Blind Spot

For OC jail inmate John Chamberlain, jailhouse justice served as judge, juryand executioner

At the very bottom of the prison hierarchy, of course, are inmates who have been put behind bars for "dirty charges": the child abusers, rapists and sex offenders. If they keep a low profile, keep their mouths shut and do what they're told, they might survive. But this depends on a certain amount of cooperation from guards, some of whom, inmates claim, take a perverse pleasure in exposing alleged sex offenders.

"I witnessed deputies taking great joy in putting people in a position of danger, then walking away and coming back hoping they'd still be alive," the former inmate says. "They'd bring some guy in who was arrested on alleged circumstances, and they'd say, 'What are you in for?' in front of 40 inmates—and intimidate this guy into saying what he was there for. Nobody would have known what he was there for, and [the guards], in a knowing way, basically gave people an approval to do whatever they want. Then [they'd] walk out proudly, and in five minutes, [the shot-callers] had the guy in the shower with no cameras, beating the shit out of him."

Inmates and other sources familiar with the beating that occurred inside Theo Lacy's F-West Barracks last October say it began exactly the same way. Just as inmates were coming back to their dormitory from dinner, a deputy told a Woods shot-caller that Chamberlain had been jailed for "dirty charges." Since Chamberlain is white, jail culture dictates that it's the Woods' responsibility to discipline him. The shot-caller and and another white inmate immediately led Chamberlain to a blind spot behind a 3-foot-high concrete wall in an area of the dormitory called Cube D, about 20 yards directly in front of the F-West bubble.

The attack occurred in two phases and lasted roughly 20 minutes. First, up to nine prisoners beat Chamberlain unconscious—punching, kicking and stomping him mercilessly. Then 16 or more inmates lined up to finish the job. At least two prisoners urinated on his body. At some point, late in the attack, one or more inmates raped Chamberlain with foreign objects, including a pencil.

From the bubble, deputies could see people walking back and forth, but they couldn't see Chamberlain lying on the floor. After the crowd had cleared away, a guard found him lying in a pool of blood. When Chamberlain was officially pronounced dead at UC Irvine Medical Hospital later that night, he became the first Orange County jail inmate to be murdered in 18 years.

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John Chamberlain's journey to the blind spot had begun just three weeks earlier, on Sept. 14, 2006, at the intersection of Plano Trabuco Road and Santa Margarita Parkway in Rancho Santa Margarita. At about 5 p.m. that evening, an anonymous caller dialed 911 and claimed that a man in a truck was exposing himself while parked near an Albertsons grocery store. Two female Sheriff's deputies responded to the call. When they approached Chamberlain, he was sitting in the driver's seat, fully clothed.

But when the deputies spotted several open cans of beer in the truck, they searched the vehicle and discovered 22 photographs on the front passenger's seat. Most of them depicted naked underage boys and girls. The deputies arrested Chamberlain, who was charged with two misdemeanor counts of possession of child pornography and sent to the Men's Central Jail in Santa Ana.

Complicating matters in Chamberlain's life was the fact that a month earlier, he had broken up with his girlfriend of 15 years, Dorothy Schell, a woman nearly 30 years his senior whom he had met while teaching dance classes. Their falling out was sparked by a violent argument over her refusal to loan him money to buy a house in Arizona, after which she had him arrested for domestic violence. Although he had moved out of her house and was already dating another woman, it was Schell whom Chamberlain called to ask for the $20,000 bail that would have sprung him while he awaited arraignment and trial.

"We had split and hadn't spoken civilly," she recalls. "But there were 15 years of fondness, and if there was trouble, I was there to help." Schell wanted to know why Chamberlain had been arrested. He told her he'd been arrested for urinating in public and drinking from an open container. "So I called the bail bondsman," she says. A quick check by the bondsman contradicted Chamberlain's account.

"He said, 'That's not what he was arrested for,'" Schell says. "'You don't want to get involved in this in any way.' He said, 'He lied to you, and if you're going to put your house up, you need to know that.'"

When Chamberlain called Schell again the next day, she told him he'd have to stay behind bars. "Everything I knew about John was gone," she says. "I wasn't surprised that he had exposed himself because I had heard he'd been caught doing that at work. But in the house, I never saw any child porn. I'd have kicked him in the rear if I did. I would swear on the Bible that John never touched a kid. . . . I would think, in 15 years, there would be something that would give me suspicion. If you are a pedophile, you want to be exposed to children, and it was the opposite with John."

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