County officials are recommending that a convicted child molester be paid $150,000 for damages he suffered when he was beaten by fellow inmates who were allegedly encouraged by sheriff's deputies.
John Eric Chambers, 26, who would be compensated for physical injury and emotional distress under the recommendation of the county claims board, was convicted of sexually abusing a 6-year-old girl in Saugus in 1996. He was awaiting transfer to state prison when he was attacked by a dozen inmates at the Men's Central Jail.
Deputies had moved him to a cellblock with other inmates despite a judge's order that he be kept under suicide watch in the psychiatric ward, county documents show.
Chambers' beating on Sept. 25, 1996, is one of at least 13 attacks that are the subject of an internal Sheriff's Department investigation into allegations that deputies engineered jailhouse attacks on accused sex offenders. At least two sheriff's employees have been relieved of duty as a result of the investigation.
Chambers' case was the first of its kind to reach review by county legal officials, and suggests the sort of monetary damages that taxpayers may be required to pay in such litigation.
"We believe a jury will conclude that the county and its employees are liable because John Chambers would not have been attacked if the department had complied with the court order," Assistant County Counsel S. Robert Ambrose wrote to the claims board.
Lloyd W. Pellman, senior assistant county counsel, said the claims board "took into consideration the nature of the offenses [Chambers] had been charged with, but on balance believed that under the circumstances, the potential for greater economic liability weighed in favor of settling."
If the Board of Supervisors votes Tuesday to fight the case in court, a jury could award Chambers $1.1 million in damages, Ambrose said. Chambers was released from prison in January after serving 15 months.
Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the attack on Chambers was "deplorable. One has to ask, 'How does that information reach other inmates?' It's the obligation of the Sheriff's Department to keep people in their custody safe."
Sheriff's officials said Chambers was arrested in March 1996 after the 6-year-old girl told Chambers' aunt that he had abused her at one point in the previous three years. He pleaded no contest to the charge and was held in the jail pending sentencing.
Chambers' family contended that it should have been obvious to deputies that he needed to remain under psychiatric care while in county custody. Mental health staff began prescribing psychotropic medication five days after he arrived at the Men's Central Jail, but Chambers said that he often hid the pills instead of taking them, according to documents. As he became more anxious, he repeatedly complained that voices were telling him to commit suicide, records show.
He tried to kill himself three times in the seven months he spent in the jail, at least once by trying to break his neck with his bare hands, according to county documents and his attorney.
In August, he was sentenced to serve three years in state prison and pay $200 restitution.
A judge ordered deputies to keep him in the psychiatric ward until his transfer to prison.
When he reached the jail psychiatric unit, Chambers said, a female deputy told him that "he was no more mentally ill than she was."
Despite the judge's order, he was moved from the unit to a "holding module" where he mixed with the general population, county documents show. Days later, Chambers alleged, a prison guard told him that a beating was about to "come down." After hearing inmates taunt him, chanting "Chester the molester," he decided to commit suicide and ingested an overdose of medication, his lawyer said.
Two hours later, he was surrounded by a dozen inmates and beaten. He alleged that deputies ignored his calls for help until he was able to get up and pound on a guard's door. He was taken to County-USC Medical Center and was treated there for a week.
Chambers is seeking damages to cover the injuries he suffered in the beating, which included a skull fracture, loss of hearing in his right ear, blurred vision and emotional distress for which he is still receiving psychiatric treatment.
Chambers' case was not unusual in the county's jail system, according to a September 1997 report by the U.S. Justice Department.
Some mentally ill inmates, federal investigators found, "report their mental illness, but are then lost in the jail system, misclassified and placed in unsafe housing, or transferred repeatedly between facilities. . . . They are the victims of predatory behavior at the hands of other inmates and have been abused by correctional staff."