The Chamberlain Files

The inside story of covering—and becoming part of—the county's most disturbing jailhouse murder case

The Chamberlain Files

The first rule of being a reporter is to tell the story. Rule number two follows logically from rule number one. Don't be the story.

It was midmorning on Sept. 29, the second day of the prosecution's closing arguments in the case of The People of the State of California v. Garret Aguilar, Stephen Carlstrom, Miguel Guillen, Jared Petrovich and Raul Villafana. The crime took place on Oct. 5, 2006, inside the F-West barracks, a minimum-security dormitory at the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange, when dozens of inmates assaulted a prisoner named John Chamberlain, a Rancho Santa Margarita software engineer facing trial for misdemeanor child-pornography possession.

Because the prisoners believed Chamberlain had actually molested little girls, they spent a good half-hour or so punching, kicking and stomping him to death, as well as sexually assaulting him with a plastic spoon, a pencil and possibly a tube of toothpaste—and occasionally throwing water on him to wake him up for additional abuse. Despite what by all accounts was a group slaying, only nine inmates were charged with a crime; three of them pleaded guilty to manslaughter in return for sentences of 15 to 20 years in prison. The six now on trial were charged with committing first-degree murder and faced life in prison if convicted.

Jim Rugg
Jim Rugg

Inside the courtroom, I was filling up my notepad and trying to not be noticed when I heard prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh mention my name. He was talking about an article of mine that he'd already read to the jury a few weeks ago, nearly in its entirety and in a thundering voice. The story, "I Lit the Fire," published in OC Weekly on April 3, 2008, was based on an exclusive interview I'd conducted with Petrovich, the shot-caller for the Woods (white inmates), from inside a visitor's booth at Theo Lacy Jail.

My big scoop: According to Petrovich, a uniformed guard named Kevin Taylor had sought him out on the day of the murder and informed him Chamberlain was a "chester," jailhouse slang for child molester. Not only that, but Taylor had even encouraged the deadly assault. "I lit the fire," Petrovich had told me. "But Taylor struck the match."

"I love that OC Weekly article," Baytieh told the jury, smiling mirthfully and rolling his eyes. "When I got it, I said, 'Wow, why are you talking to the media? You're charged with murder!'"

Baytieh took special delight in the fact that Petrovich had told me he shouldn't be charged with murder, only manslaughter.

"Our answer to him as a society is 'Thank you, but no thank you,'" Baytieh boomed. "It's murder. First degree."

The trial wasn't over yet, but it might as well have been.

* * *

A few months before the trial began, Baytieh called me on my cell phone. "I just want to tell you how much I like your reporting on the Chamberlain murder," he told me, seeming sincere. "In fact, I like it so much I'm planning to call you on the stand as a witness so you can talk about it in front of the jury."

I told Baytieh I wasn't interested and to talk to my attorney, who promised to fight any motion to have me testify in court. So Baytieh and the lawyers for the five defendants worked out a deal to have certain portions of my stories about the Chamberlain murder introduced as evidence in the case. Baytieh even agreed to let in portions of those articles that tended to show that Taylor had authorized Chamberlain's assault and that his employer, the Orange County Sheriff's Department, had covered up this fact from the moment after the murder took place.

Indeed, Baytieh's employer, the Orange County district attorney's office, had provided much of the evidence of official wrongdoing in the first place. A 2007 grand jury probe by the DA concluded that Taylor and other guards inside Orange County's jail system had allowed race-based jailhouse gangs—the Woods, the South Siders (Chicano gangbangers) and Paisanos (mostly Mexican nationals)—to run the show. Under the watchful eye of deputies, the gangs—called "Classification According to Race" (CARs)—carried out daily assaults on anyone who stepped out of line.

In cases in which inmates were punished for disrespecting deputies or making their jobs difficult for whatever reason, guards also habitually rewarded assailants with extra dayroom privileges, even extra sack lunches. In F-West, moreover, Taylor and his fellow guards, Jason Chapluk and Philip Le, hardly ever entered the dormitory to conduct routine safety checks and were actually watching television when Chamberlain was killed. At Taylor's command, Le had falsified a jail log concerning Chamberlain and had taped over security footage filmed during the period when the attack occured.

Though Taylor lost his job over the scandal, as did numerous other high-ranking jail officials, neither he nor any other Sheriff's personnel was charged with any crime. And in both the official investigations that took place, as well as extensive reporting by The Orange County Register, little if any credence was ever given to Petrovich's assertion that Taylor had outed Chamberlain as a "chester," thus setting in motion the horrendous attack.

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