The Chamberlain Files

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

The first photograph to fill up the screen, taken at the morgue a day after the murder, was a shocking close-up of Chamberlain's face with a breathing tube emerging from his mouth, his swollen head a grotesque purple pumpkin, heavy bruising on his forehead, possibly from being banged against the floor so many times. The following shots showed eyes swollen shut, ears turned black and blue, a back covered with contusions and what looked like footprints.

Of the victim's 24 ribs, all but three had been fractured and several had been broken in more than one place. The relentless punching and kicking had literally collapsed Chamberlain's ribcage, thus making it impossible for him to breathe; he died of a heart attack brought about by pulmonary arrest. There were a few images Baytieh didn't show onscreen: those of Chamberlain's rectum, which had suffered a small tear, presumably from the pencil or plastic spoon that was jammed in his anus.

Faced with this unrelentingly graphic barrage, defense attorneys had little choice but to try to convince jurors that the blows their clients were observed landing on the victim could not have caused or even contributed to his death. For example, Fred Thiagarajah, Carlstrom's attorney, noted that while his client admitted kicking Chamberlain in the buttocks, only one superficial bruise was discovered on that area of the victim's body.

Jim Rugg
Jim Rugg

Until Baytieh's slideshow, the prosecution's case had been anything from convincing. It amounted to a string of inmate eyewitnesses, convicted felons all, who on the one hand readily identified each defendant as having played a role in assaulting Chamberlain, but who often contradicted one another and even themselves under aggressive cross-examination by the defense attorneys. Indeed, when it came to Petrovich, there was no evidence from any witness that he had so much as lifted a finger against Chamberlain, and most of the witnesses claimed Miguel Guillen, Villafana and Carlstrom landed only a few hits or kicks at most on the victim.

Witnesses were more united in their take on Garret Aguilar, however. It was he, several of them testified, who led Chamberlain to D-Cube, threw him to the ground, and then repeatedly punched, kicked and stomped on the victim. One witness, Luis Palacios, told the jury Aguilar's work was nothing short of "ruthlessness." Sean Pough, a creepy jailhouse informant and convicted fraudster who was housed near some of the defendants following the murder, told jurors Aguilar had boasted to him about the crime, saying that Aguilar had told him that his only fear was whether his DNA was on the pencil found near Chamberlain's body.

Perhaps the prosecution's strangest witness, Deputy Chapluk, appeared alternately obsequious and defensive while on the stand, his narrow frame barely filling his green sheriff's uniform, his eyes flitting nervously as he glanced at the jury while Baytieh asked him about the conversation Petrovich alleged he and Taylor had carried out on the day of the murder.

"At any moment in time on that day, Oct. 5, 2006, did you assist anybody telling anybody inside F-West that John Chamberlain was a child molester?" Baytieh asked, his voice booming.

"No," Chapluk responded.

"Were you present when Taylor did this?" Baytieh continued.


"On that day did you ever . . . engage in a conversation with Taylor so that inmates would know that Chamberlain was a child molester?" demanded Baytieh.

Sitting near the front row in the courtroom as this colloquy took place was sheriff's investigator Ken Hoffman. He leaned forward like a baseball catcher, frowning and shaking his head. Then Hoffman made a horizontal motion with his hand, the way a film director might signal for a "cut."

Chapluk smiled at the jury.

"No," he said.

As it turned out, the prosecution's best witnesses were the defendants themselves. Baytieh played for the jury audio recordings of each of their interviews with homicide investigators. Baytieh's co-prosecutor, Keith Bogardus, also reenacted a confession by Guillen, who was interviewed in Spanish and who tearfully told detectives he regretted slapping Chamberlain with his shoes during the attack.

Of all the characters at the defense table, Guillen made for a particularly pathetic figure. At one point during the proceedings, he burst into tears for no apparent reason, causing Stotler to declare a recess. The most absurd aspect of his entire situation was that Guillen, an illegal immigrant, had actually escaped to Mexico after the murder and was only rearrested after he crossed back north and was caught driving drunk on Christmas Day in 2007.

On the same day Guillen's confession came to light, I overheard several of the jurors having a loud and, under the circumstances, untimely discussion about illegal immigration. One juror in particular, an obese man with greasy hair and a pencil-thin mustache who habitually harangued his fellow jurors in the hallway, was downright apoplectic on the subject. He seemed incensed that family members of illegal immigrants were being allowed to retrieve vehicles seized from their relatives during routine traffic stops, rather than having the cars impounded. "That's bullshit!" the juror thundered.

A few days later, when it came time for the defense team to take over, not one of the defendants took the witness stand. The closest thing to a bombshell that dropped came in the form of Jerry Ibarra, a onetime morgue attendant who looked the part, with bulging eyes and a somewhat crazed, deer-in-the-headlights expression on his face. A resident of F-West when the murder took place, he told jurors he had personally witnessed Petrovich and Taylor talking a few hours before the murder and that after the assault, he saw Taylor attempt to revive Chamberlain, who was leaning on the wall of D-Cube. When that failed, Ibarra added, Taylor turned to several inmates who were standing nearby the body and said, "I didn't say to kill him."

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