SAN DIEGO—Convicted killer John Albert Gardner III is being investigated as a possible suspect in assaults in San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, law enforcement officials said Monday.
"We believe he's involved in other cases, not necessarily murder," said Lt. Dennis Brugos, head of the San Diego Sheriff's Department homicide detail. "We're looking at him actually for all missing persons cases for females in the range of early teens through early 20's."
A multi-agency "Gardner task force" is at work, he said.
Brugos said investigators talked to Gardner for two hours Friday after he was sentenced for murder in the deaths of Chelsea King, 17, and Amber Dubois, 14, in northern San Diego County. Gardner's statements to sheriff's detectives suggested that he "may have been involved in other criminal activity,'' Brugos said. Those cases involve assaults in San Diego or Riverside County, and possibly in the San Bernardino area, as well, the lieutenant said. He declined to say how many cases Gardner was considered a potential suspect.
At a Monday news conference, officials said that Escondido homicide investigators did not identify John Gardner as a suspect in Dubois' disappearance until after he was arrested for the murder and rape of King, officials revealed during the discussion.
Dubois disappeared on Feb. 13, 2009, as she walked to Escondido High School. For a time, investigators weren't sure if they were dealing with a case of foul play or a runaway.
Gardner himself brought up Dubois without prompting shortly after his arrest, Sheriff's Lt. Dennis Brugos said.
"He said, 'I suppose you're going to blame me for the disappearance of the Escondido girl too,'" Brugos said.
Gardner eventually told investigators where to find Dubois' body and later pleaded guilty to raping and killing both Dubois and King.
The news conference, which started at 10 a.m. and lasted about two hours, began with a chronological recap of the investigation following King's disappearance on Thursday, Feb. 25, while jogging near Lake Hodges. A massive search for King was mounted after she was reported missing and her car was found in a parking lot near the lake.
Brugos said that several articles of King's clothing were found and brought to the Sheriff's crime lab Friday afternoon. A criminologist worked late Friday and Saturday morning to develop a DNA profile from biological material found on the the clothing. The technician sent the DNA profile to the California Department of Justice. DOJ investigators conducted an expedited search of the California criminal database and confirmed a match with John Gardner's DNA on Sunday, Brugos said.
Brugos said investigators tracked Gardner to the Escondido restaurant Hernandez' Hideaway Sunday afternoon, where he was arrested for the rape and murder of Chelsea King. Brugos would not say how investigators located Gardner, saying he did not want to reveal the investigative technique.
Accordng to Escondido police, Gardner wasn't considered a suspect until he confessed. During the press conference, Escondido police chief Jim Maher said there still is no physical evidence linking Gardner to Amber Dubois' death.
"If Mr. Gardner's telling the truth, then he kidnapped her well before she arrived anywhere near the school," said Maher. "And none of the information we had at that time would've led us to that."
Escondido police Captain Bob Benton said on April 2, 2009, Gardner was pulled over for possibly following a woman at a mall, just two months after the disappearance of Amber Dubois. His background check at the time came back as a registered sex offender. He was also cited for having an open container of alcohol in the vehicle. Also, inside the car was the then three-year-old son of Gardner's girlfriend. When officers tried looking for the woman that made the accusation, she could not be found. Gardner was cited and subsequently allowed to go, according to Benton. Benton said, at the time officers had different information on the possible suspect in Dubois' disappearance.
"Again, likely because the information patrol officers had at the time was that we were looking for a red truck, and we were looking for a boy that was reportedly last seen with Amber," said Benton.
Gardner was sentenced last Friday for his crimes. The San Diego County Sheriff's Department said he will be transferred to a state prison in the next few days, but did not disclose which one for security reasons.