's Rancho Bernardo area early Wednesday that read, "Chelseas blood is on you. Move out." Police did not know who painted it.

Garner faced a maximum of nearly 11 years in prison in 2000 under a plea agreement, but the judge accepted the prosecution's recommendation of six years. He was on parole for three years, until September 2008.

The district attorney's office has declined to comment on the 2000 case.

Gardner is also charged with intent to commit rape was filed in connection with a December attack on another female.

Gardner, who was required under state law to disclose his residence, registered in January to live in Lake Elsinore, north of San Diego, said John Hall, a spokesman for the Riverside County district attorney's office.

"He was not on our radar for any reason," Hall said.