Jared Petrovich Admits His Role In the Killing of John Chamberlain. But Why Did He Target the Guy?

'I Lit the Fire'
Jared Petrovich claims he was just following orders when his words sparked a fatal jailhouse beating

The inmate sitting on the metal stool on the opposite side of a thick plate of shatter-resistant and nearly soundproof glass looks confused. Perched on his nose are ill-fitting, plastic-rimmed eyeglasses. He's squinting nervously, leaning forward, intently grasping a telephone, his elbows on the steel table before him. His short-sleeved orange jump suit seems custom-made to reveal the tattoos that decorate his upper body.

Two five-pointed stars mark either side of his neck. On his arms is a complex pattern of skulls, crosses and an embryonic infant sucking liquid through what looks like a combination of a beer bong and an umbilical cord. Etched on his elbows are two words that pretty much sum up the life story and present predicament of Jared Louis Petrovich: "Lost Soul."

Eighteen months ago, Petrovich was a 24-year-old drug user whose addiction to methamphetamines had kept him behind bars for much of the past decade. Now he's an accused murderer facing life in prison for playing a central role in the bloodiest jailhouse murder in Orange County history. The slaying took place inside the jail where Petrovich awaits trial: Theo Lacy Facility, a sprawling medium-security prison across the street from the Block in Orange.

Petrovich had been sent there on Sept. 6, 2006, after being arrested for possession of methamphetamines. Along with roughly 150 other nonviolent offenders, he was housed inside F-West barracks, a medium-security dormitory divided into numerous cubes, or six-man sleeping areas. Less than a month after he arrived, at about 6 p.m. on Oct. 5, 2006, the inmates had just returned to their barracks from the chow hall and were enjoying their evening access to the day room.

Petrovich was playing cards with three other inmates at a table near the televisions while, several yards away, in the corner of Cube D, half a dozen white inmates were beating the living hell out of John Derek Chamberlain, a 41-year-old Mission Viejo software engineer who'd been arrested for possession of child pornography. Petrovich knew Chamberlain was being beaten up because, by his own admission, he had just told the men now attacking Chamberlain that the inmate was a "chester"—jailhouse slang for child molester.

Petrovich claims he didn't touch Chamberlain himself, but as he readily acknowledges, "I lit the fire."

While Petrovich played pinochle, as many as two dozen inmates kicked, stomped and punched Chamberlain to death; sodomized him with foreign objects; and scalded him with hot water (see "Blind Spot," March 30, 2007). Meanwhile, deputies, who later claimed they were watching a baseball game on television in the guard tower, did nothing to stop the attack.

Chamberlain was pronounced dead that evening; an autopsy ruled his death the result of blunt-force trauma to the head. In the year since then, prosecutors have arrested nine inmates, including Petrovich, for the crime, and they say more arrests are likely to follow. The county has also paid a $600,000 settlement to Chamberlain's family. After a sheriff's department investigation, the Orange County district attorney conducted its own probe; there was even a nine-month grand-jury investigation.

But in a March 7 press conference, DA Tony Rackauckas said he found no evidence to support charging any deputy with a crime in connection with the killing. "If we could have proven a case that any member of the sheriff's department, from the lowest ranking to the top of the department, was criminally responsible for the death of Mr. Chamberlain, there is no question that indictments would have been issued," Rackauckas said. Two high-ranking sheriff's officials did lose their jobs thanks to the scandal; Rackauckas has promised his eventual report on the murder will help bring about badly needed reforms at the jail.

The grand jury never called Petrovich to testify about the murder because prosecutors refused to go along with his attorney's request that he be granted immunity for anything he told them.

Meanwhile, Petrovich has remained in solitary confinement. Other than occasional visits from family members and his attorney, as well as infrequent trips to a courtroom, he hasn't had much company. Until now, he's never spoken to a reporter. He spends his days working out, watching television and reading magazines. He doesn't really know how he went from being a typical suburban kid with loving parents to a drug addict and accused murderer. But mostly he doesn't understand why nobody believes his story: that a deputy told him Chamberlain was a child molester and specifically instructed him to see to it that Chamberlain was punished for it. "If the truth came out," he says, shaking his head in a weary, almost fatalistic motion, "I'd be a free man instead of wasting my life away for something I didn't do."

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To make sense of what happened to Chamberlain—and to understand Petrovich's role in the brutal murder—one has to begin with the subculture of Orange County's jail system. Although prison gangs such as the Mexican Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Nazi Lowriders and the Black Guerrilla Family all have members housed at Theo Lacy, their numbers are fewer than at state prisons. Yet all inmates belong to less well-known cliques that, like their more sinister state-prison counterparts, are divided along racial lines. White inmates are known as Woods; Latino inmates are divided between the Southsiders, made up of Southern California-raised gangbangers, and the Paisanos, mostly Mexican-born inmates, many of whom are illegal immigrants and don't speak English.

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