Was ex-Kiss guitarist Mark St. John a victim of OC's brutal jailhouse justice?
A month before roughly two dozen inmates at Theo Lacy Jail viciously killed John Chamberlain in an attack that would earn national headlines and lead to a major scandal that continues to unfold, an inmate named Mark Leslie Norton told deputies he feared for his life. He asked to be moved from one part of the jail to another.
Although deputies may not have recognized him, Norton is better known to most of the world by his stage name, Mark St. John; he had briefly been a guitarist for the world-famous rock band Kiss in the mid-'80s until a nasty bout of arthritis forced him into early retirement.
Norton, according to published reports, grew up in Garden Grove and had been living with his parents there while earning a modest income giving guitar lessons. He was booked into Theo Lacy on Sept. 14, 2006 to serve a two-week sentence after pleading guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia, resisting arrest and attempted destruction of evidence. For a week, Norton stayed in D Barracks, a medium-security dormitory for nonviolent offenders. But on Sept. 21, according to Norton's inmate file, which the Weekly recently obtained from the sheriff's department, he told deputies he wanted to be moved somewhere else because he “stole crackers out of another inmate's property box” and was “in fear for his safety.”
Deputies moved Norton to F-West Barracks, another medium-security dormitory, where he remained for three days, until being released from jail on Sept. 24. From the file, it appears the transfer worked. There is nothing to suggest Norton was attacked or ever requested medical treatment. But one key witness insists that Norton did, in fact, get his ass kicked.
Jared Petrovich, a former shot-caller at the jail and one of nine inmates charged with murdering Chamberlain (see “'I Lit the Fire,'” April 3), told the Weekly he personally helped to arrange for Norton to be assaulted and that Deputy Kevin Taylor, the same guard Petrovich alleges authorized the attack against Chamberlain, approved the beating. In a recent interview with the Weekly, the onetime shot-caller for the “Woods” (the white inmates at Theo Lacy) stated that Taylor knew in advance that numerous inmates, including Norton, would be beaten up and not only did nothing to stop the assaults, but also gave sack lunches to him and other inmates in return for carrying them out.
“We went up to Kevin Taylor and said, 'We're going to beat this guy [Norton] up,'” Petrovich recalls. “[Taylor] said okay and gave us sack lunches, two each for the four us,” referring to himself, another Woods shot-caller and pair of Latino inmates who needed to be advised of an upcoming beating so they didn't “trip out.”
According to Petrovich, Norton was being punished for stealing property from another inmate in a different part of the jail. “He got caught stealing something,” he says. “I guess he did that somewhere else in the jail, but we found out about it somehow. . . . The Kiss guy got beat up pretty bad.”
Petrovich says he was included in the meeting because the other shot-caller was scheduled to leave F-West in a few weeks and had chosen him as his replacement. Although Petrovich claims Norton was severely beaten, he says he didn't personally witness the attack.
Sheriff's officials have refused to make Taylor, who is currently on paid leave, available for an interview. On Oct. 5, 2006, he allegedly watched Cops on television and used his cell phone to send 22 text messages while dozens of inmates just yards away fatally beat Chamberlain, a Mission Viejo software engineer awaiting trial for possession of child pornography (see “Blind Spot,” March 29, 2007). Following the murder, Taylor refused to speak to sheriff's homicide investigators and, later, declined to be interviewed by district-attorney investigators or testify before the Orange County grand jury. But two of his partners did talk, and what they say suggests that Petrovich's claims about Taylor, as outlandish as they sound, are plausible.
Both Special Services Officer Philip Le and Deputy Jason Chapluk testified that Taylor routinely used shot-callers such as Petrovich to enforce jail rules and punish inmates who broke them and that he frequently rewarded the shot-caller with special privileges such as extra time in the day room, new uniforms, or—you guessed it—sack lunches.
Le estimated that Taylor would meet with shot-callers up to 10 times per day and that some of those meetings were to ask the shot-caller to ensure that inmates who had been punished didn't request medical treatment at the jail. The conversation, Le testified, would go like this: “Hey, this guy is messing up, so get him in line; [tell him], 'You are not hurt. . . . You are fine.'” If the inmate continued to complain, Le told the grand jury, Taylor knew the result would be another violent attack. “Something is done discreetly in certain areas [of the barracks],” he explained. “The inmates know there are certain areas or blind spots, and they do it there.”
A former Theo Lacy inmate who claims he was a Woods “torpedo,” or enforcer, says he personally beat up, or “taxed,” numerous inmates while incarcerated at the jail. (The Weekly confirmed that the inmate, who asked not to be identified, was in Theo Lacy several months before Chamberlain's murder—and before Norton's brief stint in the jail.) “It was my job to go to the blind spot and wait while another Wood got the person who was going to be taxed,” he says. “You put the person getting taxed against the wall, ask them if they are ready, and then go to town for 15 seconds on their body. . . . It never gets brutal; there might be some bruises left after, but never any blood.”
Mark Leslie Norton, unfortunately, is unable to talk about his time in Theo Lacy. As any true Kiss fan already knows, Norton died last year. According to the Orange County Coroner, the cause of death was a brain hemorrhage bought on by an accidental overdose of methamphetamines on April 5, 2007. The Weekly's attempts to reach Norton's family for comment were unsuccessful.
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is managing 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).