It's been more than four years since dozens of prisoners at Theo Lacy Jail in Orange assaulted John Chamberlain, a Mission Viejo software engineer, in the bloodiest behind-bars killing in Orange County history. Nine inmates were charged with the Oct. 5, 2006, crime; in the past two weeks, three of those defendants—Michael Garten, 25; Christopher Teague, 34; and Jeremy Culmann, 27—pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Although prosecutors agree that all three men landed only a few punches on Chamberlain—who had been awaiting trial for possession of child pornography—Teague and Culmann each received a sentence of 15 years, while Garten received 20.
Why the disparity? "Garten was present for everything that happened, from beginning to end," explains Deputy District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh. "He saw the victim deteriorate, and to us, it places more culpability on him than Teague and Culmann, who were involved in the beginning but could say that when they left, Chamberlain wasn't in bad shape."
If it's true that Garten witnessed the entire attack, then perhaps he'd be in the best position to account for the most enduring mystery of the slaying: Just how, exactly, did the inmates charged with killing Chamberlain come to believe that he was a "chester," jailhouse slang for child molester, and thus warranted a brutal beating?
Two defendants still facing murder charges, Jared Petrovich and Stephen Carlstrom, have asserted in previous interviews with the Weekly ("I Lit the Fire," April 4, 2008, and "Murder? Are You Crazy?" Aug. 20, 2010) that Deputy Kevin Taylor exposed Chamberlain's status to them just hours before the attack. Taylor denied those allegations before invoking his Fifth Amendment rights and refusing to cooperate with investigators. He no longer works for the sheriff's department.
In an exclusive interview with the Weekly, Garten not only provides the fullest account of Chamberlain's murder that has emerged from any witness, but he also claims he personally overheard Taylor ordering the attack.
Garten, a drug dealer, had been inside Theo Lacy's F-West barracks for five months when the attack against Chamberlain took place. He shared a bunk with Petrovich, who happened to be the "shot-caller," or leader, of "the Woods," jail slang for white inmates.
On the day of the killing, Garten was working out next to Petrovich when Carlstrom, the Woods "house mouse," or messenger, told Petrovich that a deputy wanted to talk to him.
"Jared went out, and when he came back, he was red in the face," Garten recalls in an interview last week at the Orange County Men's Jail. "There was a shift in emotion. And then there was a lot of whispering going on with the [Woods] hierarchy. I asked Jared what was going on, and he blew me off."
But in line on the way to the chow hall, Garten says, Petrovich whispered to him that Taylor had asked him to step outside the dormitory to witness a conversation between himself and Deputy Jason Chapluk about how Chamberlain was a child molester and how the inmates of F-West needed to "clean house."
The attack, Petrovich told Garten, wasn't supposed to take place during dinner, when there would be too many other guards present who could intervene, but afterward, during the evening day-room hour, when prisoners could relax, watch TV and play cards.
On the way back to their barracks, Garten, who was in line behind Petrovich, saw Taylor sitting on a folding chair just outside the door. "Make sure you take out the trash next day room," Garten remembers Taylor telling Petrovich.
When the day room opened that evening, a "small group" of inmates—Garten refused to mention them by name—enticed Chamberlain to go downstairs. They led him to a blind spot where deputies in the guard station couldn't see what was happening. "I was supposed to monitor the situation," Garten says. "I was not supposed to go anywhere and, when it was over, to take him to the shower, and then the day room." Garten adds that Taylor had instructed Petrovich to ensure nobody hit Chamberlain "above the neck or below the belt" and that it was his job to make sure that order was obeyed.
The prisoners began interrogating and hitting Chamberlain, who at first insisted he'd been arrested for violating probation. But after several minutes of being punched in the chest and torso, he tried to claim he'd been busted for urinating in a park. "To us, that meant he was probably holding his dick in his hands while he was looking at kids," Garten says.
After 10 to 15 minutes of being worked over by about half a dozen white inmates, the punishment was over. But then, without explanation, Garten says, Chamberlain got to his feet and announced, "I like children that are undeveloped." He then held his hands up to his chest in a lewd gesture.
"At that point, his life was over," Garten says. "There are images I will never forget: punching, kicking, stomping, spitting. People were tossing him from side to side. He probably hit his head on the bunk a few times. People were yelling at him, 'I have kids; how can you do this? You sick motherfucker!'"
Garten watched as groups of three to five inmates took turns pummeling Chamberlain for 20 seconds at a time for the next half an hour, with dozens of white and Latino prisoners queued up outside the door for their chance. Some stripped off his clothes; others urinated on Chamberlain and threw hot water on his face. Chamberlain never screamed, in part because for much of the time, he was choking from the water being forced down his nose and throat.
The attack only ended when an inmate whom Garten refused to name jumped up and down on Chamberlain's head two or three times in a row. "That was it for him," Garten recalls. "It was one time too many. The eyes went back; 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's what it was."
When they realized Chamberlain was dead, the inmates jumped up in front of the guard station, where deputies, including Taylor and Chapluk were watching television. "When he came out, Taylor said something—I can't remember exactly what, but it was like, 'You guys went too far,'" Garten recalls. "Did he want Chamberlain beaten up? Yes. Dead? No."
Perhaps the most hideous aspect of what happened is that the attack on Chamberlain wasn't that unusual, according to Garten. "It was just an accident that he died," he insists. "Beatings happened in there every single day. I've seen one guy's nose fill the whole floor up with blood."
The F-West barracks, he explains, were known as Theo Lacy's "problem-solving" ward. Any inmate who stole behind bars, was awaiting trial for sex crimes, or had pissed off the guards would eventually be sent to F-West, where Taylor and Chapluk would reward inmates for punishing the offender. "I've seen Taylor and Chapluk pay people to do this with day room [privileges], extra clothes, sack lunches" Garten asserts.
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Garten says he's relieved he won't spend the rest of his life in prison and excited he'll likely be free in three to six years, given time served, assuming he behaves himself behind bars. He regrets his role in the attack and feels some responsibility for what happened. But, he says, at the time, he felt like he had no choice but to participate. "The deputies used the hierarchy to do their dirty business," he says. "It's like a gun to your head. You see a guy bleeding like a fountain a few times, and you'll do whatever they ask."
This article appeared in print as "‘Images I Will Never Forget’: A defendant in the John Chamberlain case provides the fullest account yet of OC’s most brutal jailhouse killing."