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1 Teen Vanished On The Way To School, Another During A Run: Who Was Targeting California Kids?
Amber Dubois had been on the way to school to purchase a lamb as part of a farming program at Escondido High School when she disappeared just outside the building on Feb. 13, 2009.
After days of persistent begging and bargaining, her mother had finally agreed to let the 14-year-old buy the lamb as part of Escondido High School’s future farmer’s program.
Dubois set off to school the morning of February 13, 2009 victorious, with the check to purchase the lamb securely in her backpack. But Dubois’ dream would never come true. Even more heart-breaking, the teen — who had loved books and wanted to become an animal behavioral scientist — would never make it to school at all.
She disappeared just outside the high school, after one witness reported seeing her talking to a boy who looked much taller than she did, according to “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered,” airing Wednesdays at 8 /7c on Oxygen. He was described as being “doughy-looking” and dark-complected.
It was one of the few clues that investigators would have to go on in the months that followed. They wouldn’t solve the case until another teen disappeared almost a year later in a nearby county.
Gone Without A Trace
It had been just an ordinary, drizzly Friday morning in Escondido, California when Amber had set out on her trek to school. According to her mother, Carrie McGonigle, Amber had been a “free-spirited” kid, concerned more with taking extra classes and graduating early than shopping or fashion and had vowed never to miss even one day of class.
It wasn’t until Amber didn’t come home that afternoon that McGonigle’s boyfriend, David Cave, became concerned and drove to the school to try to find the teen.
“I figured maybe she went to play with her lamb and just lost track of time,” Cave recalled.
But alarm bells started to go off when he ran into one of Amber’s teachers at school, who told him Amber had never been to class that day. Cave quickly called McGonigle.
“Amber never wanted to miss school and she had the check in her pocket for the lambs, I mean there’s no way she was missing that day of school,” McGonigle said of the fear that suddenly gripped her.
Amber’s disappearance spawned a massive search effort with hundreds of volunteers who scoured the surrounding areas for any sign of the missing teen.
Along with the eyewitness account, Bob Benton, a then-captain with the Escondido Police, told "Dateline" correspondent Keith Morrison that investigators also discovered that Amber’s phone was still active in the area shortly after she disappeared.
“Somebody had tried to access voicemail and it hit on the same cell phone tower that covers both Amber’s home and the school,” he said.
Investigators began interviewing local sex offenders and Amber’s friends and family. Benton and his team ran down 1,200 tips and conducted 500 interviews, but were left with few clues about what happened to the 14-year-old.
“The more we investigated it, the more we came up with dead ends,” Benton said.
Just over a year later, another chilling case would finally give investigators the break they needed.
A Deadly Run
Seventeen-year-old Chelsea King disappeared from a local hiking trail in Rancho Bernardo Park on Feb. 25, 2010.
King had gone for a brisk five-mile run on the popular trail, but never returned. Within hours of her disappearance, friends and volunteers fanned out across the park to search for the teen.
Before long, one of the volunteers made a terrifying discovery. A pair of blood-stained underwear — believed to belong to King — and a sock were found on the path about two miles from where King had parked her car.
During another search, someone discovered one of King’s shoes about a mile away from the where the first clothing items were found.
“The way these things are so far apart from each other, we figured foul play,” Dave Brown, then a sergeant with the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, told “Dateline.” “Whether or not she’s deceased or whether or not she’s just being held somewhere, we can’t answer that.”
In the days that followed, FBI agents canvassed 300 homes surrounding the park and lake, while police ran down 600 tips and interviewed registered sex offenders in a frantic search to try to find King.
Investigators would finally get the break they needed when DNA analysis came back on the pair of underwear that had been found on the trail. Not only were they confirmed to be King’s, but a second DNA sample on the underwear was linked to registered sex offender John Gardner.
Gardner had already spent five years behind bars for sexually assaulting and beating his 13-year-old neighbor. A forensic psychiatrist in that case had once written in an evaluation that Gardner “manifests significant predatory traits to underage females” and would be a “continued danger to underage girls in the community.”
Although the psychiatrist had recommended the maximum sentence of 10 years behind bars, Gardner was sentenced to six years and was released after serving just five.
Investigators found Gardner at a bar not far from the park, drunk, wet, and covered in mud. Detectives brought him in for questioning, but he denied ever seeing King on the trail and at one point began laughing hysterically during the interrogation in what one detective described as “psychotic” behavior.
On the fifth day of searching, a dive team discovered King’s body.
“It’s the worst day of our lives ever,” her mom, Kelly King, said in a media interview. “There’s no deeper pain we’ll ever feel again.”
While investigators had DNA evidence to pin King’s murder on Gardner, authorities still wondered whether he had also been involved in Dubois’ death — especially after he randomly brought up the teenager’s name during his interrogation.
They got their answer when his attorney approached San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis with an unusual proposition. Gardner would agree to lead authorities to Dubois’ body, but only if they agreed that taking authorities to the body could not be used as evidence against him in the case.
Authorities agreed and Gardner led law enforcement officers down a small dirt road, through some thick brush and trees, until he reached an old rusted water tank, where he pointed out the shallow grave of the 14-year-old.
“I don’t believe anybody would have ever found this site,” Brown told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered.”
Her parents got the call they had been dreading on a Saturday night.
“I can’t say I prepared to hear it, but after 386 days of searching we are ready for anything they can tell us,” her dad, Moe DuBois, said. “Give us an answer. Make this stop.”
Although investigators were finally able to bring DuBois home to her family, they were now tasked with trying to find independent evidence that linked Gardner to her rape and murder — but there was nothing they could find.
“There was absolutely no link that anyone was able to find between John Gardner and Amber,” Benton said.
For a moment, it seemed as though Amber’s family would never get the justice they deserved, until King’s family stepped up and made a selfless choice to help the family.
Gardner had offered to plead guilty to both murders — and describe what had happened to each girl — but only if prosecutors took the death penalty off the table in King’s murder.
Dumanis knew their case was strong enough to secure the death penalty, but left the choice up to King’s family. They agreed to take the death penalty off the table in exchange for justice for both families.
“The Dubois family has been through unimaginable hell the last 14 months,” King’s dad, Brent King, would later say at a press conference of the decision. “We couldn’t imagine the confession to Amber’s murder never seeing the light of day, leaving an eternal question mark.”
As a result, Gardner pleaded guilty to both murders and told the court how he had randomly targeted both girls, before raping, killing, and burying each in a shallow grave. He was sentenced to life behind bars.