The Chamberlain Files

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

No sooner had Ibarra shared his story than Bogardus made a spectacle of ripping it apart, repeatedly forcing the increasingly deranged-seeming witness to acknowledge that he had never mentioned any of these shocking details before, neither during his interrogation by homicide detectives nor during his pretrial conversations with prosecutors—indeed, not until mid-trial, when he was contacted by the defense team.

The highlight of the defense's closing arguments occurred when Petrovich's attorney, Keith Davidson, gave what could have been a career-making speech, had things turned out differently. Whereas Baytieh had referenced my article "I Lit the Fire" in his closing arguments numerous times, Davidson went a step further and made it the centerpiece of his oration.

In particular, he highlighted Petrovich's steadfast claim that nobody, neither he nor Taylor, envisioned Chamberlain being murdered and how when the attack quickly spread out of control, he had attempted to stop it. "I said, 'That's it,'" Petrovich had told me. "'No more. It's over.' . . . [Then] I walk out . . . and I see 50 Mexicans running in there. I said, 'Stop,' but they kept on coming."

Jim Rugg
Jim Rugg

Assuming there was a conspiracy, Davidson told the jury, it clearly began with Taylor and didn't involve murder. "We know who really lit the fire," he argued. Furthermore, Davidson pointed out, of the three guards on duty that evening, Taylor refused to testify for fear of incriminating himself; Chapluk and Philip Le, who also testified, had been granted immunity—thus implying some sort of guilt. Le, he pointed out, had admitted he falsified a jail log regarding Chamberlain. And then, Davidson added, there's the fact that the videotape of the barracks during the time when the attack took place had mysteriously disappeared.

"This whole case stinks to high heaven," Davidson said. "You are the last hope for justice."

Ever since ancient Greece, he added, philosophers have asked the question: What happens when those who have absolute authority abuse that authority? Who will guard against the guards?

"In this case, the answer to that question is you," he concluded, his voice a barely audible whisper as he leaned forward over the dais. "It's you."

* * *

After two months of testimony, the jury in the Chamberlain murder trial took a little more than 11 days to reach a verdict. Because they didn't meet on Fridays or weekends, an entire month passed between the end of the trial and about 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 26, when the jury finally announced it had reached a verdict. There was a distinct feeling of despair among the defendants' family members. Slightly more than 24 hours earlier, the jury had told Stotler it was hopelessly deadlocked. This message was passed from defense attorneys to the relatives, who rushed to the courthouse that afternoon full of anticipation. Shortly before the hearing began, Petrovich's mother, Ruth Camardi, smiled at me for the first time since the trial began.

As it turned out, however, the jury had only deadlocked on first-degree murder and had never taken votes on lesser charges such as second-degree murder or manslaughter. The fact that just a day after being ordered to reconvene, the jury was no longer deadlocked didn't bode well for the defense. The defendants themselves looked like condemned men facing the gallows pole. Presumably, their lawyers had told them to expect the worst, which is exactly what happened: All five were found guilty of second-degree murder.

As the clerk read the guilty verdict for Villafana, the defendant's mother, a meek, middle-aged woman who'd quietly attended the trial for the past three months, began sobbing uncontrollably, and Stotler ordered her to be removed from the courtroom.

After the courtroom was dismissed, 10 of the 12 jurors rushed to the elevator, apparently uninterested in prolonging their public service by explaining their verdict to reporters. However, two lingered. One of them was Kim McPeck of Santa Ana, the loudmouth with the strong dislike of illegal immigration.

In the hallway outside the courtroom, a reporter asked McPeck if the jury had done the right thing. "I believe so," he said, adding that if it were up to him, the five defendants would have been convicted of first-degree murder. McPeck also said that the weight of the case had often kept him up at night. But McPeck wasn't talking about the weight of deciding whether or not to send five men to prison for the rest of their lives, but rather how to get everyone to agree with his point of view.

"There were nights without sleep—entire weekends without sleep," he explained. "Nights staying up just worrying about how you can convince the rest of the jury to go along with your arguments."

The other juror in the hallway, Erik Johnson, was a tall, soft-spoken young man from Brea. Asked if justice had been served by the jury's verdict, Johnson winced thoughtfully, raised his head to the heavens and closed his eyes. "I'm going to spend a long time answering that question," he said.

Long after Johnson makes up his mind, I'll still be asking myself the same thing.

This article appeared in print as "The Chamberlain Files: Jailhouse interviews, sack lunches, annoying jurors: The inside story of covering—and becoming part of—the county's most disturbing murder case."

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