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"Lost Girls" documents the murders of North County teenagers Chelsea King and Amber Dubois.

July 17, 2012 1:12 p.m.


Caitlin Rother, Author of "Lost Girls"

Phyllis Shess - Executive Director, San Diego Sex Offender Management Council

Related Story: Rother Responds To Controversy Over Her True Crime Book 'Lost Girls'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Considering the usual slow pace of the justice system, the trial of John Gardner for the murders of teenagers Amber Dubois and Chelsea king might just be taking place. The new book, lost girls, focuses on the troubling background of murderer, John Gardner, and opens up a number of questions about how we deal with the disturbed people who walk among us Caitlin Rother is author of lost girls. Welcome back.
ROTHER: Thanks for having me.
CAVANAUGH: And Phyllis Shess is here, former director of sex offender management, and former San Diego district attorney. Hello.
SHESS: Hi, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: This case blazed in 2010, and then it seemed to be resolved so quickly considering how hot that spotlight was. It seemed to leave so many questions in its wake. Of
LEF2: The reason I wrote the book is because of the emotions it raised in the community. And it happened in my community, and I felt it just like everybody else. When Chelsea went missing, there was so much hope. And once they found her body and arrested John Gardner, within four-days they found amber's body. And there was an enormous groundswell of anger. To me, that was the perfect environment, I thought. This is a story that really needs to be told because clearly this is something that we need to know more about.
CAVANAUGH: Most of the people listening to us know it, but you had 14-year-old Amber Dubois from Escondido, missing for a year, and then in 2010, 17-year-old Chelsea king of Poway disappeared. Take it from there, if you would.
ROTHER: That was basically a year and two weeks. So this was something specific to that timing. So John Gardner was like a ticking timebomb. He knew he had already murdered one girl. I don't know if you could call it guilt, I don't know what was going on in his mind, other than anger and confusion, and he was drinking and using methamphetamine, and he decided he wanted to go out and have sex. He was frying to kill himself, he was a mess, mentally unstable, trying to get help, and he wasn't able to get help. And I don't say that to be sympathetic to him. I am saying that because what that means is we as a community are not safe when someone is disintegrating like that and has nowhere to go when they even try to stop themselves.
CAVANAUGH: And of course the searchs that people will remember, anyone who lived in the North County might remember the helicopters and the searches and the searches in the park, and then the apprehension. And then that startling series of events where all of a sudden they had a suspect, and then all of a sudden, wait a minute, is this linked with Amber Dubois, and then it was linked, and before you knew it, John Gardner was pleading guilty to the murders of both of these girls and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. And then it seemed in a sense to be over.
ROTHER: It was something like 76 days. And the attorneys actually moved the sentencing date back to where it would have been if he hadn't waived time because they just wanted this to be over before he opened his mouth again. He did that channel 8 interview, got the community so riled up, and he thought apparently that he was going to look more in a positive light, that he had been the one to tell authorities where amber's body was. And in his mind, that's what he thought.
CAVANAUGH: Why did we not have that long trial? Why was the death penalty taken off the table?
ROTHER: Well, his attorneys got him to admit that he did have something to do with amber's death, and he said yes, I do know where the body is, I'm going to have to take you there though. I can't tell you. So they did this whole can destine trip up there, and had to not let anybody know. He went up there and showed them where he had killed Amber and placed her body. And they made a deal though that they could not use that against him. So therefore they had to find something independent, evidence, to show that he was linked to amber's murder, and they couldn't find it. So Bonnie Dumanis decided that the death penalty system here in California is broken. We have had 13 executions in I don't know how long, and it's been since 2006 there's over 700 people on death row. And to get closure for amber's family, she asked the Kings if they would mind going along with the deal to take the death penalty off the table so that they could have justice for Amber.
CAVANAUGH: In some of your answers already, I think you let people become aware that this book is largely about the well troubled, disturbing, complicated history of murderer, John Gardner. What are the things that stood out for you while you went through this depressing and somewhat depraved history and life story of this man?
ROTHER: Well, with John Gardner, he came into a very dysfunctional family, which is not anybody's fault when that happens. His family was full of molestation and addiction and mental illness and incest and geographical instability, financial instability. It was not a good environment for anybody to grow up in. But there's something called resilience. Certain people can manage to come out of that environment and not do bad to other people. I'm not trying to make excuses. That's just psychological theory. He was bipolar, he had ADD from when he was very young, he had impulse control problem, and he had an unbelievable anger problem. He worsened all of that by drinking and using methamphetamine. Even if you're not mentally ill, that's like a match on a spark.
CAVANAUGH: One of the things that popped out for me was that he tried to commit suicide as a 9-year-old. That just -- I can't understand suicide as a 9-year-old. I mean, that's got to be an indicator of some deep, deep mental problems.
ROTHER: Right. He was institutionalized three times when he was 9 and 10 when his parents divorced. And he was trying to take care of his depressed father. And he hated himself at age 6. There were clearly signs when he was very young that he was very troubled.
CAVANAUGH: And his mom said I had to give up the idea that my son is ever going to have a normal life.
ROTHER: Right. And she took him, tried to get him medicated, took him to the hospital, got him therapy. At some point, what more can you do? And some people said she enabled him, she should have done this, that.
CAVANAUGH: And the book outlines this whole series of terrible circumstances within and without of his life that sort of -- you know, made him into this person who could have done these terrible things. Phyllis, Gardner was imprisoned for a previous sex offense before these murders. We have so many laws aimed at preventing men like this from reoffending, certainly in reoffending in such a terrible way. What are we doing wrong?
SHESS: You know, I think to try to answer that is nearly impossible. There are so many things that we do right. But these are all efforts to contain and control. San Diego County, for instance, probably has one of the most progressive and aggressive sex offender management programs in the country. We are looked at to everyone in the country. We have the safe task force, an incredible collaboration of law enforcement. We are the San Diego sex offender management council, a committee on the part of elected officials. Yet even with all of those things in place, evil happens. You cannot always stop a runaway train. And I think this book certainly points out that there are certain people that you can have controls over but you cannot get inside their brain, you cannot read their minds, and you cannot know what evil lurks in there.
CAVANAUGH: San Diego County is now responsible for monitoring more felons because of prison realignment. Is it actually the case that all we're going to be dealing with are low-level, nonviolent convicts?
SHESS: Well, I don't have all the statistics in front of me. I know that there is a likelihood that you will have people who are released into the community who have sex crimes in their background. Someone who may have a sexual battery, has gone to prison now for an auto theft and is released locally. Because their static 99†score indicates they are not a high-risk offender. But John Gardner was not regarded as a high-risk offender. So we're going to be depending on the skills and dedication of state parole and probation to make sure that these people are monitored. We now, and have had in place in San Diego County, informally the containment model for years. Now that is statutorily mandated for these released parolees. So our hope is that people will be able to identify these dynamic risk factors like the drinking, the homelessness, the family turmoil, and recognize that someone may be ready to blow.
CAVANAUGH: Another thing that popped out that I did not realize, while he was on parole, Gardner wore a monitoring device. The county program depends a lot on GPS monitoring. I had the wrong idea about GPS monitoring. In the movies, you see people being tracked while somebody is watching a screen. But there's really virtually no real-time monitoring of where people are going,; isn't that correct?
SHESS: There is no real-time monitoring. What you do get is for instance if you have a parolee on a GPS and they go into an exclusion zone, there's an immediate alert, and a probation officer or parole officer is going to follow up on that immediately, make contact with that probationer. But in terms of can we see where they're going? No. Do we know what they're doing when they're there? No. The there are cases of throughout the United States where people have actually been wearing GPSes while they assaulted children. So the GPS is it a tool, and it's going to be only as good as the people who are monitoring it. But it's going to depend on so many other factors being in place, the treatment, the supervision, the recognition of what's going on in their life, what we call the dynamic risk factors, law enforcement, everything has to come together.
CAVANAUGH: One of the -- another frustrating piece of information in your book, Caitlin, is about state requirements about where convicted sex offenders can live. You have to take this with a huge grain of salt. As you point out, John Gardner is just a pathological liar. But he basically says when he lost his job in LA and was forced to move because of sex offender housing requirements, it sort of put him on a downward spiral that he never got out of.
ROTHER: Right. According to him, and he does have a victim pathology, he said I lost this job in LA, I had a relationship in San Bernardino, the mother of my twin boys, and I couldn't see them anymore, my life just fell apart. I couldn't afford to live anywhere, and I ended up living out of my truck. And he had his GPS gracelet, still wearing at that time. And his mom bought him some kind of battery charger that he had to have it charged while he was in the truck. And he just disintegrated. And that's the thing about sex offenders. If bee want to be safe, I know people want to lock them up and throw away the key, or keep them corralled some place because they're monsters, according to these stories they've done, it's not where they live. It's where they go that you want to be careful of. And it's that they shouldn't be in the parks. Look what he did to Chelsea in the park. The fact that his mother lived near a daycare center, that's why he couldn't live with her, he ended up having to live in the truck. Well, if he's disintegrating emotionally, he's going to attack someone somewhere.
CAVANAUGH: At the very end of the book, there's a long interview that you did have with John Gardner when he is in prison. And he said that there are no more victims. He's basically told law enforcement that he doesn't have anymore victims that are going to be found. Is this something that you took to be an honest thing from him?
ROTHER: Well, I interviewed the police homicide detectives who know this kind of thing better than I do. And they believed him. He said that Amber was his first, although he did violently rape a prostitute before her, and that there were no other victims. They will still searching though because he had on a GPS bracelet, they saw that he had been in some remote areas at 3:00†AM for 20 minutes here, then drove some place else for 20 minutes there, and like, what was he going out this? So search and rescue teams have searched those areas to see if there are any bodies but so far they haven't found any.
CAVANAUGH: There's been a campaign waged against your book, lost girls, by the Dubois and the king families. And they outline on their Facebook pages and on their websites why it is that they don't want this book. They call it nonauthorized. You didn't get to speak to them during writing this book?
ROTHER: No, but I did reach out to them and I did try to interview them. I really wanted to honor the victims. And in this case, I wrote this book because I don't want there to be any other victims. And I don't mean any disrespect to them. I'm really sorry for their Los, that they're deeply hurt by this book. That certainly was not my intention.
CAVANAUGH: Do you think it's too soon for these families to read anything about John Gardner?
ROTHER: If it were me, I wouldn't read the book. I would not want to read any of it, and I wouldn't blame them at all if they didn't, and I wouldn't even ask them to. I totally understand that.
CAVANAUGH: One of the messages that you have, Phyllis, is that we want to believe we're more protected than we are.
SHESS: Yeah, it is a sad truth, but none of us want to believe that this can happen to any of us. And we do think because we have things like the safe task force in place or guys on GPS that none of this is going to happen to us. But in fact, as I said earlier, you can't identify when someone is ready to blow, and you can't tell what a sex offender looks line. When people ask me, you know, what do they look like, I say look in the mirror. They look just like you and me. Often very charming, often very charismatic Caitlin's book talks a bit about John Gardner even having that side. But the other part of it is that people forget that as horrific and awful and heartbreaking as this case is, this is a sliver of a percentage of the probabilities. Most of the harm to our children comes from within what I call our circle of trust. Family members, uncles, coaches, look at Jerry Sandusky, priests. People who we entrust our children with. So we need to get very smart about taking responsibility and knowing who our children are associating with and teaching our children how to protect themselves. I think the King and Dubois families did everything right with their kids. Cherished them, loved them, these were wonderful girls. It's a horrific loss. You cannot stop evil.
CAVANAUGH: We have to leave it there.
SHESS: Thank you.
ROTHER: Thank you for having us.