ESCONDIDO, Calif. — The bones of a 14-year-old Southern California girl who vanished more than a year ago while walking to school were discovered in a rugged, remote area, authorities said Sunday, less than a week after a registered sex offender was charged with murdering another teenage girl who lived nearby.
The search for Amber Dubois had produced few leads until 17-year-old Chelsea King disappeared Feb. 25, last seen wearing running clothes in a park about 10 miles south of where Amber was last seen walking with a man. A body presumed to be Chelsea’s was found in a shallow, lakeside grave five days after Chelsea disappeared.
Searchers found Amber’s skeletal remains early Saturday in Pala, a small town in the Pala Indian Reservation, a sparsely populated area that occupies more than 12,000 acres in north San Diego County, said Escondido Police Chief Jim Maher. The county medical examiner’s office confirmed later in the day the remains were Amber’s through dental records, he said.
Maher declined to answer questions during a news conference Sunday because he said the discovery was part of an ongoing murder investigation. He said a “lead” brought investigators to the reservation, but he did not elaborate.
“I certainly had hoped that when the day came to do a press conference on Amber it would be under much different circumstances, but that was not to be,” he said.
Amber’s parents, Maurice Dubois and Carrie McGonigle, appeared distraught at his side. Maurice Dubois briefly thanked everyone who searched for Amber since her Feb. 13, 2009, disappearance near Escondido High School, particularly volunteers.
“They were the most dedicated people you could ever imagine,” he said. “Without them, we couldn’t have done anything.”
John Albert Gardner III, 30, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to murdering Chelsea and raping or attempting to rape her and attempting to rape another woman in December, a potential death penalty case.
A spokesman for the San Diego County district attorney’s office, Paul Levikow, declined to comment Sunday on the investigation into Amber’s death.
Gardner was registered as a sex offender in Escondido, a north San Diego suburb, from January 2008 to January 2010, with some gaps, police say.
He served five years of a six-year prison term for molesting a 13-year-old neighbor in San Diego in 2000; he saw her at a bus stop and lured her to his home to watch movies. He completed parole in September 2008.
Amber was last seen walking with a man about 200 yards from Escondido High School by a woman who used to drive her to middle school, her father said. Another neighbor reported seeing her about 300 yards from school. She never appeared on school surveillance cameras.
Amber, a Future Farmers of America member, left home with a $200 check to buy a lamb. It was never cashed, fueling suspicion of foul play.
There was no physical evidence recovered, hindering early search efforts, her father said. Calls reporting sightings of the girl poured in, but none panned out.
After Gardner was arrested Feb. 28 outside a Mexican restaurant in Escondido in connection with Chelsea’s disappearance, Amber’s father said he strongly suspected the same man was behind his daughter’s abduction. He noted that the girls had some identical features — 5-foot-5, thin, blue-eyed — and that Gardner was living nearby at the time.
“They’re both beautiful girls. There are so many similarities it’s scary,” he said Thursday.
Gardner is being represented by Michael Popkins, a public defender who declined to speak with reporters after Wednesday’s arraignment. No one answered the phone at the public defender’s office Sunday night.
Physical evidence was quickly recovered when Chelsea went missing, sparking a massive, round-the-clock search that involved 1,500 law enforcement officials and thousands of volunteers.
Chelsea’s death sparked outrage in her hometown of Poway, a wealthy suburb that borders Escondido.
A court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Matthew Carroll, recommended the maximum sentence allowed under law for Gardner in 2000, calling him an “extremely poor candidate” for treatment and a “continued danger to underage girls in the community.”
He faced a maximum sentence of nearly 11 years in prison under a plea agreement, but prosecutors urged six years.