It’s been nearly four years since dozens of inmates beat a suspected child molester to death inside Theo Lacy Men’s Jail in Orange in what is, by all accounts, the bloodiest murder to occur behind bars in Orange County. Yet a crucial question remains about the attack on the evening of Oct. 5, 2006: Just who started the rumor that John Chamberlain, a 41-year-old software engineer from Mission Viejo, was a “chester,” inmate slang for child molester, thereby setting in motion the vicious killing?
Until now, only one of the inmates charged in the murder has spoken to the press: Jared Petrovich, a “shot-caller” for the Woods, a jailhouse term for white inmates, who told the Weekly two years ago that a guard named Kevin Taylor had revealed Chamberlain’s status as a “chester” to him just hours before the beating, strongly implying that Chamberlain should be subjected to a collective beating after dinner that evening (see “I Lit the Fire,” April 3, 2008).
Now, another crucial witness to this deadly chain of events has come forward.
Thanks to the bleached mane and stern expression visible in his mug shot, Stephen Paul Carlstrom looked much more intimidating than he now appears in person: slender, of average height, clean-shaven with neatly combed brown hair. He’d been behind bars for a few weeks when Chamberlain died. A single dad who planned to move from Orange County to Missouri to raise his then-5-year-old son, Carlstrom had been arrested on Sept. 11, 2006, for failing to complete his drug-diversion program. Once inside Theo Lacy’s F-West Barracks, a housing module filled with 145 other non-violent offenders, Carlstrom was given the title of “house mouse” for the Woods. As such, his role was to supervise cleaning chores and explaining rules to “fishes” (jail slang for new inmates); Carlstrom also instructed prisoners to bring their paperwork with them every time they returned from the courthouse.
“They told me when I got sentenced that I needed to show my paperwork, and I didn’t bring it with me, so I got put to the wall,” he says. “Somebody was able to hit on me for 12, 13 seconds in my midsection, so I told people to please bring your paperwork back. I didn’t, and it’s not fun.”
Carlstrom says he first met Chamberlain when he instructed him to bring his paperwork back from the courthouse. “He said, ‘Sure, no problem,’” Carlstrom says. “And I left it at that.” A few days later, just after lunch, a white inmate walked up to him, mistaking him for the Woods shot-caller. “The cops would like to talk to you,” the inmate reportedly said. “I went outside,” Carlstrom says. “Deputies Taylor and [Jason] Chapluk were sitting on the railing outside the mod.”
According to Carlstrom, Taylor clearly wasn’t expecting him.
“Are you the shot-caller?” he asked, according to Carlstrom.
“No,” Carlstrom says he responded.
“Then go get him,” Taylor reportedly ordered.
Carlstrom says he then fetched Petrovich. He assumed the meeting had something to do with enforcing jailhouse discipline. While Carlstrom later stood in line for dinner, another inmate—Carlstrom refuses to reveal his identity—told him “there was a chester in the house” and that everyone was expected to participate in a collective beating after dinner. At approximately 6:50 p.m., several white inmates led Chamberlain down the stairs to D cube, an eight-man sleeping area on the bottom floor, where they proceeded to punch, kick and stomp him relentlessly.
Carlstrom later told investigators he’d reluctantly kicked Chamberlain a few times, but not with serious force. He says he was playing dominoes while other inmates continued the attack when another inmate ran up to him and, knowing Carlstrom was in charge of cleaning supplies, asked if he had any gloves. Carlstrom recalls he said no, but that he did have plastic sandwich bags that would work.
“Put those on,” the inmate allegedly said. “We gotta get this guy out of here.” Carlstrom walked over to D Cube, horrified at what he saw. Chamberlain, he says, was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the room, covered in blood, his face and chest swollen from fractured bones and ribs. He claims some of the inmates had urinated on Chamberlain.
“It was anarchy,” Carlstrom says, adding that there were too many people standing around, catching their breath, for him to count. “Get up,” he says he told Chamberlain.
“I can’t,” Chamberlain reportedly responded.
“So I grabbed his arm and started dragging him out,” he recalls. “A lot of people were saying they weren’t done and to put him down, and a lot of them were not white. One or two of them were. At that point, I was scared for my life. I feel guilty about this. I let him go.”
Carlstrom went back to his game; he says the assault lasted for another 15 or 20 minutes. Finally, an inmate reportedly stood up on a table, waving both arms while grasping a pink medical slip in one hand until he got the guards’ attention. “The whole time this happened,” Carlstrom says, “the guards were in there, and Taylor, sadistic son of a bitch, was probably texting his girlfriend that he’s getting this guy beaten up.”
By the time Taylor and the other guards in F-West found Chamberlain, Carlstrom says, he wasn’t breathing and had been partially washed with hot water in an effort by some of the inmates to wipe their DNA off him. According to Orange County Sheriff’s Department investigative reports, several inmates also showered to wash Chamberlain’s blood from their bodies. During the initial investigation, several inmates identified Carlstrom as the house mouse for the Woods. “And, my dumb ass, I admitted it,” he says. “I’m not a perfect angel. I did a couple of things I had to do. But murder? Are you crazy?”
Deputy DA Ebrahim Baytieh, who is prosecuting Carlstrom, Petrovich and seven other inmates for Chamberlain’s murder, acknowledges that many more inmates participated in the crime. But, he says, his office lacked sufficient evidence to charge either them or guards such as Taylor. “There isn’t a single person we charged where the only evidence is another inmate saying they did it,” Baytieh says.
For his part, Taylor refused to testify before the grand jury. He denied to sheriff’s investigators that he had anything to do anything with Chamberlain’s death or that the inmate feared for his life.
According to the defense attorney for Michael Garten, another inmate charged with Chamberlain’s murder, the DA’s case is inherently flawed because prosecutors allowed the sheriff’s department, which staffs and operates the jail, to investigate itself. “I think some of these inmates are being charged because they pointed the finger at a sheriff’s deputy,” Alan Stokke says.
“To say the DA’s office is trying to protect law enforcement is ridiculous,” Baytieh scoffs. “Every single allegation the defense has made about the sheriff’s department comes from us, from our own grand-jury investigation.”
On Sept. 9, 2009, Carlstrom filed a $100 million legal claim against the county, alleging deputies effectively ordered him and other inmates to attack Chamberlain. John McDonald, a sheriff’s department spokesman, says the claim has been denied and no lawsuit has been filed. He adds that Taylor and the other guards involved in the incident have left the agency, along with numerous other higher officials in charge of the jail, including two assistant sheriffs, and that several changes have been made to the way the jails are operated. Among other things, television sets have been removed from guard towers, deputies aren’t allowed to use mobile phones for recreational purposes, more cameras have been installed, and walls have been removed from certain areas to remove blind spots.
Carlstrom, who faces life in prison if convicted, isn’t optimistic about his chances once his case goes to trial later this year. “The defense is wasting its time,” he says. “I’m a patsy. This is so unfair, so corrupt. It’s a nightmare.”
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This article appeared in print as "‘Murder? Are You Crazy?’ One of the inmates charged with killing John Chamberlain still can’t believe he’s facing trial and the jail’s guards are not."