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On the bright, sunny morning of Dec. 27, 22-year-old Candice Moncayo laced up her running shoes and set off for a long jog around Lake Hodges, an incongruously picturesque reservoir sandwiched between Interstate 15 and the sprawling estates of Rancho Santa Fe.
As she neared the end of her run at about 10:30 a.m., Moncayo had the misfortune to cross the path of John Albert Gardner.
Gardner, who has since confessed to raping and murdering two young girls and who has been a convicted sex offender since the age of 21, replied politely as Moncayo bade him good morning. Then, as she came alongside him, the linebacker-sized 30-year-old tackled her to the ground, straddled her and pinned her down with his considerable bulk.
What happened over the next few moments on that December morning may only have lasted seconds. But it presented an opportunity for police to warn area residents that a would-be rapist was on the loose.
Gardner has since admitted that he attempted to rape Moncayo. And in interviews with police, Moncayo said she thought she was going to be raped.
Yet the San Diego Police Department classified the incident as an attempted robbery, a decision that led to a limited investigation and a muted public information effort to alert visitors to the park where 17-year-old Chelsea King would later be killed.
A close study of the Moncayo investigation based on police documents and interviews reveals the crucial role small details — such as what Gardner said to Moncayo, whether he touched her in a sexual manner and what Moncayo said when calling 911 — played in determining how a San Diego police officer and detective made the decision to call the crime an attempted robbery, not an attempted rape.
In the fallout from the Gardner murders, as local lawmakers, parents and the press turn their attention to the push for laws to place tougher controls on sex offenders, the Moncayo investigation shows that society’s chances to begin the hunt for a predator that’s ready to strike again hinged in at least one instance on how police interpreted a criminal’s intent in a fleeting moment.
As Moncayo lay on her back and screamed in terror into the warm winter air, Gardner snarled at her to “shut up.” She thought she was going to be raped, according to the report police took after the incident.
“You’re going to have to kill me,” Moncayo said.
“That can be arranged,” he told her.
She feared for her life.
Exactly what was said between Gardner and Moncayo over those next few seconds is crucial in determining whether the incident was a sexual assault or a robbery. If Gardner had made any sexual comments to Moncayo, his intentions would have been clear both to his victim and, later, to the police investigators who interviewed Moncayo.
In her one public interview on the incident, Moncayo fueled suspicion about how the investigation had been handled when she described Gardner’s comments.
Moncayo told CNN’s Larry King that she didn’t feel comfortable talking on television about what Gardner said to her during the attack. When King asked her if the nature of what Gardner said was “crude,” Moncayo answered, with some hesitation, “I suppose that would be a good way to put it.”
But police reports do not contain any mention of Moncayo telling officers that Gardner made any crude or sexual comments during those few seconds. She did, however, tell investigators something that backed up the robbery classification and that she didn’t say in the televised interview: Gardner told her to give him all of her money, according to the reports.
Moncayo did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Whatever the details of the brief conversation between predator and prey, Gardner’s demands were cut short when Moncayo suddenly sat up and smacked him in the nose with her elbow — a blow so forceful, she later told officers she had felt the crunch of his cartilage.
As Gardner held his hands to his face, Moncayo struggled free and sprinted away “faster than I think I have ever run in my life,” until she reached the safety of some nearby houses.
Then, she dialed 911.
When someone calls 911 in San Diego, police computers automatically start recording the call. From the printout of Moncayo’s call, it appears that police received the call as a reported robbery.
“5 (minutes) AGO RP (reporting party) WAS TACKLED BY WMA (white male), WHO DEMANDED MONEY,” the report states.
Officials at the department said the initial contact with a dispatcher is key in defining how their investigation will proceed.
In this case, they said, they were informed that a victim had just been robbed and began their response accordingly.
Several units rushed to the scene and began to search for the attacker. A helicopter buzzed above the surrounding neighborhoods.
Police officers spent the next few hours searching for Moncayo’s assailant, but the large man with the stripe on his sweater and the bleeding nose had apparently vanished. At 2:15 p.m., the search for a suspect was closed.
As his colleagues fanned out to follow up possible leads in search of the suspect, Officer David Nilsen of SDPD’s Northeastern Division conducted his interview with Moncayo.
She told him her story. He then returned to the station to write up his report.
Nilsen’s summary of the Moncayo interview ends with one simple line: “The suspect did not touch Moncayo in a sexual manner.”
The officer listed several possible criminal charges in the assault, including battery and attempted robbery. But since Moncayo had not reported being touched sexually by Gardner or having received any sexual threats, Nilsen did not include any sexual assault charges in his report.
Three television stations ran stories on the attack, in addition to three local newspapers. The public was warned the same way as if the crime had been classified as an attempted rape, said Paul Cooper, counsel to Police Chief Bill Lansdowne.
But, as an April 4 San Diego Union-Tribune story pointed out, the department didn’t mention the Moncayo attack in its daily incident bulletin sent to media outlets and the public.
Indeed, the Union-Tribune story states that the newspaper only found out about the attack after being alerted of it by a Rancho Bernardo resident who saw the police helicopter searching for Moncayo’s attacker.
The morning after the attack, a detective at Northeastern Division reviewed Nilsen’s report. At this stage, the criminal charges listed on the report defined what happened next in the investigative chain.
Had the officer listed a possible sex crime, the case would have been immediately assigned to the SDPD’s specialist Sex Crimes Unit, based at police headquarters downtown.
There, the report would have received attention from several experienced detectives and the unit’s sergeant, who would have either sent the case back to Northeastern or begun an investigation themselves.
But, because the attack had instead been classified as an attempted robbery, the decision was made to assign the case to one of the handful of detectives working out of Northeastern Division.
In this case, the detective who got the assignment was Phillip Bozarth.
Bozarth’s police work has been scrutinized publicly several times over his more than two decades at the department. Before being promoted to detective, Bozarth had shot and killed five people in the line of duty, earning him a reputation among some cops as a brave front-line officer, but also drawing the attention of advocacy groups who voiced concern about Bozarth’s involvement in such a high number of fatal shootings.
Bozarth declined to be interviewed for this story.
On Dec. 29, two days after the attack, Bozarth went to Moncayo’s parents’ house to interview her again, according to his report.
The report also shows that the detective contacted a sketch artist in an attempt to do a composite sketch of the suspect in the attack, but that the sketch was never completed because Moncayo had already returned home to Colorado.
On Feb. 10, the report states, Bozarth inactivated the case citing a lack of leads.
Two weeks later, Chelsea King went missing.
Two days after that, John Gardner was taken into custody.
Four days after that, as sheriff’s detectives investigating the King case began looking for any other similar recent attacks, Bozarth wrote and filed his final follow-up report summarizing his investigation.
Until this point, the detective had never filed a report detailing exactly what Moncayo told him or what he discovered.
The report was a summary of his entire investigation to that point.
Bozarth’s report states that Moncayo had told him¬¬, two months earlier, “essentially the same thing that she told Officer Nilsen.” Moncayo initially thought that she was going to be raped, Bozarth wrote, but “relaxed” when Gardner asked her for money, since she hadn’t taken any money or jewelry on her jog.
“I asked MONCAYO if the suspect attempted to take off her clothes off or sexually assault her in any manner but she said, ‘No,’” the report states.
Three SDPD detectives who analyzed the case for voiceofsandiego.org were all initially skeptical about how the Moncayo investigation had been handled by their department. But after copies of the report were made public, all three relented and said that, according to the evidence in the documents, the officer and detective were correct in labeling the attack as an attempted robbery.
Assistant Police Chief Boyd Long said he stands by the department’s handling of the Moncayo investigation.
“We don’t have the luxury of turning something into a crime that it is not,” Long said. “We’ve got to let the facts of the case speak for themselves.”
Please contact Will Carless directly at email@example.com.