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Killers in Jail Had Time to Spare

O.C. inmates washed up before the beating was discovered. Victim had wrongly been called a molestation suspect.

October 20, 2006|Garrett Therolf and Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writers

Inmates who two weeks ago committed the first slaying in the Orange County jail system in 20 years had enough time to wash their jumpsuits to remove the blood of the prisoner they had beaten to death before jailers knew what had happened, a Sheriff's Department official confirmed Thursday.

The revelation came as department officials also confirmed that the victim's attorney had called the jail before his client was killed, urging he be placed in protective custody.

The sheriff's official said investigators were scrutinizing why deputies on duty at the jail didn't move John Chamberlain and whether inattentiveness by guards played a role in the death.

A law enforcement source familiar with the case also said inmates told investigators that Chamberlain was targeted after a deputy wrongly told at least one inmate that Chamberlain was accused of child molestation, a crime that even prisoners find reprehensible. Those accused of the crime are often separated from the general jail population.

Chamberlain, a 41-year-old computer technician from Mission Viejo, actually was awaiting trial on charges that he possessed child pornography.

Chamberlain's girlfriend, Dorothy Schell, said he had called her Oct. 3, two days before his death, to ask for help.

"He said, 'Something is going on; you've got to get in touch with my attorney. They need to move me; I'm not safe,' " Schell, 69, said.

A person familiar with Chamberlain's time in jail said inmates had begun asking him why he had been arrested. He evaded the question. When he wasn't able to produce paperwork to show the charges against him, the inmates began to harass him, the source said.

Like the other unidentified sources in this report, the person requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

Schell said she quickly called Chamberlain's lawyer, public defender Case Barnett, and left a voicemail asking for his help.

Barnett called a sheriff's deputy during the lunch hour Thursday to plead for a transfer for Chamberlain, according to a source with knowledge of the call. Chamberlain, however, was not moved.

About five hours later, as a crowd gathered around the television in the jail's common room to watch the second game of the Dodgers playoff series against the Mets, Chamberlain was kicked to death by a group of inmates, according to the Sheriff's Department official.

The killers began the attack in the shower. The Sheriff's Department official declined to be exact about the number of inmates involved. The inmates dragged Chamberlain to another section of the jail to continue the beating.

After they finished, they washed their jumpsuits to get rid of blood or other evidence before an inmate notified a guard that Chamberlain had been attacked, the sheriff's official said. The guards believed they learned of the attack half an hour after it started, Amormino said.

Chamberlain was taken to UCI Medical Center in Orange about 6:30 p.m., and he died an hour later, said Jim Amormino, an Orange County Sheriff's Department spokesman.

When the Sheriff's Department notified the district attorney's office of the death, a dispute ensued over which would investigate. The district attorney investigates all officer-involved shootings.

The two agencies have different interpretations of agreements over which should investigate prisoner deaths. Neither agency has so far provided The Times with copies of the agreements. The Times requested a copy from the district attorney's office Tuesday.

The Sheriff's Department insisted on taking the lead but said district attorney investigators could work in "parallel," according to Amormino.

The district attorney's office argued that it would either conduct the investigation alone or handle it like any other homicide, said Susan Kang Schroeder, district attorney spokeswoman.

That means it would assign a lawyer to monitor the case but allow the Sheriff's Department to conduct the investigation. Sheriff Michael S. Carona and Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas discussed the case with each other, Schroeder said.

The two agencies finally agreed that the Sheriff's Department would conduct the investigation, Amormino and Schroeder said.

The decision meant sheriff's investigators were investigating one of their own, because of the allegation that a deputy instigated the death by telling at least one inmate that Chamberlain was accused of child molestation.

Assistant Sheriff Jo Ann Galisky said no internal affairs investigators had been asked to look at any deputy's involvement in the Chamberlain case. But the other sheriff's official would not rule out a separate inquiry by homicide detectives into possible criminal acts by a deputy.

No charges have been filed in the case.


Times researcher John Tyrrell contributed to this report.

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