Friday, May 21, 2010

SAN DIEGO | The parents of a murdered teenage girl went to Washington, D.C., this week, along with a California assemblyman, to gain national-level support for an assembly bill designed to toughen sentences for sex offenders.

Brent and Kelly King’s daughter, Chelsea, 17, was raped and murdered in a community park in north San Diego in February as she was jogging along a trail. A sex offender who had been released from prison against the advice of an evaluating psychiatrist was sentenced May 14 to two life sentences without parole for the murders of Chelsea and another teen, Amber Dubois, who vanished without a trace in Escondido in February 2009. It’s thought she was abducted while walking to school.

“The murders of Chelsea King and Amber Dubois have shaken the collective soul of our community and beyond,” said District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

John Albert Gardner III initially denied wrongdoing in both crimes, but last month pleaded guilty to both murders and to an attempted rape on another young woman in December. The plea arrangement saved him from the death penalty and spared the teens’ families the trauma of lengthy trials with intense media coverage. Ms. Dumanis said prosecutors could not convict Gardner with only his confession and no physical evidence tying him to Amber’s death.

“The death penalty is a hollow promise in this state,” Ms. Dumanis has repeatedly said.

State Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, San Diego Republican, has introduced “Chelsea’s Law” in Sacramento on behalf of the King family. Chelsea’s Law would establish the penalty of a life sentence without the possibility of parole for forcible sex crimes against children under age 18 when aggravating circumstances exist.

It also would extend parole for less serious sex crimes, in some cases allowing for lifetime parole and GPS monitoring of the convicted sex offenders. It would further restrict the offendersfrom being in public parks where children congregate.

The law would mandate lifetime parole for less-serious assaults. It has garnered initial bipartisan support and interest from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

At least two Facebook memorial pages have been set up in Chelsea’s honor, one under the auspices of the nonprofit Chelsea’s Light Foundation, another called One Billion Strong to Remember Chelsea King. One posting at the foundation’s page says the group will push for Chelsea’s Law equivalent legislation in every state after it passes in California.

Gardner was off parole when Chelsea was murdered. He had been released after serving five years of a six-year prison term for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old neighbor in 2000. On May 14, in addition to the two life terms for the murders, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the attempted rape of a college student in December.

Investigators are continuing to search records in San Diego and counties to the north - Riverside and San Bernardino - for any links Gardner may have with other people who have been reported missing.

Amber’s skeletal remains were uncovered in March on a rugged hill north of the tiny community of Pala, approximately 30 miles from her school, 13 months after she went missing.

Authorities said Gardner led investigators to Amber’s remains after he was taken into custody in Chelsea’s murder. Chelsea’s body was found a few days earlier in a shallow grave on the shoreline of Lake Hodges.

Divers, helicopters and sniffing dogs took part in the searches for the girls. More than a thousand phone calls from residents, including several psychics, contributed information to law enforcement officers, as San Diegans stayed riveted to news of the cases. Thousands of people attended vigils and memorials for the girls, and at least 6,000 people helped searched for them.

Gardner’s sentencing drew a crowd that had to be accommodated in an overflow room to watch the event at the downtown San Diego courthouse. Others stood, in support of Chelsea and Amber, on the steps of the Hall of Justice. Among them were the families of other murdered or raped children, many carrying sunflowers or lilies in memory of the recently slain teens and their loved ones.

State Assembly Bill 1844, informally called “Chelsea’s Law,” was introduced by Mr. Fletcher shortly after Gardner’s arrest. Mr. Fletcher said he and the Kings traveled to Washington to meet with California elected officials, including the state’s two senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats.

“We had a productive day of meetings,” Mr. Fletcher said Tuesday.

The bill has the support of a growing number of people who have galvanized into a force, known as Chelsea’s Light Foundation, since Chelsea’s death.

Amber’s father, Maurice Dubois, has been talking to legislators about ways to help authorities respond more quickly when children disappear. He plans to publicly outline a plan May 25, on National Missing Children’s Day.

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