You could tell that Orange County Sheriff's Deputy Jason Chapluk was nervous. Okay, maybe not as nervous as he was on that security footage from the night of Oct. 5, 2006 when he and fellow Theo Lacy Jail guard Kevin Taylor were bouncing around the guard tower inside F-West barracks, trying to figure out how they were going to explain that dozens of inmates had just brutally murdered an inmate suspected of being a child molester--an attack that lasted up to 40 minutes and took place less than 100 feet away and within their direct view.
But still you could tell he was nervous as he sat in the witness chair today in the ninth floor courtroom of Orange County Superior Court Judge James Stotler. Dressed in his dark green deputy's uniform, Chapluk cast repeated furtive glances at the jury as prosecutors and defense attorneys grilled him about the events of that day for several hours. It seemed likely that prosecutors had suggested he maintain eye contact with the jury, but unfortunately, depending on your point of view, the tactic suggested a strange mixture of discomfort and yearning for approval rather than honesty or self-confidence.
It's easy to imagine why Chapluk would be all-a-flutter heart-wise nowadays. As it has played out so far at least, the entire crux of the prosecution's case against the five inmates--three white and two Latino--being tried for this mass killing--seems 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 fact that Chamberlain was awaiting trial for being in possession of child pornography, thus setting in motion the horrific assault.
The basic timeline of the murder isn't in question, either. On the day he died, Chamberlain's 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 to be immediately moved from the F-West barracks, a minimum-security housing dormitory at Theo Lacy reserved for non-violent offenders. The call, as various employees at the jail testified today, was promptly sent from Theo Lacy's main control out to F-West.
From there, one of two things happened, depending on whom you believe. The prosecution's story: Deputies Chapluk and Taylor confronted Taylor about the phone call and Chamberlain assured them that he wasn't afraid for his safety, or at least wouldn't be until his next court date, and then, in a remarkable turn of bad luck, was brutally murdered a few hours later. The defense 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.
Taylor, who was fired by the Sheriff's Department, invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify to the 2007 Orange County Grand Jury, which probed both the murder and the fact that deputies inside the jail routinely used the inmate gang structure to enforce order behind bars with beatings that were rewarded with extra sack lunches and other privileges. Taylor also refused to testify in the current criminal trial. Before testifying at the grand jury, Chapluk received immunity, and while he did answer many questions, he also repeatedly invoked his right not to incriminate himself, including when asked by prosecutor Keith Borgardus whether he was willing to be honest about everything he knew about Chamberlain's murder.
Now, Chapluk seems to be more confident that he won't be held accountable for anything pertaining to Chamberlain's murder. In fact, he testified today, his worst fear is being charged with perjury, a response prompted by prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh, who wanted jurors to thus believe every word Chapluk said.
"At any moment in time on that day, October 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, his otherwise mostly downcast eyes now darting expectantly toward the jurors.
"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.
"Did you lie to this jury about anything you said today?" Baytieh concluded, his voice dialed up even louder now.
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"No, I didn't."
At the conclusion of the trial's third day of proceedings, defense attorneys were still in their early stages of picking apart Chapluk's story, so it's likely he'll be on the stand for at least the next day or so. But he's already delivered what will likely be the most unintentionally ironic line of the entire trial, although it did seem to go over the heads of most people in the courtroom.
Asked by Baytieh about his and Taylor's conversation with Chamberlain just hours before his murder, Chapluk explained that, at some point during their chat, Taylor suggested that 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."