Has justice been served now that five former Theo Lacy Jail inmates will likely spend the rest of their lives behind bars for the Oct. 5, 2006, murder of John Chamberlain, a Rancho Santa Margarita software engineer they suspected was a child molester? What does Brea resident Erik Johnson think? One of the 12 jurors who, on Tuesday evening, slightly more than five years after the murder took place, found all five defendants guilty of second-degree murder, Johnson was momentarily at a loss for words when asked by a reporter whether he thought he and the rest of the jurors did the right thing.
"I'm going to spend a long time answering that question," he finally said.
As well he should. After all, few murder cases in Orange County history have been so controversial and fraught with allegations of official cover-up as Chamberlain's. Depending on whom you believe, Chamberlain was either the victim of a vicious group of bullies who hated child molesters, or he was the victim of a vicious group of bullies who were told that Chamberlain was a child molester by an even bigger bully: Deputy Kevin Taylor. The deputy allegedly destroyed evidence in the wake of Chamberlain's death; the defense claimed he told one of the defendants, Jared Petrovich, the shot-caller for the Woods (white inmates), that Chamberlain was a child molester, thus deserving of a severe physical assault.
Indeed, the inmate died within hours of his attorney telling jail officials Chamberlain feared for his life and needed to be moved to a safer area of the jail. Taylor (who has since lost his job and refused to testify) and his partner, Jason Chapluk (who remains with the Sheriff's Department and testified in return for immunity), claim they approached Chamberlain about his safety, but he assured them he was fine.
Just a few hours later, dozens of inmates—well more than the five who were on trial for his murder—lined up to punch, kick and stomp Chamberlain to death, breaking nearly all of his ribs and covering his face and body with bruises. Some inmates urinated on him and sexually assaulted him with a pencil and a plastic spoon; others threw hot water on him to revive him so he could be tortured further. The attack lasted between 30 and 45 minutes. When the inmates frantically tried to alert Taylor and the other guards, who were watching television in a nearby guard tower, that Chamberlain wasn't breathing, it was too late to save him.
During the three-month trial, five fellow inmates testified about what they saw the various defendants do to Chamberlain, a confusing array of anecdotes that tended to show that while certain defendants—including Garret Aguilar—"ruthlessly" pummeled Chamberlain and possibly even carried out the sexual assault, other defendants—such as Stephen Carlstrom and Miguel Guillen—did little more than "kick the victim in the butt," in the words of one defense attorney, or slap him in the chest with a shoe. According to the evidence presented at trial, Petrovich either never laid a finger on the victim or punched him once, depending on which prisoner you believe. (Also on trial was Raul Villafana, the shot-caller for the Paisanos, mostly Mexican nationals, who allegedly helped Petrovich plan the attack.)
A murky case, to say the least. How, then, was the jury able to decide that all five men were equally guilty? Juror Kim McPeck of Santa Ana, who, unlike Johnson, was certain justice had been served, struggled to answer that question. "Believe me, there were nights with no sleep, and weekends with no sleep," he said. "I'm not going to say I'm proud of the decision that we had to find just five people guilty. But in the end, the law and the evidence and [the defendants'] actions led us to that verdict. A lot of the defense attorneys were trying to get a lot of stuff in, but the judge and the prosecutors wouldn't let [them]. We could not speculate about whether there were deputies that were dirty."
Prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh said his only regret was that jurors didn't find the five defendants guilty of first-degree murder. A day before they reached their verdict, after 10 days of deliberation, the jury had deadlocked on that charge, leading defense attorneys and relatives of the accused to entertain optimism that the murder case might fall apart completely.
"I'm still puzzled that anybody could say that any of these defendants wasn't guilty of first-degree murder," Baytieh said. "I feel we proved that beyond a reasonable doubt, but we have 12 decent, law-abiding citizens who felt otherwise, and bless their hearts, they followed the law, and I think it's a fair verdict."
A day before the verdict, defense attorney Fred Thiagarajah said his biggest fear was the jury would return a guilty verdict either out of impatience at the grueling interruption of their lives, or because they felt compelled to do so by the judge's refusal to declare a mistrial when they initially failed to reach a verdict. After the decision was read, he said, "What happened is exactly what I was afraid of. They copped out."
Thiagarajah added that the fact the jury refused to find his client, Carlstrom, and the other defendants guilty of first-degree murder, but rather of the lesser charge of second-degree murder, means nothing in terms of the time his client will spend behind bars. "Theoretically, he can get parole in 15 years," Thiagarajah said. "But when have you heard of a murderer getting parole in the state of California? It's a life sentence."
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In his closing arguments a month ago, defense attorney Keith Davidson, who represented Petrovich, urged jurors to not scapegoat the defendants for a murder that would never have happened without the complicity of corrupt guards who encouraged the culture of fear and brutality behind bars. In an interview shortly after the verdict was read, he expressed dismay that jurors failed to see the bigger picture at work behind Chamberlain's death and argued that Taylor was just as guilty as his client in Chamberlain's death.
"Jared Petrovich has said from day one that while he was in custody, the deputies told him when to wake up, when to go to sleep and when to eat lunch. And they told him when to beat Chamberlain. There was a missing chair [at the defense table] in this case," he said. "And it belongs to Deputy Taylor."
This article appeared in print as "The Missing Defendant: Five men were found guilty of murder in the jailhouse killing of John Chamberlain. But the sheriff's deputy who some say instigated the fatal beating wasn't even charged."