Chelsea King was a vivacious, accomplished, and extremely popular high school senior who expressed her goals and ambitions with eloquence and insight far beyond her years. She was good girl who had never been in any sort of trouble and never given her parents cause to worry, checking in with them regularly as to her schedule and whereabouts. So when she went jogging in accordance with her usual after-school routine, her parents, Kelly and Brent, had no reason to believe that she would not be home at the usual time. When she neither returned nor answered her cell phone, they knew immediately when something was wrong. The discovery of her abandoned car containing her purse and telephone confirmed their suspicions.
One year earlier, fourteen-year-old Amber Dubois had also gone missing without a trace. Amber loved books and wrote poetry. She was passionate about animals and left home that morning with a check entitling her to claim the lamb that was so excited about raising. But she never attended her classes that day.
Both girls disappeared from their northern San Diego County homes, just eight miles apart. Neither of them or their families were aware that John Albert Gardner was living nearby. Gardner was a convicted sex offender who served five years in state prison before being paroled. He was required to register as a sex offender and obey the strict terms and conditions applicable to parolees. When he failed to do so, authorities filed to arrest him and return him to prison for those parole violations.
Gardner had a vile, explosive temper his entire life, a fact known by his mother, Cathy Osborn, a psychiatric nurse. He never accepted responsibility for the assault that first landed him in prison, insisting he was innocent and coerced by his attorney into accepting a plea agreement. After his release, he fathered twin boys and held various jobs. Living with his girlfriend, he was utilizing her vehicle after wrecking his own, but working. Until his parole agent discovered that his girlfriend’s residence violated the residential restrictions associated with his parole. Forced to move, Gardner also lost his job. He reported feeling out of control and likely to hurt someone, but efforts to enroll him in an available treatment program were futile because the various programs would not accept known violent sex offenders. With no throttle on Garnder’s violent, predatory drive, he preyed on innocent Amber and Chelsea, as well as s woman who managed to fight off his attack and survive.
Lost Girls is author Caitlin Rother latest account of a true-life crime that captivated the attention of California’s and united San Diegans in the search for Gardner’s two innocent victims. The case challenged law enforcement professionals, even the most seasoned and hardened. Outraged once the bodies of Amber and Chelsea were located, and Gardner was brought to justice, their families, community leaders, and legislators embarked on a quest for answers. Why did the system fail, thereby providing Gardner with the opportunity to commit such heinous crimes and how can it be fixed? In the aftermath, Chelsea’s Law was adopted in California with the goal of keeping other children safely away from the grasp of violent predators like Gardner. But, in light of California’s ongoing budget woes, will the law ever be fully implemented and tested to see if it really makes a difference?
Employing her trademark true crime writing style, author Caitlin Rother explores the cases of Chelsea King and Amber Dubois, both of whom were abducted, raped, and murdered by Gardner. But Lost Girls is not an appropriate book for readers looking for easy answers or solutions, because in the course of exploring the intricacies of each case, Rother raises myriad issues, but wisely refrains from opining as to solutions.
At the heart of the story is, of course, the tragic loss of two beautiful young girls with bright futures. Their devastated families declined to be interviewed by Rother, so their experiences and viewpoints were gleaned from public records, including their statements to the media and during Gardner’s sentencing hearing. Rother also explores the crimes from the perspective of Gardner and his family, detailing his parents’ relationship, his problematic relationship with his violent father, and the fact that Gardner flew into violent rages from a very early age. Family and friends describe Gardner as an easy-going, affable young man with a very dark side. Still, no one — not even his own mother, a psychiatric professional — could foresee what a monster he would eventually become. Rother conducted a five-hour interview with Gardner at California State Prison, Corcoran, where he is housed with other high-profile inmates, including Charles Manson, which she details in the book’s epilogue.
Rother recounts the exhaustive searches for the two girls after they disappeared, focusing upon the efforts of law enforcement to quickly determine their whereabouts and bring them home safely. She also recounts the near-misses, missed opportunities, overlooked clues, and subsequent public criticism leveled, particularly with regard to the Escondido Police Department. She empathetically relates the toll that the cases took on some of the officers involved who had daughters of their own who were about the same ages as Chelsea and Amber.
Ultimately, the remains of Amber Dubois would never have been found had Gardner not agreed to lead detectives to her remote grave after he was in custody for Chelsea’s murder. As a result of a plea agreement, Gardner was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, in part because there was insufficient evidence to prove that he murdered Amber. In order to secure convictions for both crimes, as well as his assault upon a third woman, the San Diego County District Attorney opted not to pursue the death penalty for the sake of both of the girls’ families. The deal meant that Gardner never stood trial, but was brought to justice swiftly.
Rother writes in a straight-forward, somewhat detached manner that suits her subject matter, guiding readers through the cases and toward their own conclusions. For instance, she discusses the numerous parole violations that could and many argue should have landed Gardner back in prison, sparing the two girls’ lives, in a pragmatic manner. For instance, had Gardner been apprehended when he visited a California prison while on parole, he could have received a third strike and concomitant life sentence at that juncture. Rother’s restrained approach heightens appreciation of the magnitude of both Gardner’s crimes and the need to protect other children from meeting the same fate as Chelsea and Amber. Yet again, Rother delivers a spell-binding account of how many factors converged to create a “perfect storm” that led to the senseless deaths of two beautiful girls. Nothing will bring them back, but much can be learned from the unspeakably sad cases of Chelsea King and Amber Dubois through Rother’s unembellished, but deeply moving Lost Girls. Like her previous works, Lost Girls is a must-read for fans of For fans of true crime stories and would make an excellent book club selection because of the multi-layered and overlapping societal and personal issues spotlighted that deserve consideration and discussion.