TODAY   |  March 02, 2010

Cops say repeat sex offender killed teen

The body of 17-year-old Chelsea King was found in the same park where she was last seen jogging. Now, authorities are looking at the troubling past of the man they believed killed her. NBC’s Janet Shamlian reports and former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt weighs in on the case.

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>>> but we're going to begin with serious news. thousands of mourners at an emotional vigil last night for chelsea king, just hours after a body believed to be the missing teen was found in a san diego park. nbc's janet shamlian has the latest. janet, good morning to you.

>> reporter: meredith , good morning. it was the news everyone knew was coming but that no one wanted to believe. the body believed to be that of chelsea king was found yesterday, and the man police say took her life will be here in court today. it comes amid growing outrage in this community over the laws governing registered sexual offenders. what was supposed to be a vigil of prayers to bring chelsea home alive was instead a grief-stricken gathering mourning her death.

>> one of the nicknames that i always called my daughter is my ang angel, and she's my angel forever.

>> reporter: just hours earlier in the park where the 17-year-old high school senior loved to run, hopes were destroyed, fears were confirmed.

>> it's with great sadness this afternoon that we discovered shortly after 1:00 human remains near the water's edge in a shallow grave.

>> reporter: chelsea loved the lush and lonely trails of the rancho bernardo community park, but it's there, police say, she crossed paths with 30-year-old john gardner , a registered sex offender . he'll be arraigned later today . authorities say there's physical evidence linking him to chelsea , reportedly her underwear containing his dna. as court documents indicate, gardner has a long history of assaults. in 2000 , he pleaded guilty to assaulting a 13-year-old neighbor after he invited her over to watch " patch adams ." in an effort to spare the victim a lengthy trial, the prosecution went against advice from the court psychiatrist for the maximum sentence, who said gardner is "an extremely poor candidate for any sexual offender treatment" and "would be a continued danger to underage girls in the community." he served five years of a six-year sentence and completed three years parole in 2008 . in december of last year, a young woman was attacked in the same park where chelsea 's body was found. she escaped and has now told authorities she recognized gardner as her attacker. the younger sister wrote a moving op ed for her school paper , warning of the park's danger. enough questions about whether gardner is responsible for last year's disappearance of 14-year-old amber dubois. he was living two miles away when she vanished on her way to school.

>> keep her spirit alive for us.

>> reporter: one family's loss, but an entire community's heartbreak, as a promising life is cut tragically short. and as you saw, thousands of people attended that vigil last night, including her father, who spoke, as you saw, of husband daughter, whom he called his angel. prosecutors haven't said what charges will be filed, but we expect to hear more about the case that they will lay out later today . meredith , back to you.

>> so sad. janet shamlian , thank you so much. nbc news analyst clint van zandt is a former fbi profiler. clint , good morning to you.

>> hi, meredith .

>> i know you were in san diego this weekend during this search for chelsea king. now that her body has apparently been found and john gardner will be arraigned later today , you have drawn some conclusions about this crime. what are those?

>> well, number one, it's just a terrible loss for the family. thousands of people in the community were out looking for her. meredith , when i was in san diego , you couldn't walk 100 yards either way and not see a picture of this beautiful girl 's face while people were trying to find her, but when we look at the suspect, the individual who may be responsible, should he be responsible, this appears to be a preferential predator, someone with a lengthy, at least perhaps a ten-year history of crimes of assaults against women who had a perfect victim in his mind, perhaps a body type , an age, a height, a weight. but this was someone who also appeared to have a stalking ground. it looks like this park and the area around it, where he knew, meredith , this would be a target-rich environment. he knew all he had to do was bide his time, hang out in that area, and that eventually, one more perfect victim would walk by that he could attack, molest, and in this case, the authorities suspect, have murdered his victim.

>> yeah. clint , it's believed the evidence linking gardner to chelsea is her underwear containing his dna. that dna evidence , is that a slam dunk as far as the prosecution is concerned?

>> well, it should be. i'm sure that the defense will try to come up with various reasons. you know, we may even hear some type of insanity, but you know, know full well, should he have done this crime, this man is not insane. he knew what he was doing. he tried to hide the crime and he left tell tale, physical evidence that positively links him to the exclusion of 310 million other americans, this is the person who appears to have had the last contact with her and he went out of his way to try to hide her body when he escaped.

>> and now her murder is leading to questions about the disappearance of another girl, a 14-year-old a year ago. why are police so convinced that they have a strong suspect in this case now in gardner ?

>> yeah. well, she disappeared in the same area and she physically resembled chelsea , too. so, we have the same type of victim. remember, we're talking about a preferential offender. so, if he was looking for a certain type of victim in a certain area, this 14-year-old girl meets that criteria. and again, this guy has got a history reaching back ten years or more of assaulting victims. we know he assaulted this woman on december 27th . she's picked him out of a photo lineup. meredith , this is one more silent scream for a one strike law. put predators like this, if they're guilty, away. don't give them a second chance to hurt children.

>> finally, he is a registered sex offender , 1 of some 700,000 in this country. how closely are people like him monitored?

>> well, the challenge is -- let's talk about california . 83,000 known sex offenders in the state of california . every parole officer , every person who has to monitor people like him has a case load of at least 70 people. so, that takes us back even to jaycee dugard in california , where we wondered, how could a parole officer , how could someone checking on a sex offender not have walked around in the backyard and found jaycee dugard and her children in a tent? in this particular case, too, who was checking on this guy? meredith , it's one more case of suggesting that the system is overloaded. and remember, california is in a financial situation now where they're talking about turning tens of thousands of criminals loose on the street simply because they can't provide health care . meredith , you know, somehow, instead of going to the moon, we need to take care of our problems right here. we need to protect our children from predators like this.

>> all right, clint van zandt . very true words. thank you so much.