The Chamberlain Files
The first rule of being a reporter is to tell the story. Rule number two follows logically from rule number one. Don't be the story.
It was midmorning on Sept. 29, the second day of the prosecution's closing arguments in the case of The People of the State of California v. Garret Aguilar, Stephen Carlstrom, Miguel Guillen, Jared Petrovich and Raul Villafana. The crime took place on Oct. 5, 2006, inside the F-West barracks, a minimum-security dormitory at the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange, when dozens of inmates assaulted a prisoner named John Chamberlain, a Rancho Santa Margarita software engineer facing trial for misdemeanor child-pornography possession.
Because the prisoners believed Chamberlain had actually molested little girls, they spent a good half-hour or so punching, kicking and stomping him to death, as well as sexually assaulting him with a plastic spoon, a pencil and possibly a tube of toothpaste—and occasionally throwing water on him to wake him up for additional abuse. Despite what by all accounts was a group slaying, only nine inmates were charged with a crime; three of them pleaded guilty to manslaughter in return for sentences of 15 to 20 years in prison. The six now on trial were charged with committing first-degree murder and faced life in prison if convicted.
Inside the courtroom, I was filling up my notepad and trying to not be noticed when I heard prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh mention my name. He was talking about an article of mine that he'd already read to the jury a few weeks ago, nearly in its entirety and in a thundering voice. The story, "I Lit the Fire," published in OC Weekly on April 3, 2008, was based on an exclusive interview I'd conducted with Petrovich, the shot-caller for the Woods (white inmates), from inside a visitor's booth at Theo Lacy Jail.
My big scoop: According to Petrovich, a uniformed guard named Kevin Taylor had sought him out on the day of the murder and informed him Chamberlain was a "chester," jailhouse slang for child molester. Not only that, but Taylor had even encouraged the deadly assault. "I lit the fire," Petrovich had told me. "But Taylor struck the match."
"I love that OC Weekly article," Baytieh told the jury, smiling mirthfully and rolling his eyes. "When I got it, I said, 'Wow, why are you talking to the media? You're charged with murder!'"
Baytieh took special delight in the fact that Petrovich had told me he shouldn't be charged with murder, only manslaughter.
"Our answer to him as a society is 'Thank you, but no thank you,'" Baytieh boomed. "It's murder. First degree."
The trial wasn't over yet, but it might as well have been.
* * *
A few months before the trial began, Baytieh called me on my cell phone. "I just want to tell you how much I like your reporting on the Chamberlain murder," he told me, seeming sincere. "In fact, I like it so much I'm planning to call you on the stand as a witness so you can talk about it in front of the jury."
I told Baytieh I wasn't interested and to talk to my attorney, who promised to fight any motion to have me testify in court. So Baytieh and the lawyers for the five defendants worked out a deal to have certain portions of my stories about the Chamberlain murder introduced as evidence in the case. Baytieh even agreed to let in portions of those articles that tended to show that Taylor had authorized Chamberlain's assault and that his employer, the Orange County Sheriff's Department, had covered up this fact from the moment after the murder took place.
Indeed, Baytieh's employer, the Orange County district attorney's office, had provided much of the evidence of official wrongdoing in the first place. A 2007 grand jury probe by the DA concluded that Taylor and other guards inside Orange County's jail system had allowed race-based jailhouse gangs—the Woods, the South Siders (Chicano gangbangers) and Paisanos (mostly Mexican nationals)—to run the show. Under the watchful eye of deputies, the gangs—called "Classification According to Race" (CARs)—carried out daily assaults on anyone who stepped out of line.
In cases in which inmates were punished for disrespecting deputies or making their jobs difficult for whatever reason, guards also habitually rewarded assailants with extra dayroom privileges, even extra sack lunches. In F-West, moreover, Taylor and his fellow guards, Jason Chapluk and Philip Le, hardly ever entered the dormitory to conduct routine safety checks and were actually watching television when Chamberlain was killed. At Taylor's command, Le had falsified a jail log concerning Chamberlain and had taped over security footage filmed during the period when the attack occured.
Though Taylor lost his job over the scandal, as did numerous other high-ranking jail officials, neither he nor any other Sheriff's personnel was charged with any crime. And in both the official investigations that took place, as well as extensive reporting by The Orange County Register, little if any credence was ever given to Petrovich's assertion that Taylor had outed Chamberlain as a "chester," thus setting in motion the horrendous attack.
I had first heard Taylor's name well before I interviewed Petrovich, back when I began investigating the murder for a March 29, 2007, story called "Blind Spot." Chamberlain's family had filed a legal claim—it would later be settled for $600,000—against Orange County, and the attorney, Jerry Steering, was a source of mine. Steering introduced me to another client of his, an alcoholic retiree who'd been arrested for drunk driving and happened to be inside F-West barracks when the attack took place. I met him at a Santa Ana sports bar—he ordered water—and took notes as he told me everything that had happened on the day Chamberlain was murdered.
The picture of F-West painted by this former inmate—a conservative, pro-law-enforcement Republican—was positively Goya-esque. The guards, he said, would often slap or punch inmates who didn't follow commands and would occasionally practice their skills with Tasers and other nonlethal weapons on disrespectful prisoners. They didn't need to lift a finger to make sure the rules were followed, that bunks were cleaned on command, or that people didn't flush the toilet when deputies were on the floor.
Instead, they'd simply meet with the shot-callers of the various gangs, who would then enforce discipline by "taxing" the offender, either by forcing him to perform various chores or rigorous calisthenics or, more often, by simply placing the prisoner against a wall and pummeling him without mercy for 20 seconds or so. "There is a hierarchy in every cell block, and if you don't do what you are told, you're screwed," the former inmate said. "It's a jungle, and the deputies are all in on it."
Certain guards, he added, would often ask inmates who'd been arrested for sex-related crimes about their charges in front of other prisoners, knowing full well they'd be assaulted. "Then [they'd] walk out proudly, and in five minutes, [the inmates] had the guy in the shower with no camera, beating the shit out of him."
In Chamberlain's case, it turned out that on the day he died, his lawyer had called Theo Lacy, telling officials Chamberlain feared for his life and needed to be moved elsewhere in the jail. The request eventually made its way to deputies Taylor and Chapluk, who called Chamberlain to a hallway outside the dormitory and asked him about the call and the charges pending against him. According to the two deputies, Chamberlain said that while he indeed "preferred little girls," he wasn't afraid of being assaulted and would only need protection after his next court date, which wasn't for a few weeks.
The ex-inmate told me Taylor's next move was in keeping with the deputies' tradition of outing suspected sex offenders. "What happened was the deputy pulled over one of the guys and said, 'You'd better handle this guy because he has dirty charges on him,'" he explained. When interviewed by homicide detectives later that night, he says, the first words out of his mouth were "It's not the fault of the inmates. It's the fault of the system because you allow inmates to get beat up."
Another former F-West inmate concurred that Taylor had exposed Chamberlain to the wrath of the Woods hierarchy, knowing full well what would happen next. "[Taylor] told them as they were coming back from chow to take care of him, to clean their house," he said. "The deputies know they're beating him up because they told him to do it."
Given their vantage point, the inmate added, the guards could see Chamberlain being led downstairs from his housing module to D-Cube, where a short wall provided a modicum of cover for the attack, what he and other inmates called a "blind spot." "First, nine guys are beating him up, and he's lying there half-alive," he recalled. "Now other guys go by, hitting and kicking him, urinating on him, pouring hot coffee on him. They got caught up in the action like a pack of wolves."
* * *
Besides the two inmates I spoke to who observed the assault on Chamberlain but weren't directly involved, I eventually interviewed three more prisoners who were charged in the murder: Petrovich; Stephen Carlstrom, allegedly the "house mouse" for the Woods, which made him responsible for overseeing daily housekeeping chores in F-West; and Michael Garten, who was Petrovich's bunkmate at the time of the murder.
I met Petrovich first. He was eager to talk, perhaps too eager. Within 24 hours of the murder, he'd already admitted his role to sheriff's investigators, alleging it was Taylor who told him Chamberlain was a child molester. Petrovich knew he wasn't going to be offered any plea deal, and he agreed with his then-attorney, Martin Heneghan, who arranged the interview, that at that point, he had nothing to lose by talking to me. Although he was covered in tattoos that spoke to his extensive time behind bars thanks to a budding career as a meth-addicted petty crook, Petrovich seemed less a hardened killer than a bewildered kid who'd simply made one bad decision too many and now found himself facing life in prison for the death of a man who, by nearly all accounts, Petrovich hadn't even touched.
On the day of the murder, Petrovich told me, Carlstrom came to his bunk and told him the deputies wanted to meet with the Woods shot-caller. Petrovich had just inherited the job from Keith Counts, an inmate nicknamed Sick Dog who had just been transferred to state prison. Because Taylor and Chapluk hadn't been on duty for a week, before Sick Dog's departure and Petrovich's promotion, they'd had to ask Carlstrom, the house mouse, for assistance. Petrovich told Carlstrom to find out why they wanted to see him, but when Carlstrom returned and insisted Petrovich had to meet the guards alone, he did as told.
When he reached the hallway near the guard tower, Taylor and Chapluk were already waiting for him. After asking him if he was the Woods shot-caller and if he spoke English, Taylor engaged in a conversation with Chapluk that Petrovich was clearly supposed to overhear. "There's a child molester in [bunk] J7," Taylor told his partner. "And you know what happens when there's a child molester."
Chapluk didn't need to answer. Petrovich told me that anyone who was considered a "chester" was open to attack by inmates of all races and would be subjected to a merciless assault, which is exactly what he was expected to arrange. As he told me this, Petrovich added that chesters weren't the only people subjected to vicious attacks at F-West; he'd heard that a onetime member of the rock band Kiss who had stolen crackers from an inmate had been beaten to a pulp back when Sick Dog was the shot-caller.
Based on Petrovich's claim, I dug up jail records that showed Mark Leslie Norton, a former Kiss guitarist and meth addict, had been transferred from one area of Theo Lacy to F-West barracks just a month before Chamberlain was killed. In a letter from state prison, Sick Dog told me that Taylor had informed him of Norton's thievery in the other area of the jail and promised him extra sack lunches if he saw to it that the prisoner was punished once he reached F-West. Several inmates who witnessed the attack told me Norton was beaten so badly he couldn't leave his cell for more than a day, yet he was never given any medical attention. He died of a brain hemorrhage several months after he left jail, in April 2007. (I wrote three stories about the Norton beating, the last of which was "Sack Attack," July 11, 2008.)
Petrovich told me that on the day of Chamberlain's murder, he asked the inmate about his pending charges, and Chamberlain had claimed he was behind bars for violating a restraining order. Nonetheless, based on what Taylor had told him, Petrovich met with the shot-callers of both the South Siders and the Paisanos (whose shot-caller, Raul Villafana, was charged alongside Petrovich), in D-Cube and alerted them to the fact Chamberlain was about to be assaulted there. When I asked Petrovich to describe Chamberlain, he used language he would come to regret. "He was a creepy-looking dude," Petrovich recalled. "He looked weird. All those perverts look the same. He was like a little pig. Fat and little."
When I interviewed Carlstrom in August 2010 (see "'Murder? Are You Crazy?'" Aug. 20, 2010), he confirmed Petrovich's account. Like Petrovich, he denied ever hitting Chamberlain, claiming that after the white inmates had finished assaulting him and the Latino prisoners were taking their turn, he'd tried to drag the victim out of D-Cube to end the attack. "A lot of people were saying they weren't done and to put him down," he told me. "At that point, I was scared for my life. I feel guilty about this. I let him go."
The last inmate I interviewed, Garten, spoke to me in January, after pleading guilty to manslaughter in return for a reduced sentence of 20 years in prison (see "Images I Will Never Forget," Jan. 28, 2011). Garten told me that while he was walking in line behind Petrovich from chow hall to F-West, he saw Taylor sitting on a stool just outside the barracks. "Make sure you take out the trash next dayroom," Garten says Taylor told Petrovich.
Two other inmates, Christopher Teague and Jeremy Cullman, reached similar deals in return for 15-year prison terms. But Garten received a stiffer sentence than Teague or Cullman because even though he never touched Chamberlain, he witnessed the entire attack and didn't intervene. According to Garten, the final blow came when one of the inmates jumped on Chamberlain's head one time too many. "There are images I will never forget," he recalled. "The eyes went black; the breathing got weird. You saw his chest go up and down and stop. If it's possible to see someone take their last breath, that was it."
* * *
I thought about Garten on the afternoon of Aug. 30, about a month into the Chamberlain murder trial, when Baytieh dimmed the lights inside Department C-35, on the ninth floor of the Orange County Superior Courthouse, with Judge James A. Stotler presiding, and flicked on the overhead projector. After a month of testimony, Baytieh was about to rest his case, appearing onscreen was his final witness: Chamberlain himself, or rather what was left of him.
The first photograph to fill up the screen, taken at the morgue a day after the murder, was a shocking close-up of Chamberlain's face with a breathing tube emerging from his mouth, his swollen head a grotesque purple pumpkin, heavy bruising on his forehead, possibly from being banged against the floor so many times. The following shots showed eyes swollen shut, ears turned black and blue, a back covered with contusions and what looked like footprints.
Of the victim's 24 ribs, all but three had been fractured and several had been broken in more than one place. The relentless punching and kicking had literally collapsed Chamberlain's ribcage, thus making it impossible for him to breathe; he died of a heart attack brought about by pulmonary arrest. There were a few images Baytieh didn't show onscreen: those of Chamberlain's rectum, which had suffered a small tear, presumably from the pencil or plastic spoon that was jammed in his anus.
Faced with this unrelentingly graphic barrage, defense attorneys had little choice but to try to convince jurors that the blows their clients were observed landing on the victim could not have caused or even contributed to his death. For example, Fred Thiagarajah, Carlstrom's attorney, noted that while his client admitted kicking Chamberlain in the buttocks, only one superficial bruise was discovered on that area of the victim's body.
Until Baytieh's slideshow, the prosecution's case had been anything from convincing. It amounted to a string of inmate eyewitnesses, convicted felons all, who on the one hand readily identified each defendant as having played a role in assaulting Chamberlain, but who often contradicted one another and even themselves under aggressive cross-examination by the defense attorneys. Indeed, when it came to Petrovich, there was no evidence from any witness that he had so much as lifted a finger against Chamberlain, and most of the witnesses claimed Miguel Guillen, Villafana and Carlstrom landed only a few hits or kicks at most on the victim.
Witnesses were more united in their take on Garret Aguilar, however. It was he, several of them testified, who led Chamberlain to D-Cube, threw him to the ground, and then repeatedly punched, kicked and stomped on the victim. One witness, Luis Palacios, told the jury Aguilar's work was nothing short of "ruthlessness." Sean Pough, a creepy jailhouse informant and convicted fraudster who was housed near some of the defendants following the murder, told jurors Aguilar had boasted to him about the crime, saying that Aguilar had told him that his only fear was whether his DNA was on the pencil found near Chamberlain's body.
Perhaps the prosecution's strangest witness, Deputy Chapluk, appeared alternately obsequious and defensive while on the stand, his narrow frame barely filling his green sheriff's uniform, his eyes flitting nervously as he glanced at the jury while Baytieh asked him about the conversation Petrovich alleged he and Taylor had carried out on the day of the murder.
"At any moment in time on that day, Oct. 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.
"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.
Sitting near the front row in the courtroom as this colloquy took place was sheriff's investigator Ken Hoffman. He leaned forward like a baseball catcher, frowning and shaking his head. Then Hoffman made a horizontal motion with his hand, the way a film director might signal for a "cut."
Chapluk smiled at the jury.
"No," he said.
As it turned out, the prosecution's best witnesses were the defendants themselves. Baytieh played for the jury audio recordings of each of their interviews with homicide investigators. Baytieh's co-prosecutor, Keith Bogardus, also reenacted a confession by Guillen, who was interviewed in Spanish and who tearfully told detectives he regretted slapping Chamberlain with his shoes during the attack.
Of all the characters at the defense table, Guillen made for a particularly pathetic figure. At one point during the proceedings, he burst into tears for no apparent reason, causing Stotler to declare a recess. The most absurd aspect of his entire situation was that Guillen, an illegal immigrant, had actually escaped to Mexico after the murder and was only rearrested after he crossed back north and was caught driving drunk on Christmas Day in 2007.
On the same day Guillen's confession came to light, I overheard several of the jurors having a loud and, under the circumstances, untimely discussion about illegal immigration. One juror in particular, an obese man with greasy hair and a pencil-thin mustache who habitually harangued his fellow jurors in the hallway, was downright apoplectic on the subject. He seemed incensed that family members of illegal immigrants were being allowed to retrieve vehicles seized from their relatives during routine traffic stops, rather than having the cars impounded. "That's bullshit!" the juror thundered.
A few days later, when it came time for the defense team to take over, not one of the defendants took the witness stand. The closest thing to a bombshell that dropped came in the form of Jerry Ibarra, a onetime morgue attendant who looked the part, with bulging eyes and a somewhat crazed, deer-in-the-headlights expression on his face. A resident of F-West when the murder took place, he told jurors he had personally witnessed Petrovich and Taylor talking a few hours before the murder and that after the assault, he saw Taylor attempt to revive Chamberlain, who was leaning on the wall of D-Cube. When that failed, Ibarra added, Taylor turned to several inmates who were standing nearby the body and said, "I didn't say to kill him."
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."
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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