ESCONDIDO, Calif. | As the first case to be prosecuted under California’s new “one-strike” sex offender law is processed, the parents of slain San Diego County teen Chelsea King are beginning to work toward passage of similar laws in Colorado, Florida, Ohio and Texas.
Chelsea’s Law, named after their daughter, places greater restrictions on paroled offenders and keeps behind bars for life those who have committed violent crimes against children under age 14. It swept through the legislature in about three months during budget season this year in a rare display of fervent bipartisan support.
California Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, author of Chelsea’s Law, is co-chairman of an exploratory committee evaluating other states to see whether they are “a good fit” for similar measures.
“Some states may have some parts of Chelsea’s Law already in place,” said Mr. Fletcher. “When we put together Chelsea’s Law we looked around the country to see what other states were doing so we could come up with the best piece of legislation we could. We’re looking for willing legislators.”
Since the law took effect earlier this month, a 55-year-old Lakeside man has been charged with the one-strike offense and felony counts of lewd acts against a 9-year-old boy. If convicted, the man could receive 25 years to life in prison.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also has signed three bills supported by Maurice Dubois, the father of slain 14-year-old Amber Dubois. Together, these bills speed up the reporting of missing children to the National Crime Information Center, establish a director of missing child operations in the California state attorney general’s office, and create a checklist for police to follow during investigations.
Another California bill, backed by San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, would allow parents of murdered teens to ask a judge to seal their children’s autopsy-related information. It is awaiting the governor’s signature.
Two dozen media outlets asked for the autopsy results of both girls. Amber didn’t arrive at school on Feb. 13, 2009. Her remains were found on an isolated hillside in Pala in March. Chelsea went jogging in a Rancho Bernardo park in February, and the 17-year-old’s body was found along a nearby lakeshore a few days later. John Gardner was convicted in both slayings.
A gag order was in place during the investigations, pending a possible trial but the cases were later concluded with confessions and a plea bargain that let Gardner avoid the death penalty.
After the judge lifted the gag order, law enforcement stayed silent until after Gardner was sentenced in May. A press conference held a few days later still didn’t provide the information reporters wanted, such as what exactly happened on the day Gardner reportedly led investigators to Amber’s remains.
“We were asked not to talk about the case,” Sheriff Bill Gore said at the press conference. A spokesman for District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said that after the gag order was lifted, Ms. Dumanis asked law enforcement to respect the victims’ privacy.
Escondido Police Department, which investigated Amber’s disappearance as part of a task force of agencies, has said that during the time it was under a gag order, it was not able to dispel reported and rumored “myths” about the case.
Among the “myths,” said spokesman Capt. Bob Benton, was that Amber was investigated as a runaway. A police report on Amber shows that she was listed as a missing juvenile at risk, with unknown circumstances.
One controversial aspect of the case was a canine search conducted by a volunteer team called VK9, an organization based in Virginia. In August 2009, the dogs appeared to lead their handlers 20 miles north of Amber’s home to Pala, less than two miles away from where Amber’s remains were eventually found. Escondido police followed up by having another organization take their bloodhounds to Pala but those dogs were not able to verify the VK9 efforts.
Interviews conducted by The Washington Times with several law enforcement agencies in other states who have used VK9’s dogs indicate that the team’s work is considered highly credible in a variety of aged scent and vehicle trail situations, although none of the trails referenced was as old as Amber’s would have been.
Also on the Escondido Police Department’s list of “myths” is that Amber’s mother, Carrie McGonigle, had a live-in boyfriend at the time, Dave Cave, who was a suspect in the crime.
“We can never say that we suspect or don’t suspect a family,” Capt. Benton said. “In any investigation, we have to keep an open mind all the way through.”
Though it was reported initially that the two passed polygraph tests, police later reworded their response and said that Mr. Cave’s polygraphs were “inconclusive” at first, then later deemed not to “show any signs of deception,” Capt. Benton said.
Public access to some information in the cases has been denied by San Diego County under the California Public Records Act. The county also is referencing a state constitutional amendment, known as Marsy’s Law, which is intended to reduce the number of parole hearings of convicted murderers, but which the county is interpreting more broadly.
“Marsy’s Law is designed to preserve and protect a victim’s rights to justice and to be treated with fairness and respect for his or her privacy and dignity and to be free from intimidation, harassment and abuse throughout the criminal justice process,” said Ms. Dumanis.
But Terry Francke, general counsel for Cal-Aware, a First Amendment issues organization, disagreed, saying, “As terribly sad as their lives may have been made, the survivors of homicide victims do not own the facts about the crime any more than the government does. It is particularly cynical and cruel of the law enforcement bureaucracy to suggest to the families that their ‘dignity’ somehow depends on keeping the rest of the community in the dark.”