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Public Safety

Dubois, King Disappearances Prove Not All Missing Children Cases Treated The Same

Amber Dubois (L) and Chelsea King, Chelsea's Light
Amber Dubois (L) and Chelsea King

The disappearances of 14-year-old Amber Dubois and 17-year-old Chelsea King illustrate a sad fact: not all missing children cases are treated the same.

Chelsea disappeared Feb. 25, last seen in a park with running clothes. The case sparked a search that involved a small army of 1,500 law enforcement officials from dozens of agencies and thousands of volunteers.

It ended five days later when a body was found in a shallow lakeside grave.

Amber was walking to school when she vanished a year ago just 10 miles north of the site where Chelsea was last seen. Leads went nowhere. The news media showed little interest.

Perhaps the biggest determinant in getting the attention of law enforcement and reporters is whether there are signs of foul play that may put other children at risk. The skill of a victim’s family at working with the media and mobilizing supporters also helps decide which cases capture public interest.

There are 115 non-family child abductions a year in the United States — an average of more than two a week, according to the latest Department of Justice figures from 1999. But only a handful get anywhere near the attention that followed the disappearance of Chelsea King.

FBI dive teams scoured Lake Hodges for Chelsea, the Marines dispatched a C-130 plane and an unmanned aerial vehicle circled above. Law enforcement officers came from as far as Santa Barbara, more than 200 miles away.

San Diego County Sheriff William Gore was at the scene the same night Chelsea’s father found her 1994 BMW parked at Rancho Bernardo Community Park and stayed throughout much of the round-the-clock search.

Signs of foul play quickly emerged. In addition to the locked car, a California Department of Justice spokeswoman said authorities found Chelsea’s semen-stained clothing, leading them to arrest convicted sex offender John Albert Gardner III outside a restaurant in Escondido.

Gardner, 30, spent five years in prison for molesting a 13-year-old neighbor in 2000. He has pleaded not guilty to Chelsea’s murder and the attempted rape of another woman in December.

Susan Plese, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, said no one was available Friday to discuss the scale of the response to the King case compared to other disappearances. Experts said evidence of foul play was probably key.

“Any evidence that confirms foul play will definitely bump up the visibility,” said David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center. “If there’s a homicidal maniac in the community and there’s a threat to you and your kid, that always increases the fever about a case.”

Maurice Dubois said a spate of early reports that his daughter had been seen hampered his efforts to draw attention to the case. None of those sightings panned out and instead fueled speculation that Amber was a runaway rather than a crime victim.

Amber was last seen walking on Feb. 13, 2009 with a man about 200 yards from Escondido High School by a woman who used to drive her to middle school, her father said. Another neighbor reported seeing her about 300 yards from school. Yet Amber never appeared on school surveillance cameras.

Amber, a member of Future Farmers of America, left home with a $200 check to buy a lamb. It was never cashed.

“The circumstances were completely different,” Dubois said. “The evidence that they found on Chelsea led them to believe that they needed to find her immediately. There was never, ever any evidence found on Amber.”

Children from wealthy families tend to generate more attention, said Finkelhor, partly because the parents seem to be more adept at working with the media and building networks.

Chelsea’s parents, Brent and Kelly King, patiently and skillfully worked with the media through their anguish, aided by a volunteer public relations professional. In interviews, they gave Chelsea’s life story: the oldest child of long-married parents, straight-A student, French horn player in the youth symphony, avid long-distance runner, tireless volunteer for school and community activities.

Chelsea’s friends at Poway High School turned out in droves.

“Right before I broke the news (of the body discovery), they were telling stories about her — funny things she said, silly things she did,” said Paula Bunn, a counselor at the Chelsea King Volunteer Center. “You could tell she was very loved by her friends.”

Ernest Allen, executive director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said he was immediately drawn to Amber’s case because she did not appear troubled and was so excited to go to school that day to buy her lamb. Still, reporters and TV producers kept asking about speculation that she was a runaway.

“What I hear all the time is, ‘It’s just a missing kid. Tell me why this one is different,’” Allen said. “The ones that get the attention are the ones that are clear and unequivocal” foul play.

Ironically, it was Chelsea’s disappearance that sparked intense interest in finding Amber. Her parents, who are separated, are now besieged by reporters and Escondido police say they are seeking potential links between Amber and Gardner.

“I believe it’s going to proceed at a much more accelerated pace now,” Dubois said.

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