A mystery exists at the heart of the brutal beating death that occurred inside Orange County's Theo Lacy Branch Jail on Oct. 5, 2006. More than two dozen inmates spent roughly 20 minutes punching, kicking and stomping inmate John Chamberlain, who had allegedly been outed by a guard as a child molester just hours earlier. But even though the attack took place just 30 feet from three prison guards and a video camera, there's no video.
The Orange County Sheriff's Department, which operates the jail and investigated the beating, did uncover videotape filmed inside the guard tower that shows deputies reacting to the incident, but it strangely failed to find the previous 20 minutes of footage. To Jerry Steering, the Newport Beach-based attorney representing Chamberlain's family in its $20 million lawsuit against the sheriff's department (see “Blind Spot,” March 30), there's no mystery at all. He believes sheriff's officials simply deleted the portion of the tape that would have shown deputies ignoring the vicious attack.
One might call Steering a cynic, but as a lawyer who specializes in suing law-enforcement agencies for excessive force—including inside the county's jail system—he's seen (or rather, hasn't seen) his share of missing videos. One example is the case of Liza Munoz, a 30-year-old Anaheim resident who was shocked three times with a stun gun by sheriff's deputies inside the Orange County Women's Jail on Sept. 6, 2004. Munoz had been arrested for possession of a bottle of Vicodin that Tustin police found in her friend's purse after pulling her over for a broken taillight. The bottle belonged to the friend, who later died in a traffic accident.
After Steering filed a $15 million excessive-force complaint against the sheriff's department, he asked for videotape of the incident. The video he obtained shows Munoz being wrestled to the ground by four female deputies, who pin her arms behind her back. While Munoz shouts, “I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” the deputies sit on top of her. Then a male deputy casually walks over, reaches down with his stun gun and “tases” Munoz on the back.
Munoz did not respond to interview requests. But according to sheriff's department reports, Munoz needed to be shocked to protect the safety of the four officers and to make her comply with the booking process. “Munoz continued to struggle even with four female deputies holding her down on the ground,” Sergeant Ray Ulmer wrote. “I evaluated the situation, and to avoid injury to any of the female deputies, I utilized the advanced Taser M26 in a Drive Stun mode. Munoz was drive stunned twice, once in the lower right side and once in the lower left side of her back.”
“Due to Munoz's combative demeanor and to minimize injury, [deputies] assisted Munoz onto her stomach,” another deputy's report states. Because “Munoz continued to try to kick and pull away,” a deputy had no choice but to “tase” her. “Munoz continued trying to kick and pull away,” the report continues, so the deputy “tazed [sic]” Munoz a second time on her lower back left side area. Munoz urinated on herself and agreed to cooperate.”
What's strange is that while the videotape Steering obtained shows Munoz begging for mercy and being tased while four deputies sit on top of her, it doesn't show her doing anything to precipitate the tasing. Video footage shot earlier in the booking process shows Munoz complaining that officers had kicked her ankle, which had a visible scar from a recent surgery. “You guys are fucking assholes!” she yells. “Watch my fucking ankle!” That portion of the tape also shows Munoz demanding to speak with a lawyer and deputies repeatedly threatening to shock her if she refused to comply with their orders.
But whatever happened immediately before the deputies zapped Munoz is—you guessed it—missing, leaving open the question of whether the deputies tased Munoz simply as punishment for being uncooperative. Steering's lawsuit alleges that the missing video footage would have shown deputies viciously attacking Munoz prior to using the taser.
“The defendant deputies had two hand-held video cameras, and there apparently was a video camera in the hall where plaintiff was tazed [sic],” the lawsuit states. “However, either defendants deliberately edited that portion of the videotape . . . so as to prevent the plaintiff from being able to show . . . the slamming of her head against the jail cell wall/glass and other brutalizing of the plaintiff prior to her being tazed [sic] . . . or defendants deliberately did not videotape that portion of the [incident].”
Given that the video Steering did manage to obtain shows Munoz was immobile beneath the weight of four deputies when she was shocked, he believes he has evidence of misconduct. “At the time she's being tased, she's being held on the ground by four deputies, one on each arm and leg; she's motionless and begging for mercy,” he told the Weekly. “Then they blast her three times with 50,000 volts.”
But Steering adds that in nearly every jailhouse-brutality case he's handled in the past 21 years, there's been missing video. “It's always claimed to be lost, missing, damaged or otherwise unavailable,” he said. “In this case, I've asked for documents showing any malfunction of those cameras. They don't have any. Who is going to make them turn the tape over? [Attorney General] Alberto Gonzales? Nobody is going to do it. It's not in the cards.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).