The cover of 'Lost Girls' by author Caitlin Rother. (Pinnacle )
Pinnacle: 420.pp, $6.99 (paper)
On the day in 2010 when a San Diego judge sentenced John Albert Gardner to life in prison for the rape and murder of two teenage girls, the fathers of his victims referred to him in court as a monster and a predator.
"Lost Girls" by veteran journalist and true-crime writer Caitlin Rother is a deeply reported, dispassionately written attempt to determine what created that monster and predator. It is a cautionary tale and a horror story, done superbly by a writer who knows how to burrow into a complex case without becoming captive to her sources.
The victims' families chose not to cooperate with Rother, but Gardner's mother, a psychiatric nurse, provided both access and candor. Much of "Lost Girls" tells of her desperate, ineffectual attempts to find help for her mentally troubled son as he spiraled downward.
Struggling for financial survival, caught in several rocky relationships, Gardner's mother, Cathy Osborn, took her son to various counselors and psychologists. By age 6, he was starting fires, taking mood-altering medication and seeing a psychologist. There were private schools, special programs in public schools, numerous kinds of medication, and a 60-day stay in a mental hospital for children in Northern California.
Periods of stability were often fleeting and gave rise to unrealistic hopes that he was cured. During one such period, Gardner was voted "Best Conversationalist" in his grade school class, "which was a proud moment for the family."
Finally, Osborn realized, "My child is not ever going to be functioning close to normal." Among other conditions, paranoia "became part of his lifelong persona," she said.
In the end, there is not a tidy explanation nor a psychiatric diagnosis that makes Gardner's sexual predation and violence wholly understandable. Instead readers are left with a chilling conclusion: There could be other Gardners-in-the-making, even in the safe-seeming suburbs of northern San Diego County where his victims, 14-year-old Amber Dubois and 17-year-old Chelsea King, lived happily and died horribly.
Gardner's upbringing was tumultuous and unstable — changes in address, changes in family situations — but hardly the Dickensian type of early life often associated with criminality. He was intelligent but hyperactive; he had an early interest in sex, and girls found him attractive; he learned quickly to take advantage of his size and strength.
In 1989, at age 10, Gardner spent six weeks in a medical facility run by UCLA. A doctor wrote that he often used force to "defend against feelings of abandonment, confusion, low self-esteem and lack of control in recent circumstances."
In 2000, Gardner was convicted of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. His mother argues that the incident was overstated by the prosecutor and mishandled by the defense attorney; Rother digs into the facts, interviews everyone concerned, and lets the reader decide.
On one point, Rother is clear: Five years in prison made Gardner's condition immeasurably worse, possibly giving him a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. He repeatedly told prison officials about his homicidal fantasies.
Paroled as a registered sex offender, he was required to wear a GPS monitoring system. But officials missed dozens of opportunities to send him back to prison for violating his parole as he cruised close to schools and, in one case, visited the grounds of a state prison.
After Amber Dubois disappeared in February 2009 while walking to high school in Escondido, police failed to see Gardner as a suspect although he lived nearby. A year later, when Chelsea King disappeared while jogging at Lake Hodges, Gardner was linked to the crime by semen in a pair of her panties. For his guilty plea to both murders, the district attorney agreed not to seek the death penalty. (I reported on the case for The Times.)
Cathy Osborn, now married for the fourth time, claims that in the days before King's murder, she had made multiple calls to psychiatric facilities seeking help for her son. For sexual offenders, there are few programs available. Rother reports that despite her repeated requests for documentation about making those calls, "Cathy could not or would not produce phone records to prove it …"
In a five-hour prison interview, Gardner, now 33 and bloated by medication, is by turns open and manipulative. He no longer lives in what he once described in a poem to his mother as a world of "just me and the little voices."
With a laugh, he tells the reporter, "I'm rotting in prison. Cool. Public be happy."