Blind Spot

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

Despite her refusal to bail him out of jail, Chamberlain continued to call Schell on a daily basis. She attended his arraignment, where Chamberlain pleaded not guilty to the child pornography charges. But she was unable to attend his second court hearing, after which Chamberlain called her to say he had been immediately transferred from the courtroom to Theo Lacy. It was during this phone call that Chamberlain first told Schell he feared for his life.

His voice seemed frantic, desperate, she recalls. At one point in the conversation, he paused abruptly, and she knew instinctively that a guard or an inmate had just walked by. He asked Schell to have his public defender get him placed in protective custody. Schell immediately called Case Barnett, Chamberlain's court-appointed attorney, and passed the message. Barnett did not respond to interview requests, but Schell says he returned her call, leaving a message saying that he had contacted the jail and they were transferring Chamberlain to a different area of the jail.

The next day, Chamberlain called Schell again. He still hadn't been moved. "I'm afraid for my life," he whispered, his voice quivering with fear. "I am really scared that something is going on here. Things don't look good. You have to get a hold of my attorney."

That was the last time Schell heard from Chamberlain. At 2 the next morning, a pair of sheriff's department homicide detectives rang her doorbell. When she opened the door and they asked her when she last saw Chamberlain, her first thought was that he had somehow escaped from jail.

George Chamberlain received a similar wake-up call. George hadn't spoken to his adopted son in nearly three years, ever since he'd gone to the Veteran's Affairs hospital in Phoenix for an eye operation and John had packed up George's belongings and painted the walls of his house, fully expecting him to lose his sight and move to an assisted-living home. George proudly says that he's still living in that same house in Chino Valley, Arizona, and his eyesight is just fine. "He overstepped his authority," he explains. "We had kind of a breakup." As a result of that estrangement, George Chamberlain didn't even know his son was behind bars until two Chino Valley Police officers knocked on his door in the middle of the night.

"They told me he had a slight altercation in the jail, and he was beat up and killed," George recalls. The next morning, he called the Orange County Sheriff's Department. "They told me he had been arrested for child pornography. I knew he was a computer nut, but I didn't know anything about that. When he was a younger boy, he wanted to be a minister. I always thought he was pretty straight."

*    *    *

At first, Sheriff's officials claimed that six inmates, acting on the belief that Chamberlain was a child molester, attacked him in the shower and then dragged him to another area of the jail, where they beat him to death. But Ebrahim Baytieh, the district attorney who is prosecuting the six inmates, says the attack happened right in front of the cells, not the shower, and involved far more than six inmates. "I've been telling people from day one that absolutely more than six people were involved," Baytieh says. "He was punched and kicked and stomped to death by at least two dozen people."

On March 7, George Chamberlain filed a $20 million claim against the sheriff's department, alleging that a guard "outed" Chamberlain as "some sort of child molester and/or child pornographer and/or child predator." The claim notes that Chamberlain had been murdered only hours after his attorney asked for him to be placed in protective custody, and that the deputies had "failed to intervene to stop the beating . . . notwithstanding apparent knowledge that the beating was going on (right in front of them and not in the showers)."

Asked whether jail officials should have moved Chamberlain after he apparently asked to be placed in protective custody, Jim Amormino, a Sheriff's spokesperson, told TheOrange County Register last October that such requests are overwhelmingly commonplace. "We always look into it, investigate them, and if we determine the claims are true, we take appropriate action," Amormino said.

Two inmates housed in F-West when the attack took place—both of whom insist they did not participate in the beating—as well as attorneys for three of the six inmates charged in the murder, told the Weekly that a guard named "Taylor" told inmates Chamberlain had been jailed on "dirty charges," thus exposing him to an attack. Sheriff's spokesperson Ryan Burris refused to comment on Chamberlain's death, citing the DA's ongoing criminal investigation and the Chamberlain family's pending lawsuit, but he defended his department's record on inmate safety.

"We process 66,000 inmates a year and the last inmate death was on July 3, 1988," Burris said. "I think we do a pretty good job." Burris also would not confirm if a guard with that surname was inside F-West that night, or whether he's still on duty at the jail. But a quick telephone call last Friday to the Sheriff's department employee-verification hot line revealed that Deputy Kevin Taylor continues to work at Theo Lacy.

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