Chelsea King's Parents: Sex Offender Release 'Let Every Child Down'

03/05/2010 AT 10:20 AM EST

This week, Kelly and Brent King received the worst news any parent could hear: Their beautiful daughter Chelsea, 17, was found murdered, five days after she was last seen jogging in a San Diego, Calif., park.

"Within five minutes of me finding her car," said her father Brent King, appearing with wife Kelly on Friday's Today show, "I had this dread roll over me ... a dread of, 'Where's my daughter?' It's the most empty feeling you could have."

Their grief is compounded by the realization that the tragedy might have been averted if only justice had been served. Registered sex offender John Albert Gardner III, 30, has entered a not-guilty plea for the murder of Chelsea King and the attempted rape of another woman. He is the subject of a plea deal that freed him five years into a six-year sentence for the physical assault of a 13-year-old neighbor.

Did the judicial system fail their daughter? "No," says Chelsea's mother, noting a wider effect that Gardner's freedom posed. "It let our daughter down, it let every child in the country down, terribly … The score of that tragedy is beyond understandable."

The tragic turn of events has been particularly difficult for Chelsea's 13-year-old brother, Tyler, say the parents, though the love and support of Chelsea's fellow high-school students and others in the community have been a tremendous comfort.

Remembering Their Angel

Tuesday night, after Chelsea was found in a shallow grave near Lake Hodges, thousands came to offer a candlelight vigil outside St. Michael's Catholic Church.

Speaking briefly at that gathering, Brent King said, "One of the nicknames that I've always called my daughter is my Angel. She’s my angel forever. I want to thank you. Chelsea wants to thank you."

A public memorial for the honor student is to be held Saturday, March 13. Chelsea's parents also told Today's Ann Curry that as part of their daughter's legacy they will work to keep sex offenders away from children.

In closing the interview Friday, Kelly King shared a poem Chelsea included in her college application, based on Dr. Seuss's Oh, The Places We'll Go!.

"My mountain is waiting," wrote Chelsea, "And I am on my way."

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