Updated at 11:40 a.m. Feb. 27, 2013
Caitlin Rother interviewed the killer’s mother, sisters, aunt and ex-girlfriends*. For Lost Girls, she delved into records that others overlooked and discovered leads that police missed.
But it wasn’t until she was almost finished with the book that she met the monster himself.
John Gardner—100 pounds heavier than when he was sentenced 13 months earlier—was serving a life sentence for the rape-murder of local teens Amber Dubois and Chelsea King when he sat across a “rickety round table” from Rother for five hours on June 25, 2011.
“He’s really nice—a charming guy,” Rother recalled last month. “Totally friendly, charming, nonthreatening. You’d never guess.”
Rother wasn’t really surprised. In her research, she found several old girlfriends who “have good memories of their time with him,” she said in late January.
But that’s what she wanted to show people in her eighth book—that “people are not always what they seem.”
Although she’d done jailhouse interviews before, Rother was exceptionally nervous the night before the chat—conducted at Corcoran State Prison an hour northwest of Bakersfield.
“I woke up every half-hour, anxious about sitting across from a man with a trigger temper,” she wrote in the Epilogue of Lost Girls. “I was also worried I wouldn’t get any sleep before the 4 a.m. alarm went off” at a friend’s house in Los Angeles.
Dressed in loose pants and long-sleeved button-up shirt, Rother said she scribbled frantically on unlined paper—only 10 sheets allowed. No tape recorder permitted.
Gardner sat feet away, with no protective pane of glass as in the movies.
What she learned from the experience: “You need to be careful and not just trust people—and listen to things that they say and process it.”
People need not be “totally paranoid about everybody,” she said. “But at the same time—you know, I’ve taken a lot of risks that I probably shouldn’t have. And after writing this book, I’m much more careful about what I think of people now.”
Rother had read every scrap of information about Gardner in preparing for her research, but her own investigation found dozens (maybe hundreds) of dramatic facts that bore on how a sweet but suicidal boy became a sexual predator.
Among the book’s revelations: Gardner had sex with his mother’s sister—although he and the aunt had different accounts of how it came about.
And minutes before Gardner dragged Chelsea from her jogging path at Rancho Bernardo Community Park three years ago Monday, a “really attractive blonde wearing Spandex shorts and a red shirt” drew his attention.
He stealthily chased her at least a half-mile before giving up, he told Rother.
Who was the woman?
“Nobody knows who it is,” Rother said in the Patch interview. “She probably doesn’t know. She never came forward. … He’s the only person who said that happened. I believe him about that [incident].”
Rother said there’s something about liars—“they do tell the truth. ... There’s always things they tell the truth about.”
Aside from the jailhouse interview, perhaps the most dramatic—and detailed—section of the book is Chapter 28, where Rother tells of a secret trip that led to the discovery of Amber’s remains.
“Her remains were found March 6, 2010, in a remote area of Pala by police acting on a tip,” reported the Union-Tribune at the time.
A few knew the tip came from Gardner himself. He led police—and a convoy of SWAT members, an attorney and others—to the Pala Indian reservation in North County.
But Rother had her suspicions even then.
“I had a feeling it was him,” she said. “I actually called up the DA’s media guy on Sunday and said: Are you guys talking to Gardner? Is that where you got that [tip]?”
No reporter knew the details of that dramatic field trip.
“I took a lot of time recreating that scene,” she said. “I really did interview a lot of people. I thought it was interesting—and nobody knew.”
Also unknown to police was a woman in her 50s who responded to a Craigslist ad for a hookup with a man—who turned out to be Gardner. The woman said he was too young for her. No assault took place, but the woman who told Rother of the encounter was shaken by the brush with potential disaster.
“She found me and then she took my [writing] class,” Rother said. “I can’t say anything more because she wanted to be anonymous.”
But perhaps the biggest expose was one she never got.
Rother persistently tried to get state records on Gardner from the state and Riverside County departments of mental health.
Rother was repeatedly denied the records—even with Gardner’s written permission.
She wanted to know how Gardner had won parole in September 2005—despite court records that a prison psychologist had deemed Gardner “too dangerous to release” from his first incarceration (involving a neighbor girl, false imprisonment and lewd and lascivious acts).
She especially wanted to know why he was designated a low-risk offender when prison mental health records that his mother released to Rother “showed that he had a mental breakdown and homicidal ideations ... during his first five-year prison term.”
She says she sent typed letters of authorization for his signature, “giving his permission to various doctors, state and county agencies to release his personal files and records to me for my book.”
“I sent them to [Gardner], and he signed [the requests to release his records], so they knew it was from him and not from me,” she said.
Rother said Gardner told her that “someone from the Department of Mental Health actually came to the prison and asked: Did you send a letter to us?”
“He said yes,” she said. “And they still did not release [the records].”
State officials visiting him in person for confirmation “was bizarre,” Rother said, “But they refused to release them.”
Was the state hiding something? Patch asked.
Said Rother: “Why else would they do that?”
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
Thursday: Caitlin Rother takes an interest in Coronado’s Rebecca Zahau case.
*Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said John Gardner interviewed the mother of his twin boys.