Jason Chapluk Gets All Chapluk-ed Up
Orange County Sheriff's Deputy Jason Chapluk was visibly nervous as he sat in the witness chair last week for his last day of testimony, in the ninth-floor courtroom of Orange County Superior Court Judge James Stotler. Though perhaps not quite as anxious as shown on security footage from the night of Oct. 5, 2006, when he and fellow Theo Lacy Jail guard Kevin Taylor bounced around the guard tower inside F-West barracks, trying to figure out how to explain to superiors that dozens of inmates had just brutally murdered John Chamberlain because they mistakenly suspected he was a child molester—an attack that took place less than 100 feet away from their station.
But Chapluk was definitely on edge during his testimony in the trial of five inmates charged in Chamberlain's death. Dressed in his dark-green uniform, Chapluk repeatedly cast furtive glances at the jury as prosecutors and defense attorneys grilled him for three straight days about the events of Oct. 5. Whether he purposefully sought to maintain eye contact with the jury, his facial tic suggested discomfort and yearning for approval rather than honesty or self-confidence.
The 29-year-old is understandably all-a-flutter heart-wise nowadays. The first week of the murder trial provided a graphic narrative of what some of the defendants did to Chamberlain: relentlessly punching, kicking and stomping him; spanking his bare ass with their shoes; sticking a pencil up his rectum; and keeping him alert with repeated splashes of water. But the testimony also painted a picture of F-West as a tightly controlled lunatic asylum, where adolescent shot-callers ruled over men twice their age and meted out assaults and other punishments, as well as rewards such as sack lunches. It was a bizarre, sadistic program that allowed jail guards to control the dormitory and minimize the work Chapluk and Taylor actually had to do so they could instead sit in their tower and watch television, text girlfriends and ignore the daily violence around them.
Along with Taylor, Chapluk was suspended with pay in the wake of the murder. But unlike Taylor (who refused to cooperate with the homicide investigation or a later grand-jury probe and was ultimately fired), Chapluk received immunity from Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and remains with the sheriff's department; he now works at the Intake and Release Center in Santa Ana. One wonders why Sheriff Sandra Hutchens continues to employ someone who admitted under oath that neither he nor Taylor ever left the tower to check on inmates except for routine morning and evening counts, as opposed to the floor checks deputies are supposed to do every 30 minutes, a practice that would likely have prevented Chamberlain's death.
So far, the prosecution's case against the five inmates appears to rest on whether jurors will believe Chapluk's claim that neither he nor Taylor had anything to do with revealing to the inmates the notion that Chamberlain was a "chester," jail slang for child molester, a false charge that set in motion the horrific assault. The basic time line of the murder isn't in question: Early in the afternoon on the day Chamberlain died, his public defender—acting on information provided to him by his client's then-girlfriend—called the jail to say that Chamberlain was in fear for his life and wanted an immediate transfer from the F-West barracks, a minimum-security housing dormitory at Theo Lacy reserved for nonviolent offenders. The call, as various employees at the jail testified last week, was promptly sent from the jail's main control via inmate classification (which determines where prisoners are housed) out to the deputies at F-West.
From there, one of two things happened, depending on whom you believe. The prosecution's story: Chapluk and Taylor confronted Chamberlain, who assured them he wasn't afraid for his safety, and then, a few hours later, he was brutally murdered in a remarkable turn of bad luck. The defense's theory, which has been reported extensively in this paper via direct interviews with two of the defendants, as well as several other inmates present that day, is that the two deputies engaged in a conversation about Chamberlain's status as a child molester in front of defendant Jared Petrovich, the shot-caller of the Woods, or white inmates (see "I Lit the Fire," April 3, 2008, and "'Murder? Are You Crazy?'," Aug. 19, 2010).
As described under oath by Chapluk, a diminutive young man who was 24 at the time of the murder and weighed perhaps 135 pounds, he and Taylor—a mustachioed, muscle-bound veteran who stood 6 feet, 2 inches tall and outweighed his partner by nearly 100 pounds—called Chamberlain via the barracks loudspeaker to the "tunnel," a darkened hallway near the guard tower that led to an outside courtyard. The official story of what happened next began in the moments after inmates alerted the guards of a "man down": when Taylor declared "Dayroom's over—rack it up," (guard speak for "go to your bunks"), and security footage captured Taylor telling Chapluk to enter into the jail log that Chamberlain had said he wasn't afraid and didn't need to be moved, something that, if true, should have been done hours earlier.
Chapluk testified that he and Taylor never revealed Chamberlain's charges to any inmates. Instead, he claimed, they simply asked Chamberlain if he needed to be moved, and the prisoner stated he'd be safe until his next court date, at which point he'd have to show his paperwork to inmates. But under relentless questioning by Fred Thiagarajah, the attorney for defendant Stephen Carlstrom, Chapluk contradicted his own story by stating it was he and Taylor (although he recalls that Taylor did the talking) who told Chamberlain they weren't going to move him from F-West because it wouldn't make a difference where he was located.
"If Chamberlain didn't want to be moved, why did you tell him it wouldn't do [him] any good to be moved?" Thiagarajah asked.
"We were explaining to him that we weren't going to move him that day," Chapluk replied. "We were just explaining our plan for moving him."
When Thiagarajah asked whether the deputies told Chamberlain they weren't going to move him before or after Chamberlain said he didn't need to be moved, Chapluk stayed silent for several beats, glancing anxiously back and forth as if searching for a lifeline. Perhaps he realized in that long silence he'd just opened a crack in the official story by implying he and Taylor had no intention of moving Chamberlain, no matter how scared the inmate was. In any case, it was just a few minutes later when Chapluk delivered what will likely be the most unintentionally ironic line of the trial.
Asked by prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh about his and Taylor's conversation with Chamberlain, Chapluk explained that at some point during their chat, Taylor suggested Chamberlain come up with a good cover story in case any curious inmates asked the soon-to-be-deceased prisoner why the two guards had just summoned him via the barracks loudspeaker.
"Taylor," Chapluk told jurors, "suggested that he tell them we informed him of a death in his family."
For daily coverage of the Chamberlain murder trial, visit the Weekly's Navel Gazing blog, where portions of this story originally appeared.
This article appeared in print as "All Chapluk-ed Up: One of the two sheriff's deputies on duty the night of John Chamberlain's jailhouse murder wimps out on the witness stand."
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