The Chamberlain Files

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

On the day of the murder, Petrovich told me, Carlstrom came to his bunk and told him the deputies wanted to meet with the Woods shot-caller. Petrovich had just inherited the job from Keith Counts, an inmate nicknamed Sick Dog who had just been transferred to state prison. Because Taylor and Chapluk hadn't been on duty for a week, before Sick Dog's departure and Petrovich's promotion, they'd had to ask Carlstrom, the house mouse, for assistance. Petrovich told Carlstrom to find out why they wanted to see him, but when Carlstrom returned and insisted Petrovich had to meet the guards alone, he did as told.

When he reached the hallway near the guard tower, Taylor and Chapluk were already waiting for him. After asking him if he was the Woods shot-caller and if he spoke English, Taylor engaged in a conversation with Chapluk that Petrovich was clearly supposed to overhear. "There's a child molester in [bunk] J7," Taylor told his partner. "And you know what happens when there's a child molester."

Chapluk didn't need to answer. Petrovich told me that anyone who was considered a "chester" was open to attack by inmates of all races and would be subjected to a merciless assault, which is exactly what he was expected to arrange. As he told me this, Petrovich added that chesters weren't the only people subjected to vicious attacks at F-West; he'd heard that a onetime member of the rock band Kiss who had stolen crackers from an inmate had been beaten to a pulp back when Sick Dog was the shot-caller.

Jim Rugg
Jim Rugg

Based on Petrovich's claim, I dug up jail records that showed Mark Leslie Norton, a former Kiss guitarist and meth addict, had been transferred from one area of Theo Lacy to F-West barracks just a month before Chamberlain was killed. In a letter from state prison, Sick Dog told me that Taylor had informed him of Norton's thievery in the other area of the jail and promised him extra sack lunches if he saw to it that the prisoner was punished once he reached F-West. Several inmates who witnessed the attack told me Norton was beaten so badly he couldn't leave his cell for more than a day, yet he was never given any medical attention. He died of a brain hemorrhage several months after he left jail, in April 2007. (I wrote three stories about the Norton beating, the last of which was "Sack Attack," July 11, 2008.)

Petrovich told me that on the day of Chamberlain's murder, he asked the inmate about his pending charges, and Chamberlain had claimed he was behind bars for violating a restraining order. Nonetheless, based on what Taylor had told him, Petrovich met with the shot-callers of both the South Siders and the Paisanos (whose shot-caller, Raul Villafana, was charged alongside Petrovich), in D-Cube and alerted them to the fact Chamberlain was about to be assaulted there. When I asked Petrovich to describe Chamberlain, he used language he would come to regret. "He was a creepy-looking dude," Petrovich recalled. "He looked weird. All those perverts look the same. He was like a little pig. Fat and little."

When I interviewed Carlstrom in August 2010 (see "'Murder? Are You Crazy?'" Aug. 20, 2010), he confirmed Petrovich's account. Like Petrovich, he denied ever hitting Chamberlain, claiming that after the white inmates had finished assaulting him and the Latino prisoners were taking their turn, he'd tried to drag the victim out of D-Cube to end the attack. "A lot of people were saying they weren't done and to put him down," he told me. "At that point, I was scared for my life. I feel guilty about this. I let him go."

The last inmate I interviewed, Garten, spoke to me in January, after pleading guilty to manslaughter in return for a reduced sentence of 20 years in prison (see "Images I Will Never Forget," Jan. 28, 2011). Garten told me that while he was walking in line behind Petrovich from chow hall to F-West, he saw Taylor sitting on a stool just outside the barracks. "Make sure you take out the trash next dayroom," Garten says Taylor told Petrovich.

Two other inmates, Christopher Teague and Jeremy Cullman, reached similar deals in return for 15-year prison terms. But Garten received a stiffer sentence than Teague or Cullman because even though he never touched Chamberlain, he witnessed the entire attack and didn't intervene. According to Garten, the final blow came when one of the inmates jumped on Chamberlain's head one time too many. "There are images I will never forget," he recalled. "The eyes went black; 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 was it."

* * *

I thought about Garten on the afternoon of Aug. 30, about a month into the Chamberlain murder trial, when Baytieh dimmed the lights inside Department C-35, on the ninth floor of the Orange County Superior Courthouse, with Judge James A. Stotler presiding, and flicked on the overhead projector. After a month of testimony, Baytieh was about to rest his case, appearing onscreen was his final witness: Chamberlain himself, or rather what was left of him.

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