Bob Meadows
March 22, 2010 12:00 PM

For 13 months Maurice Dubois and Carrie McGonigle handed out thousands of flyers, ran a web site and even drove by the homes of registered sex offenders, desperately searching for any clue that would bring their missing daughter, Amber, back to them. Their vigil came to a tragic end March 6 when investigators found the 14-year-old’s body 20 miles north of her Escondido, Calif., home. “It’s heart wrenching,” Amber’s maternal grandmother, Sheila Welch, 70 tells PEOPLE. “We still had hope Amber would be found alive.”

Sadly, the murder of another local teenage girl may have led to the discovery of Amber. On Feb. 25 high school student Chelsea King, 17, went missing in Rancho Bernardo. Within days police arrested convicted sex offender John Albert Gardner III, then found the Poway High School senior’s body near a community park. Then, another bombshell: Authorities questioned Gardner, and on March 6 Amber’s skeletal remains were found in a secluded, rocky area in northern San Diego county (see box). While authorities have not yet named the source of the information that led them to Amber, Gardner, 30, “remains a focus of the investigation,” says Escondido Police Lt. Craig Carter. (Gardner’s attorney declined to comment.) Gardner, who lived with his mother in Rancho Bernardo, has pleaded not guilty to murdering Chelsea; as of press time, he hadn’t been charged in Amber’s death. Maurice Dubois, 40, an electrical engineer, however, has little doubt about who killed his daughter: “I think Gardner is responsible,” he tells PEOPLE.

The cases certainly bear striking similarities. Both victims were white, about 5’5″, and they were last seen-Chelsea, out jogging, Amber, en route to Escondido High School-within the same 10-mile stretch. Gardner, who is also charged with assaulting another jogger in the park near where Chelsea’s body was found and served five years for molesting a 13-year-old girl in 2000, lived within two miles of where both Chelsea and Amber disappeared. Chelsea’s parents, Brent and Kelly King, reached out to Amber’s family. “Our hearts go out to them,” they said in a statement. “We share their indescribable grief.”

Amber, a freckle-faced ninth grader, bid her mom goodbye for the last time on Feb. 13, 2009. She carried with her Valentine’s Day cards to give friends and a $200 check to purchase a lamb she planned to raise as a member of Future Farmers of America. A parent said she saw the girl walking along a busy thoroughfare beside a tall, slender, young man. “The only way she’d ever talk to a stranger was if someone had a dog and walked by for a week straight,” McGonigle, 41, tells PEOPLE.

Now the family is planning Amber’s funeral and adjusting to the reality that their little girl is gone forever. “I can’t think of words that are significant enough to express our sadness,” says Welch. “Words like ‘devastating’ and ‘heartbreaking’ don’t come close.”

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