The joggers returned Wednesday morning to the winding trails around Lake Hodges, along with the bird-watchers and the hikers swinging their long walking sticks. They came for the same reason as always, to enjoy a rural retreat amid the bustle of suburbia.
But the park had changed. Down a worn path and around a bend was where Chelsea King, a high school senior from nearby Poway, was believed to have been attacked, killed and buried in a shallow grave. Her presumed death -- the coroner has yet to positively identify the body -- has shaken people in a place where many felt sheltered against the grimmer side of life.
“Nobody’s safe. Nobody’s privileged. Everybody’s vulnerable,” said Coleen Huang, 48, who has walked the trails for years. “This was so extreme. A girl living in a gated community. The all-American girl, attacked out in broad daylight, on a run.”
At the park, at prayer vigils and at schools throughout this upscale northern San Diego County community, emotions were still raw -- a sense of anger, sadness and, most of all, shock that a sex offender tucked away in an anonymous subdivision could pierce their sense of security so profoundly.
John Albert Gardner III, 30, was charged Wednesday afternoon with murdering the straight-A student, cross-country runner and French horn player. He was also charged with assault in a December 2009 attack on a 22-year-old woman in the same park. Gardner was ordered held without bail and could face the death penalty if convicted.
The slaying has “rocked San Diego, rocked all of us. And as we move forward, we need to wrap our arms around this family,” San Diego County Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis said at a news conference.
Poway, a self-styled “City in the Country,” is the kind of place where families move to avoid crime. The schools are among the best in the county. Narrow roads loop around the hills and gated developments that attract some of the county’s wealthiest residents, including baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn and football star LaDainian Tomlinson.
Residents said that in such a close-knit community, where parents are deeply involved in the schools and people retain strong bonds after the 2007 Witch Creek wildfire, it was not a surprise that thousands turned out to help search for the 17-year-old girl. She had gone running at Rancho Bernardo Community Park, a couple of miles outside Poway.
The outpouring of support continued after the body believed to be Chelsea’s was discovered Tuesday. About 5,000 people packed a prayer vigil at St. Michael Catholic Church, crying and holding candles as they listened to one of the teenager’s favorite songs, “Vanilla Twilight.”
“One of the nicknames that I’ve always called my daughter is ‘My angel,’ ” said Brent King, Chelsea’s father, addressing the crowd. “She’s my angel forever.”
“We love you,” someone in the crowd yelled.
A few hours later, anger spilled out.
The words “Chelseas blood is on you. Move out” had been spray-painted in red on the garage door of Gardner’s mother’s house in neighboring Rancho Bernardo.
San Diego police said Gardner’s mother and stepfather have left the city. Many residents said the family didn’t deserve any sympathy, and criticized law enforcement officials for failing to keep Gardner away from their community.
Gardner admitted assaulting and molesting a 13-year-old girl in 2000. He served five years of a six-year sentence and wore a global positioning device during his parole term, which ended in 2008. Police also suspect that Gardner might be linked to the disappearance last year of Amber Dubois, 14, last seen at a bus stop outside her high school in nearby Escondido.
Gardner’s residence is in Lake Elsinore in Riverside County, according to the Megan’s Law website, but last week he had been visiting his mother at her Rancho Bernardo home, just south of Lake Hodges. Some believe he may have been living with his mother, unbeknown to authorities.
The judges, prosecutors and police followed the letter of the law but failed in their moral responsibility, said James Fisher, 59, a real estate consultant who lives near the park. “We know there aren’t enough people to monitor the activity of these offenders. We’re not stupid, but we are extremely disturbed and frustrated.”
Outside the downtown San Diego courthouse where Gardner was arraigned, protesters held up signs: “Castrate rapists.” “Chelsea’s Law: One Strike.” “No parole for molesters.”
Poway High Principal Scott Fisher said people felt that Gardner was able to spend time in the area because of a weakness in Megan’s Law.
“You should be able to go out and jog at 2:30 in the afternoon in our own community. We’ve got to do something about this law because for our kids, their lives have changed forever,” the principal said. “We think there’s a loophole in that law that has got to be closed.”
Light blue ribbons, a nod to King’s eye color, adorned the road to the campus Wednesday. A small shrine had been created on a campus fence, with plastic cups arranged as Chelsea’s initials, and flowers and votive candles placed nearby. Students, many wearing purple shirts, stopped at the shrine.
In a show of solidarity, students and school staff have worn similar-colored clothing this week, a different color each day, the principal said. Monday was blue, for King’s eyes; Tuesday orange; Wednesday purple; and Thursday will be green, for Chelsea’s environmentalism, he said.
The photo of Chelsea used on fliers was taken the day she disappeared by her friend Jade Gurule, also 17, who has the same birthday as Chelsea, July 1. “Birthday twins,” Jade called them.
The photo was for a class assignment. Jade said she wanted to use Chelsea because “she’s gorgeous: bright blue eyes and an amazing smile.”
During the shoot, Jade said, Chelsea was “a little awkward, like she is in real life. But completely natural.”
Jade said the campus seems empty without her: “We feel broken. We are numb. It hurts to cry. I can’t get any more out.”
Times staff writer Alexandra Zavis, in Los Angeles, contributed to this report.