John Chamber Murder Trial Days Four & Five: "A Culture of Fear"
f there's one thing both prosecutors and defense attorneys seem to agree about in the trial of five former Theo Lacy Jail inmates charged with the brutal Oct. 5, 2006 slaying of John Chamberlain, it's this: there was a "culture of fear" inside F-Barracks West, the minimum security dormitory for non-violent offenders where Chamberlain perished after being pummeled, stomped, sexually assaulted and tortured by dozens of inmates.
As more than one prosecution witness testified today, prisoners inside the barracks lived in a constant state of fear of the race-based gangs that controlled F-West, who had the tendency to punish inmates with severe beatings for nothing worse than being pulled out of the line to chow hall by deputies for talking without permission. One witness, Richard Riley, a convicted felon serving time in Theo Lacy when Chamberlain died, said he'd had numerous jail stints before, and had even been to state prison, but had never witnessed anything like F-West.
"It was dangerous," Riley, who himself was beaten by the gangs for an unspecified breach of jail rules, testified. "I had been in jail before and this just seemed like guys were more critical of why you were there," he added, referring to the fact that the gangs routinely harassed incoming inmates for their pending charges. Asked if Riley felt that the deputies, specifically Kevin Taylor, who the defendants in the ongoing murder trial insist "green-lit" the assault on Chamberlain, were responsible for the pervasive fear in F-West, a clearly nervous Riley answered, "I would say they had a part in it."
Riley's remarks came under cross-examination toward the end of two days of testimony that 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, other punishments, as well as rewards like sack lunches, all in a bizarre and sadistic "program" that allowed jail guards to "control" the dormitory and minimize the work the guards actually had to do, allowing them to sit in their tower watching television, texting girlfriends and ignoring the violence unfolding just yards from their window.
Deputy Jason Chapluk, who was on duty in the guard tower, along with his superior, Taylor, the night Chamberlain died, admitted under oath today that neither he nor Taylor left the tower to check on inmates except for routine morning and evening counts, as opposed to the floor checks they were supposed to do every 30 minutes. Chapluk, who was suspended after Chamberlain's death but has since been granted immunity and (amazingly) reinstated as a jail guard, also acknowledged that many of the times they did actually enter the dormitory was to meet with the gang leaders to gather information or "relay messages" to inmates.
At 6-feet-2-inches tall and weighing 220 pounds or so, Taylor ran the dorm like a "drill sergeant," inmate witness Luis Palacios asserted, adding that while he wasn't exactly afraid of Taylor, "you didn't want to get noticed by him." Thanks to vigorous objections by prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh, defense attorneys were unable to ask much about Taylor, including whether witnesses felt that he was the one pulling the strings of much of the violence that was unfolding, although they did state under oath that Taylor was "running the show."
Both Riley and Palacios provided graphic testimony of Chamberlain's beating, including how inmates stripped off the prisoner's boxer shorts and spanked him with their prison-issued shoes, as well as how defendant Garrett Aguilar allegedly used a nearby bunk as leverage so he could lift his feet three feet in the air and stomp on Chamberlain's back. Yet, most of their testimony about the assault is by now old news. Indeed, the most intriguing testimony of the trial so far, came yesterday, when Chapluk described the private meeting that he and Taylor had with Chamberlain just hours before his death, shortly after they received word from the latter's attorney stating that his client feared for his life and needed to be moved outside of F-West.
After using the loudspeaker to summon Chamberlain to a hallway outside of earshot of other inmates, the two guards asked Chamberlain if he feared for his safety given the fact he was facing trial for possession of child pornography. The official story of what happened next began in the moments after Chamberlain's death, when security footage from the guard tower showed Taylor telling Chapluk to enter into the jail log that the deceased man had said he wasn't afraid and didn't need to be moved.
Chapluk stuck to that story, but under cross-examination by defense attorneys, it began to grow fuzzy to say the least. Chapluk previously had testified that he and Taylor asked if Chamberlain needed to be moved, in which case he could be placed in protective custody, but that the inmate confidently replied that he'd only need such protection after his next court date, when he'd be carrying paperwork that would reveal his pending charges. But under relentless questioning yesterday by Fred Thiagarajah, the attorney for defendant Stephen Carlstrom, (see "The John Chamberlain Jailhouse Murder: One of the Accused Speaks," Aug. 19, 2010) Chapluk added a surprising new dimension to the case.
When Chapluk, reciting the conversation for the third or fourth time yesterday, stated that he and Taylor (although he recalls that Taylor did the talking) told Chamberlain they weren't going to move him from F-West because it wouldn't make a difference where he was located, Thiagarajah posed the following question:
"If Chamberlain didn't want to be moved, why did you tell him it wouldn't do you any good to be moved?"
"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."
Then Thiagarajah asked whether Chapluk and Taylor told Chamberlain they weren't going to move him out of F-West came before or after Chamberlain supposedly said he didn't need to be moved. Chapluk was silent for several beats, perhaps because he was realizing in that long silence the unfortunate fact that he'd just opened a crack into the official story of how Chamberlain died. Chapluk glanced nervously back and forth several times, as if searching for a lifeline.
"I don't recall," he finally replied.