Mourning begins for SoCal teen after body is found
SAN DIEGO – Thousands of mourners walked the sidewalks of a wide avenue in silence, holding candles and tearfully embracing.
Many were at a loss for words over the discovery of a body believed to be that of 17-year-old Chelsea King, five days after the popular, straight-A student from San Diego County disappeared and two days after a registered sex offender was booked on suspicion of rape and murder.
Severe shock and denial among King’s classmates is giving way to anger and hurt, Traci Barkerball, King’s teacher for three years at Poway High School, said Tuesday night.
«What bothers me most is the kids don’t feel safe anymore,» Barkerball said between hugs for grieving students. «Their sense of security has been taken away from them.»
Brent King, Chelsea’s father, thanked supporters on the lawn of St. Michael’s Church in Poway, northeast of San Diego. Some in the audience fought to control their sobs as he spoke.
«One of the nicknames that I’ve always called my daughter is my Angel. She’s my angel forever,» he said.
«I want to thank you. Chelsea wants to thank you,» he said.
When someone shouted, «We love you,» Brent King responded, «We love all of you.»
The body was found buried in a shallow grave on the south shore of Lake Hodges, said San Diego County Sheriff William Gore. The body has not been positively identified but Gore said there was a «strong likelihood» it was Chelsea’s.
John Albert Gardner III, 30, was scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday in San Diego.
The Lake Elsinore man pleaded guilty in May 2000 to molesting a 13-year-old female neighbor and served five years of a six-year prison term. Prosecutors said he lured the victim to his home with an offer to watch «Patch Adams,» a 1998 movie starring Robin Williams.
The girl was beaten before escaping and running to a neighbor.
Gardner «never expressed one scintilla of remorse for his attack upon the victim» despite overwhelming evidence, prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo.
He had faced a maximum of nearly 11 years in prison under terms of a plea agreement but prosecutors urged six years. A psychiatrist who interviewed Gardner, Dr. Matthew Carroll, wanted a stiffer punishment, saying in court documents that he was a «continued danger to underage girls in the community.»
Gardner was on parole for three years, until September 2008, state records show.
San Diego police say Gardner is positively linked to an assault on a 22-year-old Colorado Springs, Colo., woman who managed to fend off her attacker on Dec. 27 in Rancho Bernardo Community Park on the northern edge of San Diego, where King’s 1994 BMW was found with her belongings inside.
San Diego police Capt. Jim Collins decline to describe the evidence pinning the December assault on Gardner but said a swab taken from the victim’s elbow did not match Gardner’s DNA.
Tuesday night’s ceremony was initially planned as a vigil for King’s safe return but it took on the air of a memorial service three hours after the sheriff announced the body was recovered. Friends spoke of her quirky sense of humor and irrepressibly upbeat spirit.
«She would just breathe sunshine even if you were in a bad mood,» said Madison Chapman, a friend. «She made you feel like a little kid, like there were no problems, like nothing could go wrong.»
King, a senior, was quick to volunteer for school activities, whether at a prom for special education students or orientation night for incoming freshmen, said Barkerball, who supervised her in a peer counseling program.
Barkerball said King would have liked the massive turnout for her Tuesday night but been embarrassed.
«She would have been the first here for someone else,» she said.