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Community Responds To Murdered Teens

Community Responds To Murdered Teens

GLORIA PENNER (Host): Community members gathered again this week in North County to mark another tragic loss. They remember 14-year-old Amber Dubois, whose body was found last weekend on the Pala Indian Reservation. At a candlelight vigil Monday night, Amber’s father, Maurice Dubois, spoke to the crowd.

MAURICE DUBOIS (Father of Amber Dubois): Please take a minute for every tear you have ever shed for Amber, for Chelsea, and for any other child who has suffered at the hands of these predators, and come back tomorrow and take just as many minutes of action in our fight to protect our children.

PENNER: The discovery of Amber’s body came one week after the body of 17-year-old Chelsea King was found near Lake Hodges. These tragedies are raising many questions in the community about safety, crime and laws to protect kids. Joining me to talk about the aftermath of these events are KPBS reporters Amita Sharma and Ana Tintocalis. And thank you both for joining us. So, Ana, what is the mood in the county over these deaths?

ANA TINTOCALIS (KPBS News): Well, I talked to a number of parents and obviously the loss of these two teenagers has touched everyone’s heart. Nationally in the world, and of course here in San Diego County. I think there is deep sadness, grief, just a deep sense of loss. And I think there's also disbelief. I heard a lot of parents say, “I can't believe this has happened in our community.” And I think that has led into this feeling of uneasiness. I think parents feel – the parents I talked to – feel like they have to rethink their own approach to child safety and neighborhood safety. I also get a sense of determination, like parents want to take back their neighborhoods. They want to get involved with helping legislation become more strict on sex offenders.

PENNER: So safety is a major concern now. You know, not simply being careful about speeding cars but something beyond that.

TINTOCALIS: Yeah, like the deep criminal elements that might exist in hidden dangers that might exist in communities that seem very idyllic on the outset.

PENNER: Well, Amita, you spoke to an Escondido mother who wanted to see offenders put away after one major conviction. Now, that’s been echoed by other people as well but there's already a law like that in place isn’t there? What is that law?

AMITA SHARMA (KPBS News): Well, there are a couple of laws. The main law is California Penal Code Section 667.61. And very simply put, that law says that if someone commits a sexual act by force against a child that person can be put away for life.

PENNER: So then how would John Gardner, who is charged with the murder of Chelsea King, how would he fit into that?

SHARMA: Back in 2000, John Gardner pleaded guilty to committing lewd conduct on a child and false imprisonment of that child. That girl was 13 years old. At the time, he kept her in his mother’s home in Rancho Bernardo. And she said that he repeatedly hit her in the face, that he put his hand on her mouth so she couldn’t breathe. She felt like she was suffocating and she may have blacked out. All the while he was sexually molesting her. I have spoken to five separate criminal defense attorneys up and down this state. They all agree that at that time there were laws on the books that would have put him away for life if the prosecutor and the judge in the case had applied those laws. And as you know the prosecutor cut a plea deal with John Gardner and sought six years, five of which he served. Secondly, there's another law once you're in prison. If you are evaluated and identified as a high-risk sexual offender, you can be committed in a mental hospital for life. That did not happen here. And thirdly, we found out yesterday from parole documents that were released that John Gardner violated parole at least seven times. One was for marijuana possession, another one was the battery on his GPS device on his anklet was low. Another one was that he didn’t show up for parole. But the most serious one was that he was found to be living within a half-mile of a daycare center. And that’s a big no-no under this law. He could have been sent back to prison for that. He was not.

PENNER: He was not. But he was living close to a daycare center and we know that that really isn’t legal in the State of California anymore. Ana, let’s talk a little bit about that issue of where sex offenders live and how dangerous it is. You looked at a number of registered sex offenders living in Southeast San Diego, and you looked all the way up to North County. What did you find?

TINTOCALIS: Well, yeah. The loss of these two teenagers shocked our entire region. We felt it was important to check in with other communities and see how they view abductions and rape and murder, and what is happening in their own communities. And so we naturally looked to Southeast San Diego. This is an area with a high concentration of gangs. And what we found was it has one of the highest concentrations of serious or high-risk sex offenders. And when I went on the sex offender map website, which was created under Megan’s Law, you pretty much see it. You know, there's this map of San Diego County and a lot of the blue dots that signal sex offenders, they’re all concentrated below Interstate 8 and in that Southeast Skyline Hills area.

PENNER: Just briefly then, do parents in Southeast San Diego look at issues of safety differently?

TINTOCALIS: And that was the interesting thing that we found out. We did this kind of comparing and contrasting - and I’m not going to say I'm a sociologist by any means, but it was interesting and very telling when I spoke with parent in Southeast San Diego. You know, they say they live with dangers everyday. It’s on their front doorstep. So it really influences the way they maneuver around dangers. Kids are acutely aware of their surroundings and so are parents. And parents are real about the situation. They talk to their kids about it, versus some of the parents in the North County say that there's this kind of feeling that they can give their kids some freedom and independence because it’s more of a rural area.

PENNER: Well we did ask San Diego marriage and family therapist, David Peters, about how members of our community can deal with these deaths. And here’s what he said.

DAVID PETERS (Marriage Family Therapist): It’s important for us to not overreact. The fact is violent crime rates have been dropping across this country for 20 years. And in San Diego County we’re at a 25-year low in violent crime. So we are safe, but life is not completely safe. People will be struggling with experiences of pain, sorrow, grieving… Normal grieving looks very much like clinical depression. People could find themselves depressed for days if they're following the story closely.

So I recommend sometimes people should turn the television off, indulge in things that are life giving. Hug your kids, go out to the park, enjoy the beautiful county that we have so that we can be reminded that life is going on for all of us; life must go on for all of us. We can pause and grieve for those who are lost. We can reach out to those who are in grief. But if we do not affirm that we are alive and that we do have control over our lives, then we’re putting ourselves at further risk.

PENNER: So David Peters does talk about taking control of our lives. How can individuals and families and neighborhoods do that?

TINTOCALIS: Well, what I’ve found, at least in the Southeast San Diego area, is that the community has responded by really banding together. And you see nonprofits. They’re all working together and they're really working with police too. There was a feeling in Southeast San Diego that the police were the bad guys. But they’ve learned to work together and they're combating crime. And in fact, a lot of the violent crime is now going down in that area. I think also there is a sense of, you know, determination and a call for action among parents everywhere. Parents want to get involved in changing sex offender laws, getting involved with groups that are looking to really create change from these very unfortunate events.

PENNER: Meanwhile I'm sure that they're all watching to see what happens next in these investigations. What are the next steps, Amita?

SHARMA: Well, right now investigators are collecting evidence, they’re processing it, and they’re looking for more. Just yesterday, Escondido police towed away a car once belonging to John Gardner. A preliminary hearing has been set to reschedule in the case for August. There's a gag order in the case so we’re unlikely to learn too many details about what evidence prosecutors have at this point.

PENNER: Just briefly explain what a gag order would mean.

SHARMA: A gag order means that prosecutors and the defense, and the judge, and any agents of the district attorney’s department – meaning every single police department in this county – are forbidden to talk about this case to the media or really to anyone.

PENNER: So, now as the case proceeds we’re going to be in the dark? Or what?

SHARMA: Depends on if people leak. It depends on if people who’ve been interviewed by investigators talk. Much depends on whether the gag order is lifted.

PENNER: Okay, well thank you very much Amita Sharma, Ana Tintocalis.

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