Blind Spot

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

The "bubble" is a darkened-glass watchtower balanced atop a concrete pillar six feet above the floor at the exact center of F-West Barracks, a rectangular dormitory for nonviolent offenders inside Orange County's Theo Lacy Branch Jail. Inmates call it the bubble because it separates the guards from the prisoners, and it has a 360-degree view of the barracks. Inside the bubble, two uniformed guards sit behind a console equipped with closed-circuit television screens; zoom-lensed cameras; loudspeakers; laser pointers; and dozens of buttons, alarms and switches that control every aspect of life for 146 prisoners housed in 16 modules on two tiers, or floors.

There are blind spots in the dormitory, especially on the lower tier, that the deputies and their cameras can't see from the bubble, certain areas where inmates can do a few quick pushups or play a hand or two of spades without being zapped by the laser pointer—the guards' way of warning inmates to get back to their racks, prison slang for beds, or risk losing their day-room privileges for a day or two.

It was to one of these blind spots that two or three inmates led John Derek Chamberlain at about 6:50 p.m. on Oct. 5, 2006.

Chamberlain had been worried about his safety—so much that he had called his ex-girlfriend and told her to have his public defender arrange for him to be put in protective custody. And now, just a day later, a couple of thugs he'd never spoken to in his life were leading him down the stairs. Chamberlain didn't struggle. These guys were half his age and could have easily overpowered the slender 41-year-old software consultant from Rancho Santa Margarita. Besides, he knew he was in for a beating, and he had every reason to suspect the guards out of whose sight he was being led had something to do with it. After all, the guards in F-West were the only people who could possibly know his secret, and that secret was the only explanation for what was happening to him now.

The guards and prisoners inside Orange County's jail system operate in a hierarchical power structure that is strangely symbiotic. Theo Lacy is no exception. To enforce order among the 1,800 inmates housed there, the vastly outnumbered guards rely on the leaders or "shot-callers" of three main jail groups: the "Woods," or whites; the "Southsiders," mostly Latino gang members; and the "Paisanos," mostly illegal immigrants from Mexico. Each shot-caller has a "mouse," or assistant, who is responsible for passing along commands from shot-callers to the rest of the inmates. Helping the shot-callers enforce those orders are "torpedoes," typically the toughest or most violent members of each clique.

If a guard wants the inmates in his area of the jail to clean up their bunks, he simply tells the shot-callers to pass the word that if the bunks aren't spotless in a matter of minutes, nobody gets access to the day room, where inmates play cards or chess or watch television—mostly reruns of The Simpsons. Since day room is the only thing inmates can look forward to to disrupt the monotony of their lives, whoever fails to comply with the command could expect to be punished with a beating by a torpedo.

"There is a hierarchy in every cell block, and if you don't do what you are told, you're screwed," says one former inmate. "It's a jungle, and the deputies are all in on it."

As often as not, the inmate says, beatings are carried out collectively, especially when day-room privileges are at stake. He recalls the time an inmate grew upset while using a telephone in the day room and slammed it down, breaking the receiver. "You never know when they will fix the phone, and it's vital to everyone," he says. So the cell block's shot-caller ordered three Latino inmates to punish the offender.

The three designated torpedoes didn't want to carry out the task because they were getting out the next day, the former inmate recalls. "But if they didn't reciprocate, they'd be dealt with for not obeying orders. I watched this poor guy crawl from his cell to the stairs, getting the shit kicked out of him by three big Hispanic gentlemen who were ordered to do this and were charged with the crime and went on to state prison."

According to inmates at Theo Lacy, guards sometimes don't wait to ask shot-callers to punish inmates who broke the rules. "This happened all the time," claims one former inmate who asked not to be identified. "I always called the deputies 'Sir,'" he says. "Never 'deputy,' just 'Sir, Sir, Sir.' But some of these young guys, especially the Mexicans, they didn't know what 'Sir' meant. So [the guards] would smack them for that or when they were in a bad mood. They could do whatever they wanted to do, and they had a right to be in a bad mood most of the time because they had a tough job to do."

Physical violence at the hands of jail guards is a daily occurrence, claims another former inmate who asked not to be identified. "A couple of times when the deputies walked into the dining hall, some guy didn't pick his plate up quickly enough," he says. "They Tased him to practice their techniques. It ain't fun, let me tell you. It's awful. Everybody gets scared. It's a good deterrent."

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.

*    *    *

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."

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.

"What happened was the deputy pulled over one of the guys and said, you'd better handle this guy because he has dirty charges on him," says one former inmate who asked to remain anonymous. The inmate claims that the deputy told a white shot-caller that if the beating didn't happen, inmates would not be permitted access to the F-West day room. "He said they wouldn't get any day room if they didn't handle him. The deputy said that and people wanted day room, so that's what happened."

Another inmate who also asked to remain anonymous says Deputy Taylor exposed Chamberlain and implied that he was fair game for jailhouse justice. "He told them as they were coming back from chow to take care of him, to clean their house," he says. It would be impossible, the former inmate claims, for the guards in the bubble not to notice what happened next.

"The deputies know they're beating him up because they told them to do it," he continues. "They can see him coming down the stairs. First, nine guys are beating him up and he's lying there half-alive. Now other guys go by, hitting and kicking him, urinating on him, pouring hot coffee on him. They got caught up in the action like a pack of wolves."

After paramedics took Chamberlain to the hospital, he adds, all 146 inmates in F-West were ordered to strip to their boxer shorts and submit to DNA tests. Each prisoner was interviewed by a homicide detective. "Two homicide guys interviewed me," he says. "The first words out of my mouth were: 'It's not the fault of the inmates. It's the fault of the system because you allow inmates to get beat up. The only thing you have to look forward to is day room.'"

After several hours, the inmates were ordered to the mess hall, where they stayed until 5 p.m. the next evening. Deputies passed out two sack lunches to each inmate and told them not to speak to one another. "The cops were calling us all killers," he recalls. "They called 25 to 30 of the fellas out there, and they never came back to the dorm. These were people who had a history of beating people up."

At some point the next day, one of the guards figured it would help pass the time if the inmates told jokes out loud. "These stupid motherfuckers were standing up, making idiots out of themselves," he says. "A guy just died. They allowed him to die. And they're telling jokes? I was fucking appalled."

Martin Heneghan, an attorney for Jared Petrovich, one of the six inmates being charged in the murder, says his client denies having any physical contact with Chamberlain. But Heneghan says Petrovich has confessed to being the shot-caller who spread the word that Chamberlain was a "child molester." On the night of the beating, Petrovich's mouse came into Petrovich's cell saying the deputies wanted to meet with him.

"Deputy Taylor set the ball rolling," Heneghan says. "My client is just a young punk, but since he went to prison, he was the shot-caller. And so he goes out, and Taylor, speaking directly at the other deputy whose name escapes me, clearly, purposefully said, 'Hey, do you know the guy over [there] is a child molester?' and my client just reacted. You are supposed to tell everybody. He just acted how he thought they wanted him to act. He is the liaison with the deputies. . . . There was never any intention to kill this guy. It just got out of hand."

Deputies in the bubble could see people walking back and forth behind the 3-foot-high concrete wall where the beating took place, but they couldn't see someone lying down behind it. Heneghan says Petrovich could also see people filing in and out of the area from his vantage point in his cell, where he insists he stayed until the attack was over.

Attorneys representing three other inmates charged in Chamberlain's death also maintain their clients are innocent of murder. Roland Rubalcava, who represents Christopher Teague, says his client's defense is that he threw only one punch and Chamberlain was still alive later on, when other inmates were hitting him. "I was shocked only six guys were charged," Rubalcava says. "It was at least two dozen people. It was horrible; it was uncivilized, but that's what happened. I don't see how they could figure which guy caused the bodily injury and caused him to die. It was an accumulation of injuries." Rubalcava also says that the homicide reports he's read mention Deputy Taylor. "What I've read is that Taylor was talking to another deputy, but he talks loud enough so that a third guy, an inmate, hears what he says," he recalls. "That's in the reports."

Frank Davis, an alternate defender, wouldn't say whether Eric Miller participated in the attack or not, except to say that if so, it would be extremely out of character for his 21-year-old client. "My client is 5-foot-5 and 100 pounds soaking wet," Davis says. "He is a small, petite, little guy with black hair and glasses. You definitely would not walk across the street to avoid him."

That said, Davis adds, inmates are routinely disciplined for refusing to carry out an order from a shot-caller. "My client was probably within a month or so from being released on a nonviolent, drug-related charge," he explains. "You have to ask yourself, why would an individual take part in this? But when you are in custody, you have to follow what's set before you. It's also clear that most deputies know about these rules and regulations. I don't know if they support it, but they allow it to happen, and this may be one of those cases."

Joseph Cavallo, a longtime friend of Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona who famously, if not successfully, defended the son of Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl on rape charges, says his client, Michael Garten, had nothing to do with the beating. Garten, he insists, was bigger than most of the other inmates and therefore was able to refuse to participate. "He did not get involved," he says. "My client was in his cell the whole time and was called down to participate and refused."

Cavallo believes Taylor should be charged with murder. "Taylor called one of the shot-callers down personally," Cavallo says. "He advised him as to what he believed the sexual preferences were of the poor guy who was killed and told him where they could do it without being in the eye of the camera. And the ramifications were . . . very harsh. If you don't, you get it yourself—anything from death to very serious bodily harm."

Cavallo says he sees no conflict of interest in the fact that he currently faces corruption charges in an Orange County jail-bond scam brought by Deputy DA Baytieh, the same prosecutor trying his client for murder. Attorneys for the other two inmates charged in the murder, Garrett Aguilar and Stephen Carlstrom, did not respond to interview requests.

More than six months after John Chamberlain's death, the DA's office claims it has two investigators assigned to examine evidence that one or more guards may have exposed him as a sex offender, leading to his brutal murder. "All we are saying on the subject is that the matter is under investigation and it is our policy to not discuss any details before the completion of the investigation," says DA spokesperson Susan Kang Schroeder.

Jerry Steering, the lawyer who filed the $20 million claim against the sheriff's department on behalf of Chamberlain's family, says he doesn't expect any deputy to be disciplined in the case. "That's never going to happen in a million years," he says. "Are you joking?" Steering adds that on Jan. 10, he asked for a copy of the videotapes from the F-West bubble—tapes that might show Chamberlain being led to his death in full view of the guards and possibly the crime itself. "They refused to give it to me," he says. "They're never going to give it to me. I doubt there still is a videotape at this point."

Steering's cynicism may seem extreme, but Deputy DA Baytieh concurs. "If you're asking me if there's a smoking gun to this case, there isn't." he says. "There is no videotape showing the beating."

It's also worth noting that no sheriff's deputy has ever been charged in connection with a beating inside the Orange County jail system, despite overwhelming evidence of abuse going back decades. In the late 1980s, deputies inside the Men's Central Jail carried out such ruthless beatings against mostly African-American inmates that they became known among inmates and plaintiffs' attorneys as the "Psycho Crew."

In 2000, Register reporters Aldrin Brown and John McDonald revealed how deputies crushed the testicles of an inmate. Prosecutors failed to find enough evidence to charge the deputies because none of their colleagues would testify against them. And the Psycho Crew? Now it's an equal opportunity enterprise. In 2003, I reported on a series of beatings of mostly white inmates inside the Orange County Men's Central Jail that led to a hunger strike (see "Equal-Opportunity Psycho Crew," Aug. 21, 2003). Also that year, several inmates at Theo Lacy told me how deputies pepper-sprayed an inmate and held him down while they punched him in the face when he refused to comply with an order (see "Open Big House, Nov. 6, 2003).

And last year, my colleague R. Scott Moxley revealed how deputies allegedly beat a white supremacist and murder suspect named Billy Joe Johnson like a piƱata, hanging him by his feet and pulling his face along the concrete floor (see "The Trials of Billy Joe, White Supremacist," Feb. 16, 2006). After the attack, deputies allegedly warned witnesses to keep their mouths shut.

Although dozens of inmates witnessed the beating that killed John Chamberlain, one ex-prisoner says he refused to share with DA investigators the name of any inmate who participated. "I refused to give the DA any names," he says. "Nobody wants to be a rat. But they knew about Deputy Taylor. Afterwards, I went up to him and said, 'It doesn't look good.' And he said, 'For who?' and I said, 'For you.'"

According to the inmate, the guard didn't respond. "He knows he screwed up," he says. "It's too bad. I liked Taylor, and he liked me. He was, in my opinion, the best guard there."

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