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

Garten watched as groups of three to five inmates took turns pummeling Chamberlain for 20 seconds at a time for the next half an hour, with dozens of white and Latino prisoners queued up outside the door for their chance. Some stripped off his clothes; others urinated on Chamberlain and threw hot water on his face. Chamberlain never screamed, in part because for much of the time, he was choking from the water being forced down his nose and throat.

The attack only ended when an inmate whom Garten refused to name jumped up and down on Chamberlain's head two or three times in a row. "That was it for him," Garten recalls. "It was one time too many. The eyes went back; the breathing got weird. You saw his chest go up and down and stop. If it's possible to see someone take their last breath, that's what it was."

When they realized Chamberlain was dead, the inmates jumped up in front of the guard station, where deputies, including Taylor and Chapluk were watching television. "When he came out, Taylor said something—I can't remember exactly what, but it was like, 'You guys went too far,'" Garten recalls. "Did he want Chamberlain beaten up? Yes. Dead? No."

Jim Rugg

Perhaps the most hideous aspect of what happened is that the attack on Chamberlain wasn't that unusual, according to Garten. "It was just an accident that he died," he insists. "Beatings happened in there every single day. I've seen one guy's nose fill the whole floor up with blood."

The F-West barracks, he explains, were known as Theo Lacy's "problem-solving" ward. Any inmate who stole behind bars, was awaiting trial for sex crimes, or had pissed off the guards would eventually be sent to F-West, where Taylor and Chapluk would reward inmates for punishing the offender. "I've seen Taylor and Chapluk pay people to do this with day room [privileges], extra clothes, sack lunches" Garten asserts.

Garten says he's relieved he won't spend the rest of his life in prison and excited he'll likely be free in three to six years, given time served, assuming he behaves himself behind bars. He regrets his role in the attack and feels some responsibility for what happened. But, he says, at the time, he felt like he had no choice but to participate. "The deputies used the hierarchy to do their dirty business," he says. "It's like a gun to your head. You see a guy bleeding like a fountain a few times, and you'll do whatever they ask."

This article appeared in print as "‘Images I Will Never Forget’: A defendant in the John Chamberlain case provides the fullest account yet of OC’s most brutal jailhouse killing."

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