Lost Girls, by Caitlin Rother (Kensington Publishing Corp., New York, NY, 2012, 372 pages).
Book Review by Dennis Moore
November 10, 2012 (San Diego’s East County)--New York Times Bestselling author Caitlin Rother, a San Diego resident and journalist, has written a true-crime book that I am sure will resonate with all parents: Lost Girls. Pulitzer-nominated author Rother delivers an incisive, heartbreaking true-life thriller that touches our deepest fears. It is the story of John Gardner, who raped and murdered local San Diego teens Chelsea King and Amber Dubois.
Rother dedicates her book to the memories of King and Dubois, and all other girls and boys who have been lost to sexual predators. She feels that by shedding light on these dark events, she can only hope that it will help prevent similar tragedies in the future.
There is actually an East County (San Diego) connection to this story, as Gardner once worked for Can-Do Electric, Inc., in El Cajon, and the Sheriff’s Department search and rescue people did go searching in some remote areas of the locale.
Chelsea King was a popular senior at Poway High School, an outstanding achiever determined to make a difference. Fourteen-year-old Amber Dubois of Escondido loved books and poured her heart into the animals she cared for. Treasured by their families and friends, both girls disappeared in San Diego County, just eight miles and one year apart. The community’s desperate search led authorities to John Albert Gardner, a brutal predator hiding in plain sight.
The same night the Kings went out searching for their missing daughter in February of 2010, psychiatric nurse Cathy Osborn was also worried about the whereabouts of her wayward son, John Albert Gardner. The 30-year-old unemployed electrician, a convicted sex offender and the father of twin boys, had been displaying erratic behavior and intense mood swings again. Osborn knew her son liked to walk off his anger and aggression on the park trails. Where is he? Osborn asked herself when he didn’t show up for dinner on February 25th. What is he doing out there?
But unlike Amber and Chelsea, John Gardner did come home to his mother – dirty, sweaty and carrying a headless snake like a trophy. “He had a wild look in his eye that night, the same kind of expression that jack Nicholson’s character had in the movie The Shining, when he proclaimed, ‘Here’s Johnny!’” Osborn told Rother. It was not until later that Osborn, along with the rest of the nation, was horrified to discover that her son had raped and killed these innocent teenagers.
Lost Girls outlines the anatomy of the law enforcement investigations into the disappearance of both girls – how they differed, why they didn’t find Gardner after Amber went missing and how they found him so fast after Chelsea went missing – and what they did right and wrong. The Sheriff’s Department under Sheriff Bill Gore, teaming up with the FBI, the DOJ and other agencies, did a great job, Rother writes. And although the Escondido Police Department did an exhaustive search and poured many resources into trying to find Amber, they have admitted that they may have erred by relying too much on the witness statements and looking for a “red” truck.
Rother learned that the Escondido Police Department decided early on not to investigate sexual predators – known as “290” registrants – who lived outside a limited boundary around the school, which meant they missed Gardner in their own backyard.
This is a riveting book, filled with emotion and heartbreak. I cannot begin to imagine the hurt and pain that the King and Dubois families endured during the time their daughters went missing, not knowing if they were alive or dead. Many years ago in Chicago I almost faced a similar prospect, as my then 11-year-old daughter Brandy was approached by a male stranger as she was getting off the school bus while coming home, similar to Amber, who was abducted on her way to school. Brandy ran to a nearby service station and called her mother, as there was no one at home at the time to meet her. Later that evening when I picked Brandy up, she told me she had an “episode,” referring to the overture or attempted accosting of her. This is a parent’s worst nightmare, an ordeal that Rother puts into perspective in her book.
Lost Girls cannot escape the controversy caused by its publishing, as those most impacted by the memories of their loved ones, the King and Dubois families, are forced to relive a very painful episode in their lives. At the official “Lost Girls” launch event at the Barnes & Noble in San Diego, many came questioning the motives of the author for writing the book, perhaps thinking that it could only cause more hurt and pain. What this book really does is to make parents more alert and mindful of hidden dangers lurking about. This book is a wakeup call for law enforcement, parents and legislators, which has resulted in groundbreaking legislation such as Chelsea’s Law.
Perhaps most profound and revealing about Rother’s book is her jailhouse interview with Gardner. In the epilogue, Rother describes her five-hour conversation with Gardner at Corcoran State Prison, where he is serving three consecutive life terms in the same unit as mass murderer Charles Manson and Phillip Garrido, the kidnapper of Jaycee Dugard. As Gardner revealed chilling, never before-told details about his psychological state and motivations before, during and after the killings, Rother notes that she never would have known from his charming façade that he was capable of such dire deeds--a lesson to be learned by all. This book is a must read, if just for the revelations from the jailhouse interview alone.
An irony to this story is that Gardner was once imprisoned at Donovan Prison in San Diego County, where I once ministered to inmates as the President of the Bethel A.M.E. Prison Ministry in San Diego. Perhaps we may have even crossed paths at a particular time. A further irony to this story is that the Kings, perhaps in an attempt to put as much of the hurt and pain behind them, relocated to the suburb of Naperville, Illinois, near the suburb where my daughter currently lives.
Dennis Moore is the book review editor for SDWriteway, an online newsletter for writers in San Diego. He has also been a freelance contributor to EURweb and the San Diego Union-Tribune Newspaper. He is the author of a book about Chicago politics, “The City That Works, Power, Politics and Corruption in Chicago.” Mr. Moore can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.