The Chamberlain Files

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

I had first heard Taylor's name well before I interviewed Petrovich, back when I began investigating the murder for a March 29, 2007, story called "Blind Spot." Chamberlain's family had filed a legal claim—it would later be settled for $600,000—against Orange County, and the attorney, Jerry Steering, was a source of mine. Steering introduced me to another client of his, an alcoholic retiree who'd been arrested for drunk driving and happened to be inside F-West barracks when the attack took place. I met him at a Santa Ana sports bar—he ordered water—and took notes as he told me everything that had happened on the day Chamberlain was murdered.

The picture of F-West painted by this former inmate—a conservative, pro-law-enforcement Republican—was positively Goya-esque. The guards, he said, would often slap or punch inmates who didn't follow commands and would occasionally practice their skills with Tasers and other nonlethal weapons on disrespectful prisoners. They didn't need to lift a finger to make sure the rules were followed, that bunks were cleaned on command, or that people didn't flush the toilet when deputies were on the floor.

Instead, they'd simply meet with the shot-callers of the various gangs, who would then enforce discipline by "taxing" the offender, either by forcing him to perform various chores or rigorous calisthenics or, more often, by simply placing the prisoner against a wall and pummeling him without mercy for 20 seconds or so. "There is a hierarchy in every cell block, and if you don't do what you are told, you're screwed," the former inmate said. "It's a jungle, and the deputies are all in on it."

Jim Rugg

Certain guards, he added, would often ask inmates who'd been arrested for sex-related crimes about their charges in front of other prisoners, knowing full well they'd be assaulted. "Then [they'd] walk out proudly, and in five minutes, [the inmates] had the guy in the shower with no camera, beating the shit out of him."

In Chamberlain's case, it turned out that on the day he died, his lawyer had called Theo Lacy, telling officials Chamberlain feared for his life and needed to be moved elsewhere in the jail. The request eventually made its way to deputies Taylor and Chapluk, who called Chamberlain to a hallway outside the dormitory and asked him about the call and the charges pending against him. According to the two deputies, Chamberlain said that while he indeed "preferred little girls," he wasn't afraid of being assaulted and would only need protection after his next court date, which wasn't for a few weeks.

The ex-inmate told me Taylor's next move was in keeping with the deputies' tradition of outing suspected sex offenders. "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,'" he explained. When interviewed by homicide detectives later that night, he says, the first words out of his 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."

Another former F-West inmate concurred that Taylor had exposed Chamberlain to the wrath of the Woods hierarchy, knowing full well what would happen next. "[Taylor] told them as they were coming back from chow to take care of him, to clean their house," he said. "The deputies know they're beating him up because they told him to do it."

Given their vantage point, the inmate added, the guards could see Chamberlain being led downstairs from his housing module to D-Cube, where a short wall provided a modicum of cover for the attack, what he and other inmates called a "blind spot." "First, nine guys are beating him up, and he's lying there half-alive," he recalled. "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."

* * *

Besides the two inmates I spoke to who observed the assault on Chamberlain but weren't directly involved, I eventually interviewed three more prisoners who were charged in the murder: Petrovich; Stephen Carlstrom, allegedly the "house mouse" for the Woods, which made him responsible for overseeing daily housekeeping chores in F-West; and Michael Garten, who was Petrovich's bunkmate at the time of the murder.

I met Petrovich first. He was eager to talk, perhaps too eager. Within 24 hours of the murder, he'd already admitted his role to sheriff's investigators, alleging it was Taylor who told him Chamberlain was a child molester. Petrovich knew he wasn't going to be offered any plea deal, and he agreed with his then-attorney, Martin Heneghan, who arranged the interview, that at that point, he had nothing to lose by talking to me. Although he was covered in tattoos that spoke to his extensive time behind bars thanks to a budding career as a meth-addicted petty crook, Petrovich seemed less a hardened killer than a bewildered kid who'd simply made one bad decision too many and now found himself facing life in prison for the death of a man who, by nearly all accounts, Petrovich hadn't even touched.

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