The John Chamberlain Jail Killing: Another Defendant's Account

A harrowing exclusive interview with Michael Garten, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the jailhouse-beating case

It's been more than four years since dozens of prisoners at Theo Lacy Jail in Orange assaulted John Chamberlain, a Mission Viejo software engineer, in the bloodiest behind-bars killing in Orange County history. Nine inmates were charged with the Oct. 5, 2006, crime; in the past two weeks, three of those defendants—Michael Garten, 25; Christopher Teague, 34; and Jeremy Culmann, 27—pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Although prosecutors agree that all three men landed only a few punches on Chamberlain—who had been awaiting trial for possession of child pornography—Teague and Culmann each received a sentence of 15 years, while Garten received 20.

Why the disparity? "Garten was present for everything that happened, from beginning to end," explains Deputy District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh. "He saw the victim deteriorate, and to us, it places more culpability on him than Teague and Culmann, who were involved in the beginning but could say that when they left, Chamberlain wasn't in bad shape."

If it's true that Garten witnessed the entire attack, then perhaps he'd be in the best position to account for the most enduring mystery of the slaying: Just how, exactly, did the inmates charged with killing Chamberlain come to believe that he was a "chester," jailhouse slang for child molester, and thus warranted a brutal beating?

Jim Rugg

Two defendants still facing murder charges, Jared Petrovich and Stephen Carlstrom, have asserted in previous interviews with the Weekly ("I Lit the Fire," April 4, 2008, and "Murder? Are You Crazy?" Aug. 20, 2010) that Deputy Kevin Taylor exposed Chamberlain's status to them just hours before the attack. Taylor denied those allegations before invoking his Fifth Amendment rights and refusing to cooperate with investigators. He no longer works for the sheriff's department.

In an exclusive interview with the Weekly, Garten not only provides the fullest account of Chamberlain's murder that has emerged from any witness, but he also claims he personally overheard Taylor ordering the attack.

Garten, a drug dealer, had been inside Theo Lacy's F-West barracks for five months when the attack against Chamberlain took place. He shared a bunk with Petrovich, who happened to be the "shot-caller," or leader, of "the Woods," jail slang for white inmates.

On the day of the killing, Garten was working out next to Petrovich when Carlstrom, the Woods "house mouse," or messenger, told Petrovich that a deputy wanted to talk to him.

"Jared went out, and when he came back, he was red in the face," Garten recalls in an interview last week at the Orange County Men's Jail. "There was a shift in emotion. And then there was a lot of whispering going on with the [Woods] hierarchy. I asked Jared what was going on, and he blew me off."

But in line on the way to the chow hall, Garten says, Petrovich whispered to him that Taylor had asked him to step outside the dormitory to witness a conversation between himself and Deputy Jason Chapluk about how Chamberlain was a child molester and how the inmates of F-West needed to "clean house."

The attack, Petrovich told Garten, wasn't supposed to take place during dinner, when there would be too many other guards present who could intervene, but afterward, during the evening day-room hour, when prisoners could relax, watch TV and play cards.

On the way back to their barracks, Garten, who was in line behind Petrovich, saw Taylor sitting on a folding chair just outside the door. "Make sure you take out the trash next day room," Garten remembers Taylor telling Petrovich.

When the day room opened that evening, a "small group" of inmates—Garten refused to mention them by name—enticed Chamberlain to go downstairs. They led him to a blind spot where deputies in the guard station couldn't see what was happening. "I was supposed to monitor the situation," Garten says. "I was not supposed to go anywhere and, when it was over, to take him to the shower, and then the day room." Garten adds that Taylor had instructed Petrovich to ensure nobody hit Chamberlain "above the neck or below the belt" and that it was his job to make sure that order was obeyed.

The prisoners began interrogating and hitting Chamberlain, who at first insisted he'd been arrested for violating probation. But after several minutes of being punched in the chest and torso, he tried to claim he'd been busted for urinating in a park. "To us, that meant he was probably holding his dick in his hands while he was looking at kids," Garten says.

After 10 to 15 minutes of being worked over by about half a dozen white inmates, the punishment was over. But then, without explanation, Garten says, Chamberlain got to his feet and announced, "I like children that are undeveloped." He then held his hands up to his chest in a lewd gesture.

"At that point, his life was over," Garten says. "There are images I will never forget: punching, kicking, stomping, spitting. People were tossing him from side to side. He probably hit his head on the bunk a few times. People were yelling at him, 'I have kids; how can you do this? You sick motherfucker!'"

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