'I Lit the Fire'
Jared Petrovich claims he was just following orders when his words sparked a fatal jailhouse beating
The inmate sitting on the metal stool on the opposite side of a thick plate of shatter-resistant and nearly soundproof glass looks confused. Perched on his nose are ill-fitting, plastic-rimmed eyeglasses. He's squinting nervously, leaning forward, intently grasping a telephone, his elbows on the steel table before him. His short-sleeved orange jump suit seems custom-made to reveal the tattoos that decorate his upper body.
Two five-pointed stars mark either side of his neck. On his arms is a complex pattern of skulls, crosses and an embryonic infant sucking liquid through what looks like a combination of a beer bong and an umbilical cord. Etched on his elbows are two words that pretty much sum up the life story and present predicament of Jared Louis Petrovich: “Lost Soul.”
Eighteen months ago, Petrovich was a 24-year-old drug user whose addiction to methamphetamines had kept him behind bars for much of the past decade. Now he's an accused murderer facing life in prison for playing a central role in the bloodiest jailhouse murder in Orange County history. The slaying took place inside the jail where Petrovich awaits trial: Theo Lacy Facility, a sprawling medium-security prison across the street from the Block in Orange.
Petrovich had been sent there on Sept. 6, 2006, after being arrested for possession of methamphetamines. Along with roughly 150 other nonviolent offenders, he was housed inside F-West barracks, a medium-security dormitory divided into numerous cubes, or six-man sleeping areas. Less than a month after he arrived, at about 6 p.m. on Oct. 5, 2006, the inmates had just returned to their barracks from the chow hall and were enjoying their evening access to the day room.
Petrovich was playing cards with three other inmates at a table near the televisions while, several yards away, in the corner of Cube D, half a dozen white inmates were beating the living hell out of John Derek Chamberlain, a 41-year-old Mission Viejo software engineer who'd been arrested for possession of child pornography. Petrovich knew Chamberlain was being beaten up because, by his own admission, he had just told the men now attacking Chamberlain that the inmate was a “chester”—jailhouse slang for child molester.
Petrovich claims he didn't touch Chamberlain himself, but as he readily acknowledges, “I lit the fire.”
While Petrovich played pinochle, as many as two dozen inmates kicked, stomped and punched Chamberlain to death; sodomized him with foreign objects; and scalded him with hot water (see “Blind Spot,” March 30, 2007). Meanwhile, deputies, who later claimed they were watching a baseball game on television in the guard tower, did nothing to stop the attack.
Chamberlain was pronounced dead that evening; an autopsy ruled his death the result of blunt-force trauma to the head. In the year since then, prosecutors have arrested nine inmates, including Petrovich, for the crime, and they say more arrests are likely to follow. The county has also paid a $600,000 settlement to Chamberlain's family. After a sheriff's department investigation, the Orange County district attorney conducted its own probe; there was even a nine-month grand-jury investigation.
But in a March 7 press conference, DA Tony Rackauckas said he found no evidence to support charging any deputy with a crime in connection with the killing. “If we could have proven a case that any member of the sheriff's department, from the lowest ranking to the top of the department, was criminally responsible for the death of Mr. Chamberlain, there is no question that indictments would have been issued,” Rackauckas said. Two high-ranking sheriff's officials did lose their jobs thanks to the scandal; Rackauckas has promised his eventual report on the murder will help bring about badly needed reforms at the jail.
The grand jury never called Petrovich to testify about the murder because prosecutors refused to go along with his attorney's request that he be granted immunity for anything he told them.
Meanwhile, Petrovich has remained in solitary confinement. Other than occasional visits from family members and his attorney, as well as infrequent trips to a courtroom, he hasn't had much company. Until now, he's never spoken to a reporter. He spends his days working out, watching television and reading magazines. He doesn't really know how he went from being a typical suburban kid with loving parents to a drug addict and accused murderer. But mostly he doesn't understand why nobody believes his story: that a deputy told him Chamberlain was a child molester and specifically instructed him to see to it that Chamberlain was punished for it. “If the truth came out,” he says, shaking his head in a weary, almost fatalistic motion, “I'd be a free man instead of wasting my life away for something I didn't do.”
* * *
To make sense of what happened to Chamberlain—and to understand Petrovich's role in the brutal murder—one has to begin with the subculture of Orange County's jail system. Although prison gangs such as the Mexican Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Nazi Lowriders and the Black Guerrilla Family all have members housed at Theo Lacy, their numbers are fewer than at state prisons. Yet all inmates belong to less well-known cliques that, like their more sinister state-prison counterparts, are divided along racial lines. White inmates are known as Woods; Latino inmates are divided between the Southsiders, made up of Southern California-raised gangbangers, and the Paisanos, mostly Mexican-born inmates, many of whom are illegal immigrants and don't speak English.
As each new inmate arrives in jail, a representative of their racial group, known as a “house mouse,” meets with them to find out who they are, why they're behind bars, and to explain the rules and regulations of the jail. Some of the rules are mundane: Don't flush the toilet in the shower area while a deputy is nearby, or the guards will punish you with extra work. Don't steal from another inmate, or you'll be “taxed,” a euphemism for being stood against a wall and beaten up. Don't lay a finger on an inmate of a different race, or you'll get a severe beating.
The inmates who carry out such punishments, usually selected for their brawn, are called “torpedoes,” while the leader of each racial group in a particular dormitory is known as the “shot-caller,” typically the inmate with the most time behind bars. It's a rotating job, so when one shot-caller is about leave the jail for whatever reason, he selects his own replacement.
After just a few weeks in F-West barracks, Petrovich had already become the shot-caller for the Woods. Chamberlain also had only been behind bars for a few weeks, ever since being arrested for possession of child pornography while parked outside an Albertsons grocery store in Laguna Niguel. Chamberlain had called his 70-year-old ex-girlfriend, Dorothy Schell, who had recently broken up with him because of his addiction to pornography, to ask her to pay his $2,500 bail, saying he had been arrested for urinating in public. But when a bail bondsman told her the real reason Chamberlain had been arrested, she refused.
At the time, it was the policy of the sheriff's department to not segregate a sex offender from the general jail population unless the inmate's case had received media attention or if the inmate himself specifically requested it. Chamberlain apparently wanted to take his chances by blending in. But in early October, he told Schell to call his attorney and arrange for him to be moved: The other inmates were getting too curious about his charges, he told her, and he feared for his safety. At about 1 p.m. on Oct. 5, Chamberlain's attorney, Case Barnett, called the jail and passed along Chamberlain's request to a guard later identified in sheriff's department investigative files as Deputy Olukoju, who said he'd handle the request.
That afternoon, the two guards in charge of the F-West barracks, Deputies Kevin Taylor and Jason Chapluk, were busy doing an impromptu bunk search. They received Olukoju's message about an hour later, and according to their subsequent statements to sheriff's investigators, they instructed Chamberlain to leave his bunk and meet them in the hallway leading from the dormitory to the chow hall. Taylor told investigators that Chamberlain “was in custody for sales of child pornography and that his preference is for 10- to 15-year-old girls,” according to the files. “Chamberlain said that he was being pressured by the other inmates to show some paperwork which would list his booking charges.”
Taylor told investigators that he offered to move Chamberlain immediately, but claimed Chamberlain said he'd be okay until his next court appearance, at which time he'd need to be relocated. Why Chamberlain would decline Taylor's offer when he had just begged his ex-girlfriend to arrange for him to be moved from F-West barracks remains a mystery. What also remains a mystery is how in the space of just a few hours, Chamberlain's secret was revealed.
* * *
Petrovich's drug-fueled journey from teenage truant to Woods shot-caller and accused murderer began happily enough. He was born in January 1984 in San Diego, where his father, a sergeant major in the Marine Corps, was stationed. The family later moved to Twentynine Palms, and then to Quantico, Virginia. Petrovich says he began acting out when he was in third grade, the year his parents divorced. His father, David Petrovich, had just spent a year in Okinawa away from his family. His mother, Ruth Camardi, who stayed behind with Petrovich and his older brother, says the relationship crumbled upon his return.
But she insists the divorce was amicable and that it didn't have any obvious negative impact on the kids. “The boys knew there was never any craziness during the divorce,” Camardi says. “I think they've always had stable lives.” She says Petrovich was diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder at about that time and poured his energy into sports. But by the time Petrovich reached seventh grade, he began to get into trouble. That year, he and a friend were caught vandalizing their junior high school in Las Vegas, where the family had moved. Petrovich spent the next year with his father in Virginia, and then moved back with Camardi, who by then lived in Orange.
By the time Petrovich was 16 years old and attending El Modena High School, he was smoking pot. “And that got him into crystal meth pretty quickly,” Camardi says. Petrovich began skipping school to use drugs. At the time, Camardi was working at an orthodontist's office, and she asked her boss to allow her to work part-time so she could become a teacher at the school. But despite her efforts to more closely monitor her son, Petrovich continued to ditch his classes. He'd become a diehard meth addict.
One morning when Camardi woke up and found her son passed out on the couch with meth in his pocket, she had him arrested and sent to a lockdown drug-treatment facility. “He got off the drugs, and it would last maybe three months before he was using again,” she says. “And from there, it was going to jail for a few months, coming home, and then getting into the same routine of using the meth.”
Three years ago, Petrovich was arrested for possession of a large quantity of meth, as well as several stolen laptop computers he says he'd been given in exchange for drugs. He was convicted of the drug charge and receiving stolen property and sentenced to 18 months at Pleasant Valley State Prison. His bunkmate was a tattoo artist; before long, ink covered both of Petrovich's arms. Camardi visited her son at the prison several times and suspects he was smoking marijuana behind bars. She had remarried, and her new husband told her he didn't want Petrovich living in the house when he got out.
After his Pleasant Valley prison stay, Petrovich moved back to Orange County. “He just got out of prison and needed somewhere to stay,” says Ashley Sanders, who dated Petrovich after his release. “He was completely sober and wanted to stay sober, but this girl where he was living was a total tweaker and just putting it in his face. She had all these druggies there 24-7, so he left that place. He knew it was no good for him.”
Joseph Macauley, a recovering addict who was friends with Sanders, says that by the time Petrovich left the house, he was once again addicted to speed. “He was normal when he came out [of prison] and was trying to stay sober, but he was living with this tweaker and started acting crazy,” Macauley says. “He thought I stole his tweak [speed] and ran after me with a blowtorch. When he was sober, he was fine. He was a really cool person when he was not on drugs.”
On Sept. 6, 2006—the last day Petrovich wasn't behind bars—he was arrested as he walked out of a Costa Mesa motel room, which police had been scoping out as a speed house. Petrovich doesn't remember much about his arrest. “I have no idea where it was,” he says. “I was spun out of my mind. I hadn't slept in seven days.”
By the time Petrovich knew where he was, he'd been sent to Theo Lacy Jail. Because Petrovich had been in state prison, the then-Woods shot-caller, who was about to be transferred to federal prison, chose him to be his replacement and gave him on-the-job training. Petrovich claims that he and the shot-caller arranged for two inmates accused of petty infractions to be assaulted by inmates. (The U.S. Bureau of Prisons denied the Weekly's request to interview the shot-caller.)
* * *
Nobody, including Petrovich himself, disputes that he spread the word of Chamberlain's status as a sex offender to the inmates who carried out the murder. But there are two versions of how Petrovich himself discovered Chamberlain's secret. The official explanation is that Petrovich somehow figured out Chamberlain's identity alone, perhaps by getting the information over the telephone from an informant. Or perhaps Petrovich, acting on other inmates' suspicions, confronted Chamberlain about his charges and coaxed a confession from him. No evidence has surfaced to support these hypotheses, although they are certainly possible.
“The law says you have to disclose certain information,” says
sheriff's spokesman John McDonald. “You can have someone look up the information and call it in.” McDonald adds that the department's website no longer lists booking information and that sex offenders are now segregated from the general population for their own safety.
A guard who currently works at Theo Lacy who asked to remain anonymous believes that this is what happened. “Things have changed now, but at the time of the murder, inmates had ways of finding out another inmate's charges,” he says. “All inmates were issued a booking slip with their charges on it. Smart inmates facing sex charges kept those with them all the time or dumped them at the first opportunity. . . . Inmate charges are no longer listed on the inmate copy of the booking slips.”
Petrovich has a different explanation, which he has told investigators repeatedly but is sharing in detail publicly for the first time here. He was sitting on his bunk that afternoon when Stephen Carlstrom, the house mouse for the Woods in F-West, approached him to say that the deputies wanted to talk to the white shot-caller.
“I said no,” Petrovich says. He instructed Carlstrom to meet the deputies alone and pass along any message they had. But Carlstrom returned to Petrovich's bunk to say that the deputies insisted he go to the hallway alone. “The second time, I said okay,” Petrovich says.
He claims he walked over to the locked door leading to the hallway, and after being buzzed through by the guard tower, he saw Taylor and Chapluk standing in the doorway. After the door locked behind him, Petrovich says Chapluk asked if he spoke English. When he said yes, the two guards carried out a brief conversation they clearly intended him to overhear
“There's a child molester in [bunk] J7,” Petrovich says Taylor remarked to his partner. “And you know what happens when there's a child molester.” Petrovich claims that Taylor didn't mention Chamberlain by name, but then instructed him to ensure that the inmate in J7 was beaten up at 8 p.m. that evening, after dinner, when the inmates would be rewarded with an extra day room period.
“They wanted us to beat this dude up,” Petrovich says. “He gave us an incentive. He didn't say we had to do it.”
Petrovich further claims Taylor indicated that Chamberlain had to survive the assault without any obvious facial injuries. “He said, don't hit him from the neck up, just the neck down. Make sure he can walk out of here. I said okay.”
At that point, Petrovich says, the deputies allowed him back into the barracks. He went to J Cube and saw Chamberlain sitting on his bunk and asked him why he was in jail. “He said some story about some freaking warrant, I don't remember, an out-of-state warrant, something petty,” Petrovich recalls, adding that Chamberlain didn't seem particularly nervous. “I said, 'All right, see ya' and walked away. He was a creepy-looking dude. He looked weird. All those perverts look the same. He was like a little pig. Fat and little . . . I don't know what was up with that dude.”
Petrovich left J Cube and approached the shot-caller for the Southsiders, a Latino inmate whose nickname was “Stretch.” While only white inmates can beat up another white inmate, that rule doesn't apply to “child molesters or weirdos. They're wide open,” Petrovich explains.
Telling the Southsiders about an upcoming beating was also a matter of respect. “When you are going to beat someone up, you have to tell them, so they don't start tripping. . . . He said, 'All right. Thanks for letting me know,'” Petrovich says.
Next, Petrovich went back to his bunk in D Cube. “I tell everyone in my cube that this guy [Chamberlain] is a child molester,” he recalls. “Everyone just started getting pumped up: 'Let's get him!' People were like, 'Let's do this. Let's not wait until 8. Next thing I know, the day room opens. I'm playing cards, and I see Chamberlain walk down to D Cube, and he walks in, and that's when it happened.”
The people Petrovich gathered for the attack were Petrovich's bunkmate Mike Garten, Christopher Teague, Carlstrom, Eric Miller and Garrett Aguilar. (Along with Petrovich, they were the first inmates to be charged with murdering Chamberlain.) Petrovich didn't want to say who escorted Chamberlain to D Cube. “I don't want to point fingers at anyone,” he says. But several inmates later told investigators it was Aguilar, Petrovich's torpedo, who pushed Chamberlain into the corner of D Cube, where deputies couldn't see what happened next.
As Petrovich tells it, he sat at a metal table playing pinochle while the white inmates beat Chamberlain. He estimates the attack lasted roughly five minutes before Aguilar approached him to say that Chamberlain was lying on the floor. “Garrett comes up to me and says, 'We got a man down; come check this out,'” Petrovich says. “So I go into the cube and see [Chamberlain] on the floor. He was lying on the ground holding his sides, not talking. He was moaning.”
He claims he told the inmates to stop the attack. “I said, 'That's it,'” Petrovich says. “'No more. It's over.'” Chamberlain, he insists, was still breathing. “I walk out of the cube, and I see 50 Mexicans running in there. I said, 'Stop,' but they kept on coming.” The white inmates scattered, and Petrovich returned to his card game while the Latino inmates took their turn with Chamberlain.
“He was yelling for his life,” Petrovich says. “'Please help me! Stop!' I could hear it from the card table maybe 30 feet away.”
Petrovich estimates that the Latino inmates attacked Chamberlain for 15 to 20 minutes. “It was a whole herd of people,” he says. “The Mexicans went in there, and who knows what they did? People were coming and going. They were getting him to confess. Someone was yelling at him what he was, and finally, he admitted he was a child molester. That's what I heard later. I heard they stuck a tube of toothpaste up his ass.”
He recalls being amazed that the deputies didn't notice all the commotion. “You've got 200 people in the barracks,” he says. “Every single person was looking at D Cube. You got 50 people in one cube for 20 minutes. Where are you dudes at?”
Petrovich continues, “Then Garrett comes up to me again and says, 'Hey, he's not breathing.' So I told him to wave the cops down and say 'man down.' Tell the cops to come out here. He had to stand up on the table because they weren't looking.” Finally Taylor and Chapluk came running into the barracks. “They come out and say, 'What's happening?'” Petrovich says. “Chapluk ran into the cube. He looked like he was going to have a heart attack. Taylor asked Garrett what happened. Then Taylor made us all put our heads on the tables, and they brought all of us to the hold.”
* * *
In the hours following the attack, the entire population of F Barracks was herded into the chow hall while homicide investigators with the sheriff's department interviewed all three of the guards working the dormitory, as well as numerous inmates, and refused to allow the DA's office, which normally investigates jail homicides, access to the facility. With the notable exception of Petrovich, the other five inmates originally charged with murdering Chamberlain all tried to deny their roles in the crime, admitting they attacked Chamberlain only in follow-up interviews when investigators confronted them with eyewitness accounts of their involvement.
Teague claimed he was working out when the attack occurred and “did not get involved.” Aguilar acknowledged waving to get the deputies' attention and said he knew Chamberlain was being beaten up, but according to an investigator's notes, he “denied participating.” Carlstrom claimed he was playing dominoes when the attack happened. Miller, who investigators said “appeared to ramble in his speech,” told a story that was “non-nonsensical”; after initially denying that he participated, Miller finally admitted that he broke his hand while punching Chamberlain in the head.
Only Petrovich admitted his role in the killing when first questioned, telling exactly the same story he tells now. According to notes from his initial interview, Petrovich told investigators he was the shot-caller for the Woods and had told the other inmates about Chamberlain being a child molester.
“Petrovich denied that he assaulted Chamberlain, but he admitted that he knew about the assault,” the notes read. “He further said that he received the information about Chamberlain being a child molester from the deputies in F Barracks. . . . During the interview, Petrovich agreed that once he received the information about Chamberlain and relayed it to the other inmates, he 'sort of lit the fuse.'”
At one point, investigators asked Petrovich why he was being so forthcoming about his role in the murder. According to their notes, he “commented something to the effect of, the truth was going to come out, truth can't hurt.”
As Petrovich's cohorts began to acknowledge their role in the murder, several of them also told investigators that Petrovich had told them Taylor had outed Chamberlain as a sex offender. While Teague, Aguilar and Carlstrom said Petrovich hadn't directly participated, both Garten and Miller insisted that Petrovich was downplaying his role in the attack and had in fact struck Chamberlain. Investigators played taped interviews of Garten's and Miller's statements to Petrovich. He continued to insist that he hadn't hit the man.
Investigators also questioned Taylor, Chapluk and a third guard, Philip Le, and “confronted them with the allegations made my [sic] inmate Jared Petrovich and [sic] well as a few other inmates.” All three guards denied that anyone other than Chamberlain had been pulled out of the dormitory to speak with deputies that day.
“Taylor adamantly denied that he directly or indirectly told any of the inmates about Chamberlain's charges,” one report says. “He also denied that, to his knowledge, any other deputies would have done that.” Le told investigators that the video camera in the guard tower had been filming during the attack but that he had taped over that portion of the footage. The tape was running out, Le claimed, so to be able to continue filming, he rewound the tape and recorded over the incident itself. All that remained was Taylor telling Le to make a note in the guards' logbook that Chamberlain felt safe in the barracks.
Taylor subsequently refused to answer further questions posed by sheriff's investigators, hired an attorney and, later, refused to speak with DA investigators about Chamberlain's death. He was also named in the lawsuit filed by Chamberlain's family that resulted in a six-figure settlement. Five days after the crime, prosecutors formally charged Petrovich, Teague, Aguilar, Carlstrom, Miller and Garten with murder.
* * *
Petrovich's parents had only learned he'd been arrested again when he failed to show up for his older brother's wedding. “He never showed up, and we could never figure out why, and we were looking for him and found out he had been apprehended,” says Petrovich's father, David.
Ruth Camardi knew her son was being held at Theo Lacy, so when she heard the news that six inmates had been arrested for murder inside the jail, she immediately began to worry. But when she visited him the following Friday, Petrovich assured her he was innocent. “All he said was, 'Mom, believe me, I had nothing to do with it,'” she says. Only later, after Petrovich had been interviewed several times by sheriff's investigators, did he tell his mother about his role in the murder or share his claim that Taylor had instigated the attack by outing Chamberlain to him as a child molester.
David Petrovich says that he didn't find out his son had been charged with murder until “probably about three months after it happened.”
He's convinced his son is telling the truth about Taylor, partly based on his own experiences as a prison guard. During his stint with the Marines, David Petrovich worked as a guard at various military brigs. Later, while stationed at Quantico in the 1990s and studying for a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, he worked as a guard at the Lorton federal prison outside Washington, D.C.
“I don't know which was worse: the inmates, or the ones running it,” he recalls. “When you get in the facility, you are bored shitless, so you entertain yourself.” A favorite activity of guards was finding out what inmates had been charged with and spreading the word. “Any time you have a sex offender, if you don't segregate him, he will be sore the next day, or he won't even make it through. I just know that [guard] told Jared, and he told somebody, and that's how it works. The word spreads.”
One guard who currently works at Theo Lacy and spoke on the condition of anonymity says he believes Taylor is innocent of outing Chamberlain. “Is it possible Taylor did it? Anything is possible,” he says. “I have not seen a deputy tell other inmates about an inmate's charges. The risk that what happened will happen [is] too great.”
The guard speculated that Taylor's career as a prison guard is over. “My gut feeling is that Taylor is going to be fired for this incident because of dereliction of duty,” he says. “But the responsibility for the murder lies with the inmates who beat Chamberlain to death.”
McDonald says the sheriff's department cannot comment on Taylor's current job status. Before joining the sheriff's department, Taylor spent five years with the Torrance Police Department. He received the 2002 South Bay Medal of Valor for preventing a distraught woman from jumping from a 17th-floor hotel balcony the previous year. Sheriff's officials have refused to make Taylor available for an interview.
Eighteen months after being charged with murder, Petrovich still doesn't understand why prosecutors can charge him and not a man in uniform.
“It's crazy,” Petrovich says, smiling nervously at his feet. “Fuck. I'm being charged with murder for no fucking reason, honestly. I think it should be manslaughter. There was no intent to kill him. I never told the white dudes, 'Go kill this guy.' I said he's a child molester, but I didn't touch him. If Taylor isn't being charged, why am I? Just because he's wearing a badge doesn't make him above the law, and just because I'm an inmate doesn't make me automatically guilty.
“I don't want them to charge him with murder,” Petrovich allows. “I just want to get in the same boat as him.”
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).