Updated at 10:50 a.m. March 1, 2013
In the weeks before he raped and killed Poway High School senior Chelsea King, John Gardner tried to get help before he hurt someone else.
But mental health and substance abuse facilities in two counties kept turning him away—at least a half-dozen times.
That’s one of the key revelations of Lost Girls by Caitlin Rother, whose book documents the many cracks the violent sexual offender fell through before being sent to prison for life in the murders of Chelsea and, a year earlier, Amber Dubois.
Gardner’s mother, who described him as “Charlie Sheen on steroids,” took him to a public psychiatric facility in Riverside County on Feb. 8, 2010.
“I thought I was going to get committed,” Gardner told Rother.
He said he told a psychiatrist there: “I’m afraid I’m either going to kill somebody or kill myself. … I think I’m a 5150”—a reference to a state law that allows authorities to hold someone for 72 hours as a danger to himself or others.
Gardner quoted the doctor as telling him: “I just think you need medication. … If the problem continues, come back and see me.”
Even when Gardner suggested that he be locked up for a few days—while adjusting to medications—the doctor said “he should be fine once he started the prescription,” Rother wrote.
Seventeen days later, Gardner attacked Chelsea in Rancho Bernardo Community Park.
Privacy laws kept Rother from officially confirming the mental hospital visit, but Gardner’s mother produced a pair of drug bottles dated Feb. 8, she wrote.
Neither could anyone provide phone records of Gardner calling six to eight facilities for a place to check in. But Rother checked with the county of San Diego and learned that none of the 1,115 drug-treatment or mental-health inpatient beds in the region would accept sex offenders—even ones who know they are feeling homicidal.
Outrage over the case led many voices, including Chelsea’s family and the Chelsea’s Light Foundation, to campaign for stricter laws governing sex offenders.
One result was Assembly Bill 1844, known as Chelsea’s Law, authored by former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher and signed into law in September 2010.
But Rother’s investigation of Gardner and his psychiatric nurse mother’s efforts to get him help revealed other loopholes or inadequacies in state law.
While The San Diego Union-Tribune urged action on its front page, Rother quietly chose to let her work speak for itself.
“I’m not an activist,” she said last month. “People have said: Well, what should we do? That’s not my job. My job is to show you what’s wrong.
“It’s somebody else’s job to write the legislation.”
But in a late-January Patch interview at a bagel shop not far from her Kensington home, Rother outlined four “problem” areas that she thinks call out for the public’s attention:
The lack of substance-abuse and mental-health beds that take sex offenders
San Diego County likely isn’t alone in this respect, Rother said. “I guarantee you it’s like that in other counties.”
When they are homeless and jobless and can't get help, sexual offenders can “disintegrate,” she said, and then “we are in danger. I’m not saying that to be sympathetic to them, but if they don’t have a place to go when they know they need help—we are all in touble.”
Reform of 5150 regulations
Rother says it is her understanding of the law that if a violent sexual offender walks into a county mental health facility and says he’s a 5150, staff will ask him: “Do you feel like hurting someone right now?”
And if the offender says no, she said, “they have to let him go.”
In Gardner’s case, she told Patch, “it’s clear he needed help and they gave him the wrong medication. They [the pills] made him more manic.”
Better classification of offenders
Rother notes that Gardner was designated a low-risk offender “when he should have been designated, I believe, as a sexually violent predator—which are people who get sent to that $180,000-a-year facility in Coalinga.”
The high expense may sound ridiculous to taxpayers, “but it’s our system,” Rother said. “I’m sure that’s why they don’t designate people like him. We don’t have the money to treat people like that.”
But she thinks too little attention is given the system that deemed Gardner “low-risk.”
“Where are the people who are looking at his records that I looked at—when he had that breakdown in prison [and was] threatening to kill people?”
“How did he get released?”
Rother’s theory is that officials thought: “Oh, he’s medicated, so he’s OK. At that moment … they screwed up.”
Perhaps corrections officials wanted to keep him in prison for the 2000 assault on a 13-year-old neighbor. But “mental health [officials] said he’s OK.”
That issue is addressed in Chelsea’s Law, but Rother says offender designations and their monitoring while on and off parole still need attention.
GPS monitoring of offenders on probation
Rother says people feel safe because parolees “are wearing that bracelet” on their ankle—“when in fact nobody’s watching them. Those bracelets are not for real-time monitoring. Everybody thinks they are, but they are not.”
Epilogue: Contrasting courses of action
In March 2010, the Union-Tribune began running a series of editorials under the heading “A Call to Action.”
“Over the course of coming weeks, probably months, this newspaper’s editorial board will step out of the ivory tower in ways it has never done before,” said one on March 14. “We will try to accomplish two things: to lead this community on a fact-finding mission about all the issues involved and, from those facts, build a recommended plan of action.”
The result was the law signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Rother dove far deeper into Gardner’s horrific childhood and issues growing out of his mental illness. But as an author and freelance writer—even one with decades of investigative reporting experience with “traditional media”—she had no outlet behind her pushing for reform.
In fact, Rother doesn’t even have a press credential.
The San Diego Police Department—which handles press-pass requests for all local law enforcement—turned Rother down.
Monday: The Firestorm That Fizzled: ‘Lost Girls’ Author Defused Mother of Victim
Tuesday: Of Mice and Monsters: How Caitlin Rother Grew Up to Be a True-Crime Author
Wednesday: Killer Interview: Author Found a ‘Totally Friendly, Charming’ John Gardner
Thursday: Caitlin Rother takes an interest in Coronado’s Rebecca Zahau case.
Friday: How Chelsea's Killer Tried to Turn Himself In—and Was Refused