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Rampant abuse seen at O.C. jail

A guard watched TV while prisoners beat a man to death, report says. Inmate violence appeared sanctioned.

April 08, 2008|Christopher Goffard | This story was reported by Times staff writers Christian Berthelsen, Christopher Goffard, Christine Hanley, Stuart Pfeifer, David Reyes and H.G. Reza and was written by Goffard.

A grand jury transcript released Monday describes an Orange County jail in disarray, with deputies watching television, playing video games and taking naps while inmates were allowed to use brutality and intimidation to keep order in the cellblocks.

The conclusions are contained in 7,000 pages of transcripts from a special criminal grand jury impaneled by Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas to investigate the 2006 death of an inmate at Theo Lacy Jail, as well as how the Orange County Sheriff's Department handled the incident.

The Sheriff's Department tried to keep the grand jury's evidence secret. The Times and the Orange County Register went to court to have the transcripts made public. They show that then-Sheriff Michael S. Carona exercised his 5th Amendment rights rather than answer the panel's questions.

The grand jury found that while one of the ranking guards at the jail in Orange exchanged personal cellphone text messages and watched the television show "Cops," a 41-year-old computer technician was stomped and beaten to death not far from the glass-walled guard station.

Though the pummeling lasted up to 50 minutes, guards said they were unaware of it until it was over. While jail logs from that day said guards checked the cellblock where the beating occurred every 30 minutes, the grand jury concluded that the area had not been checked for five hours.

The transcripts suggest that a mixture of systemic indolence and officially sanctioned inmate violence underpinned the death of the inmate, John Derek Chamberlain.

"Inmates do run the jail system," Phillip Le, a deputy on duty at the jail that day, told the grand jury. "There is more inmates than deputies."

Chamberlain was in custody on suspicion of possessing child pornography when inmates dragged him into Cubicle D and attacked him in successive waves, at times washing blood from the crime scene and their own clothes. Inmates believed, mistakenly, that he had been charged with molestation.

He suffered 43 displaced rib fractures and was stripped, sodomized, spat on and urinated upon. During the attack, he screamed and pleaded for help. According to testimony, jail guard Kevin Taylor spent that time watching "Cops" and exchanged 22 personal text messages on his cellphone. It was not until an inmate stood in front of the guard station, waving his arms at the window, that deputies said they noticed something wrong.

"The cumulative evidence often demonstrated that vigilance was the exception as opposed to the rule," according to a the report of the investigation prepared by Rackauckas.

Four inmates told investigators that jail deputies falsely told inmates that Chamberlain had been charged with molestation, setting up the fatal attack. But Rackauckas said the inmates' story could not be corroborated independently. Nor was there enough evidence to charge sheriff's deputies and officials, even though several lied to the grand jury, he said. The district attorney's summary report also showed instances in which deputies tampered with and withheld evidence and interfered with the grand jury investigation.

Rackauckas expressed doubt about a log entry at 2:30 p.m. on the day of Chamberlain's slaying, saying that the Mission Viejo man told deputies he was not in fear for his life. "That's probably not very believable, but we don't have any evidence to contradict it," he said in a statement. "We don't have proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the entry is a falsification."

As part of its probe, the grand jury examined why the Sheriff's Department, then under the command of Carona, insisted on conducting the investigation into Chamberlain's death, despite a clear county policy that the task belonged to the district attorney's office.

Despite the "thorough and complete" work of the grand jury, Rackauckas said, he still did not know who in the sheriff's chain of command determined that the agency would investigate. Carona refused to cooperate with the inquiry. Asked if he was the sheriff of Orange County the day Chamberlain died, Carona declined to answer that question as well. Prosecutors finally gave up and excused Carona.

Conflicting evidence hampered the probe. A former sheriff's captain, Bob Blackburn, testified that Assistant Sheriff Steve Bishop told him that Carona had made the decision to break policy and let his own department investigate the killing, though Bishop denied this.

The transcripts show that ranking sheriff's officials professed not to know or were hazy on the details of who made the decision not to hand the jail death investigation over to the district attorney.

Bishop, who supervised investigations, and then-Undersheriff Jo Ann Galisky, who supervised jail operations, told the grand jury that they were unaware of cases in which the district attorney conducted a criminal investigation of an in-custody homicide, even though their own department had informed them otherwise. The district attorney's office, in fact, had investigated 129 prior inmate deaths.

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