The Hard Cell At the OC Jail

MSNBC's Lockup was supposed to glorify OC jail deputies, but gangster Brian Lee James wrecked the plan
Photo illustration by Andrea Adams

Plenty of clues tell us something is wrong with Brian Lee James. One of his eyes—the ones that cast cold, empty stares—is lazy. His speech is sluggish and prone to the short, simple sentences of a man who has only a boy's vocabulary. He earned the moniker "Blinky" because he blinks at an abnormally high rate. There is no trace of kindness in his smile. His declarations are often irrational, narcissistic and violent. He says criminals should be punished severely—and he'll volunteer for the task.

Hardly surprising, then, that this psychopath is a member of Public Enemy Number One Death Squad (PEN1), the Southern California-born white-supremacist gang prone to vicious, methamphetamine-crazed crimes, including murder. To declare his allegiance to this pro-Hitler underworld, he inked a PEN1 tattoo in 4-inch letters across his stomach.

Cops know all about PEN1. A veteran gang detective told me, "They will kill in a heartbeat. These guys have no conscience."

Yet, on Aug. 22, 2010, Orange County Sheriff's deputies did something that was either incredibly cruel or incredibly stupid involving James—and managed to keep the gory incident away from the public until it was presented this year, albeit without context, on MSNBC's Lockup: Extended Stay Orange County Jail series.

Before I describe that crime, some background is necessary.

In October 2006, then-Sheriff Mike Carona and his top two assistant sheriffs were well on their way to federal corruption convictions when a Theo Lacy Jail inmate, John Derek Chamberlain, was savagely murdered. After Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) officials initially blocked outside investigators from the crime scene (and, according to the district attorney's office, fabricated a piece of exculpatory evidence for themselves), authorities arrested six inmates, some of whom claimed deputies had signaled for Chamberlain, awaiting trial on child-pornography possession charges, to be beaten.

The guards escaped charges, but a grand jury investigation proved jail deputies "regularly" avoided work to watch television, play video games, browse the Internet, chat with girlfriends online, manage outside businesses and sleep. The probe also found that deputies fabricated duty logs, ordered powerful inmates to discipline weaker ones, created a secret code to alert one another when dignitaries approached for inspections and, for entertainment, fired non-lethal "pepper balls" at inmates sitting on toilets.

It was a national embarrassment, one MSNBC producers at 44 Blue Productions in Studio City in 2006 suggested they could help to solve if allowed to air a positive documentary about the grueling, dangerous life of the jail deputies. Given that jail was just one of Carona's myriad scandals, it's hardly surprising the offer was rejected.

Skip to February 2010. The TV producers made a second request to feature OC jails in Lockup: Extended Stay. In an email, producer Ray Haimes assured officials they could "trust" the series would give the department "an opportunity for staff to display their professionalism."

Haimes also promised to put "a human face" on the subjects so that "legislators and the public" could appreciate "the challenges of running a high-security facility." With the department poised to endure another round of bad national publicity during the upcoming trial of the accused Chamberlain killers, officials agreed to allow filming if they were given content control over what the public would see and learn on the broadcasts. In fact, the documentary producers declared in writing they would not present "derogatory" information about the OCSD, which was worried about "maintaining . . . public trust," records obtained by OC Weekly show.

This brings us back to James and PEN1, whose members have zero tolerance for men accused of sex crimes. Before he arrived on death row in San Quentin State Prison, Costa Mesa PEN1 loon Billy Joe Johnson used a pickaxe to obliterate the skull of another inmate convicted of sexual assault. After that incident, Johnson thought a young man had disrespected a female stripper, so he murdered him with a rusty claw hammer.

Suffice to say, nobody in his right mind would lock you in a room with the likes of Johnson or James if you'd been accused of a sex crime. That would be like placing a puppy in a cage with a starving boa constrictor. The outcome is guaranteed to be gruesome.

On the night of Aug. 21, 2010, James launched a wild crime spree in Anaheim that included armed robbery, multiple home invasions and attempted murder of a pursuing cop. Once he'd been detained, the 32-year-old Temple City resident confessed, admitted his gang tie and acknowledged two prior prison terms, according to police records. The last fact meant that James faced California's Three Strikes Law and the high probability he'd never see freedom again.

Cue MSNBC's Lockup. Announcer: "Since the new [jail] arrivals charges may range from minor infractions to murder, deputies must be vigilant to insure safety."

When he arrived at the Intake Center of OC Men's Central Jail, the PEN1 gangster was processed and placed in a holding cell with another man who'd just been arrested for—drum roll—sexual battery.

Announcer: "With nothing left to lose, James turned Intake into a crime scene. . . . James decided to become the man's worst nightmare."

I asked John McDonald, an OCSD spokesman, to explain the incident, given that the jail operates on classification system designed to prevent inmate-housing situations that would produce violence. "At that stage, our deputies probably didn't know about [James]," McDonald said. "A lot of times, deputies are busy down there [at the jail intake center]."

With his unsuspecting prey locked in a cell with him and deputies long gone, James—who proudly told this story in the MSNBC series—removed brand-new black laces from his white Converse shoes, sneaked up from behind, double-wrapped the laces around the man's neck and yanked as hard as he could. He didn't stop until the man's eyes rolled back and his body went limp.

"But our deputies got in there and managed to save that guy's life," added McDonald, who declined to identity the victim or describe his injuries except to say, "He was beaten up pretty bad."

A pleased James snorted on MSNBC, "That was the worst possible time he could have been sitting next to me. . . . He was a pervert, a creep . . . I had nothing left to lose."

Today, the hoodlum is serving a 95-years-to-life prison term.

And James' victim? He was guilty of nothing. The misdemeanor charge that brought him into the OC Jail that night was dropped due to lack of evidence.

 

This column appeared in print as "The Hard Cell: OC deputies locked an innocent man in a cell with a homicidal, white-supremacist gangster and walked away."


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