The last you heard about Jared Petrovich may have been three years ago, when the Orange County man and several co-defendants received terms of 15 years to life in prison for the gruesome 2006 mutilation murder of John Chamberlain inside the Theo Lacy Jail.
Petrovich landed at the California Correctional Institution at Techapi and reports through a prison-pen-pal website that he’s matured. He labels himself a green-eyed, straight, Christian Capricorn. Recent photographs suggest he has added ink all over his body, and perhaps rare for the gloomy surroundings, his face displayed a seemingly genuine smile, an expression missing from his 9-year-old mug shots stemming from a methamphetamine arrest at a seedy Costa Mesa hotel.
“Don’t let the tattoos fool you,” the onetime El Modena High School student now advises would-be female pen pals. “I’m just a local surfer and skater from the beach in Orange County.”
Of course, Petrovich is much more. He is forever tied to one of the county’s most notorious crimes. With jail deputies nearby and supposedly clueless, hoards of inmates punched, kicked, burned and sodomized Chamberlain, a Rancho Santa Margarita man awaiting trial for alleged child pornography possession. The victim’s battered corpse didn’t look human, and news of the horrific murder reached all corners of the nation.
Petrovich, the son of a U.S. Marine, can’t escape that notoriety. (See “I Lit The Fire,” an award-winning 2008 cover story by the Weekly‘s Nick Schou.) But the 31-year-old is hoping federal judges in Southern California will overturn his second-degree murder conviction. He wants to return to freedom before his first potential parole date in November 2021.
On Sept. 30, Petrovich filed a 75-page appeal at the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana. Most petitions for a writ of habeas corpus are typewritten by lawyers. He handwrote his, showing incredibly neat penmanship and an attention to detail.
The gist of the appeal isn’t new material. He didn’t attack Chamberlain himself, but as a white shot caller in that particular jail barracks, he told other inmates that the Caucasian software engineer was a pedophile and to rough him up. Why did he do it? He says sheriff’s deputies Kevin Taylor and Jason Chapluk deceitfully told him Chamberlain was a child molester and promised jail perks, such as more lunch food for F-West barrack inmates, as a reward for performing a nonfatal but still brutal assault.
But things got out of control quickly. The assault turned into a warped 45-minute frenzy showcasing the worst nature of young men feeling unrestrained by any sense of decency or worry of accountability. Jail deputies, who were paid handsomely to watch inmates and grabbed more than $15 million in overtime pay that year, claimed no role in the mess after secretly erasing video recordings made near the crime scene and doctoring official logs. Though he issued a stinging report slamming deputies for unconscionable dereliction of duty, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas refused to pursue anyone with a badge for wrongdoing. (See my “DA’s Report Is a Stunning Indictment of the Mike Carona-Run Jails,” April 2008.)
Petrovich and four others weren’t so lucky. The exasperation he still feels is almost tangible for anyone who reads the appeal. He wants to know how it was fair that the individuals who were the real instigators of the murder were allowed to participate in the subsequent criminal probe.
Asked on the appeal form to state the grounds for his request, he wrote, “The actions of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department in fostering the violent and hierarchical inmate environment in the jails, conducting the investigation into this case despite knowing that inmates were implicating deputies in the beating, [and] interference with the grand jury investigation constitutes outrageous government conduct” that deprived him of his due-process rights and a fair trial.
According to Petrovich, Superior Court Judge James A. Stotler allowed the government to aggressively pursue his accountability during the trial but repeatedly sabotaged defense lawyers’ efforts to fully educate jurors about the deputies’ alleged role in the crime.
It is true investigators learned that inmates insisted Taylor had also issued a previous “green light” for the jail assault of Mark St. John, a former KISS guitarist, and the deputy gave conflicting statements in the Chamberlain probe, according to court records.
“In another striking coincidence, the sheriff’s department ‘lost’ Taylor’s personnel file and was unable to provide it in response to a grand jury subpoena,” Petrovich wrote. “The grand jury report determined that although the sheriff’s department maintained 6,000 to 7,000 personnel files in one controlled area of its agency, Taylor’s personnel file was the only file ever known to have gone missing.”
(Taylor ultimately lost his job, and then-sheriff Mike Carona landed in federal prison from a separate scandal. The department’s current leader, Sandra Hutchens, maintains she has ended jailhouse shenanigans, though recent corruption revelations in the People v. Scott Dekraai case undermine the assertion.)
“[I] will never know what effect the sheriff’s department’s conflicted investigation had on [me] personally,” wrote Petrovich. “For example, another agency might well have pursued Taylor’s involvement in setting into motion the beating that killed Chamberlain or pursued the negligence and intentional actions by F-Barracks staff that night in allowing waves of inmates to beat another inmate to death 68 feet away from where deputies were sitting.”
The outrageous government conduct appeal is a long, almost impossible shot. The scales of justice are tilted in such cases. Government officials write, interpret and enforce the laws that are allegedly designed to hold the government accountable. Those statutes are overloaded with massive hurdles for complaining citizens and gaping loopholes favoring the government.
Nonetheless, the judicial system will go through the formalities in this case with U.S. District Court Judge Margaret M. Morrow presiding. The California Attorney General’s office will eventually defend the conviction, as well as the decision to ignore deputies’ possible complicity in the murder. Around two years from now, a federal magistrate judge will opine that none of Petrovich’s complaints has merit given the state of the law and recommend rejecting the appeal, a decision Morrow will accept.
(Go HERE to see Schou’s original 2007 cover story, “Blind Spot,” about the killing.)
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.