Secrets in Bakersfield

Times Staff Writer

It's lunchtime, and nearly every stool is taken at Happy Jack's Pie N' Burgers on the edge of downtown Bakersfield. A shoe salesman digs into a bowl of homemade chili. A couple of architects devour thick, juicy hamburgers. Their buddy orders a peanut-butter-and-chocolate pie, the house specialty, to take back to work. Frances Rosales, the proprietor, cuts it into a dozen slices. She finishes, and asks: "May I have everybody's attention? Would anyone like to comment on the story in the Sunday Californian?"

Would they ever.

On Sunday, Jan. 19, The Bakersfield Californian published a special report, "The Lords of Bakersfield." Its 17,321 words take up nearly eight pages and are the talk of this small, conservative city in Kern County at the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley.

The remarkable package of stories and photos focused on a legend that had only been whispered about for decades.

"For more than a generation," the story said, "Bakersfield was run by a cadre of men who led double lives. To the public, these men were members of the community's most visible institutions, its justice system and the media.

"But in truth ... these men -- a sprinkling of county executives, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, even the newspaper's publisher -- were part of a loose-knit, secretive network.

"Some were homosexuals who preyed upon young men and boys, then used their positions of power and influence to protect one another from possible ramifications. Occasionally, however, the preyed-upon lashed out, leading to a string of murders involving young gay men and their prominent older male suitors."

In the late 1970s and '80s, the victims included two millionaires, one of whom was on a county crime commission; the Kern County personnel director; the owner of a fashionable hair salon; and a 14-year-old girl who attended parties thrown by Bakersfield's one-time police commissioner, who committed suicide after being charged with providing marijuana to minors. With the exception of the girl, whose case was never solved, the murders were committed by teenage or young adult men who said they had had sexual relationships with the victims.

But the legend never amounted to anything until last fall, when a local prosecutor named Stephen M. Tauzer was stabbed to death at home. The circumstances of his death -- and perhaps his life -- were reminiscent of the many whispered rumors about the Lords of Bakersfield. The Californian decided to investigate. The stories have roiled the city's elite, dominated the local airwaves and forced some in this conservative law and order-loving town to reassess its image.

"As we all know, Southern California is defined by its loyalties to particular neighborhoods and communities. Each one of those has an identity. That identity is rocked when stories like this become well known." -- Social historian and author D.J. Waldie.

"This is a murder mystery. This is an R-rated blockbuster," says reporter Robert Price, 46. Ordinarily the newspaper's Metro columnist, he and Assistant Managing Editor Lois Henry, 38, spent three months digging into court records, searching police reports and interviewing hundreds of people. One of the men they investigated, Ted Fritts, was a former publisher of the paper, and a brother of the current publisher.

Because of that connection, Price says, he was a little surprised the paper took the story on. "I know it's sort of smelly to praise your boss," the reporter says, "but in this case it's justified. She showed courage."

The publisher, Ginger Moorhouse, 58, speaks openly about her younger brother, who died of AIDS in 1997. When he ran the paper, he was part of the network of prominent men at the centerpiece of the special report.

"We were part of the story," she says, and the newspaper didn't hide that. Reader reaction to the series, she adds, has been very positive.

Tauzer's slaying, says Henry, reminded her of rumors she had heard years ago about "the whole Lords thing."

She tracked down documents in a 1985 federal court case in which a former police officer in the Kern County town Shafter claimed a pattern of exploitation, protection and cronyism. An addendum to the lawsuit, which was dismissed as frivolous, theorized about a network of well-connected men, the "Lords of Bakersfield," who got away with crimes, such as sex with minors, that would have put others away.

The Californian stories raise questions about the nature of the relationship between Tauzer and Lance Hillis, who died at 22 last summer when he crashed a stolen car after running away from a drug rehab program.

The stories document how Tauzer, 57 -- who was not openly gay -- helped Hillis get a job at the district attorney's office, gave him a car, let him live in his house, co-signed an apartment lease for him and pulled strings, including writing to a judge, to keep the young man out of jail.

Lance's father, Chris Hillis, a former investigator for the D.A.'s office who at one time was a friend of Tauzer, wanted his son to go to jail to get clean. But Tauzer, who may have been sexually involved with the young man, protected him.

The father, charged with Tauzer's murder, has promised to reveal "skeletons" during the trial later this year. The case will be tried by the state attorney general's office.

The Californian's stories have put an uncomfortable spotlight on longtime Kern County Dist. Atty. Ed Jagels. For years, Tauzer was Jagels' top deputy, and the newspaper wanted Jagels to address his deputy's intervention on Lance Hillis' behalf. Jagels, however, refused to be interviewed.

The Californian published the questions it had posed to Jagels in writing: Would the D.A., who has been in office since 1982, serve out the remaining three years of his current term? Was Jagels "one of those prominent men in Bakersfield who allegedly either engaged in unlawful sex with minors or helped cover up and protect others engaged in such behavior?"

The paper printed Jagels' written response: "...[I]t would be inappropriate to respond to those questions, because they are so loaded with malice, innuendo and false assumptions that they are, for the most part, statements of implied wrongdoing, rather than legitimate investigatory questions."

Jagels made his case on TV and talk radio.

The day after the story broke, , he appeared on the local news broadcast of Channel 17, an NBC affiliate: "One of the most interesting aspects of the Californian's series of articles ... is first, they assigned their gossip columnist rather than a reporter to do this wild series of articles."

"Secondly," he continued, " I'm a little saddened by the fact that this newspaper ... has basically become an arm of [Chris Hillis'] defense attorney's attempt to poison the jury pool, right up to the oversized pictures of the weeping defendant talking about his son."

Four days after the story breaks, Jagels is on talk radio, KERN-AM (1410). The volume is turned up in the newsroom.

"I should tell you what Jagels is saying," Henry tells Mike Jenner, her executive editor. The D.A. is accusing Henry of a conflict of interest. Henry's husband, a lawyer, is a former partner of Chris Hillis' defense attorney, Kyle Humphrey.

" Jenner says Henry concentrated on researching the Lords of Bakersfield legend, not the Tauzer murder.

Because Bakersfield is a small city, population 247,057, everyone who matters seems to know everyone else who matters, including the editors and reporters at the newspaper, which has a circulation of 75,000 on weekdays and 82,000 on Sundays.

Jagels tells his radio interviewer that his wife is furious that a friend, Dianne Hardisty, the newspaper's editorial page editor, wrote a piece headlined, "Jagels: Answer the questions."

But, Hardisty says, "especially in this law-and-order county, you ask yourself, 'Would a boy in the 'hood get a job at the D.A.'s office' " the way Lance Hillis did? Could any other employee not show up for work and leave in good standing, as Lance Hillis did? Would any other young man with no connections, a repeat drug offender like the young Hillis, go from rehab to rehab and never go to jail?

"Why," she asks, "was Lance Hillis treated so differently?"

Still on talk radio, in response to another question, Jagels declares, "I am not gay."

"That's really not the point," says Jenner. "Are there two levels of justice? If you are in with a member of the D.A.'s office, do you get a better deal?

"I think the people of Kern County want a prosecutor who is tough on crime," he says. "They also want fairness, and they want to know everybody when they stand before the bar will be treated fairly."

On Sunday, in a phone interview, Jagels said, "I pretty much made clear when I went on the radio what I thought of the stories.... There are no facts to contest. It's simply supposition, rumor, innuendo, the cobbling together of unrelated incidents over a 30-year period, and weaving in the conspiracy [for which] there is no evidence."

He did not want to comment on the relationship between Tauzer and Lance Hillis.

And Bakersfield is buzzing, though not always in public.

Mayor Harvey Hall won't comment. Neither will Police Chief Eric Matlock or U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield).

Others have plenty to say.

As the Rotary meeting breaks up at the Bakersfield Art Museum, the president, Rogers Brandon, owner of about 50 radio stations throughout the West Coast, including KERN, the one dominated all week by this controversy, makes a joke. Brandon, laughing, says that Richard Beene, the president and chief executive of the Californian, needs to make a phone call because Ed Jagels has put a wheel lock on his car.

Attorney Suellen Anderson, also at the meeting, says she found the newspaper report "fascinating." She'd heard about the Lords of Bakersfield and was surprised to see the story published. She knew and respected Tauzer. "He came to birthday parties for my children."

Back at the burger and pie shop, Susan Boatwright, 55, says, "We need an investigation, an outside investigation." She mentioned an aspect of the stories that stands out for many.

"From Day One, it had to do with homosexuality," she says of the relationship between Tauzer and the young Hillis. "The man lived alone. He had a lot of money. The boy was driving his expensive car."

Architect Louis Alvarez, 36, finishing a cheeseburger, says he took a look at the special report. "I saw it was about gay guys so I quit reading."

At Cal State Bakersfield, Beth Rienzi, 59, a psychology professor who teaches a course on gay and lesbian issues, says that when the newspaper published the stories, some of her gay students worried about a backlash. One girl, said Rienzi, reported that her father "read the paper and said, 'See what your friends are like.' "

Their fears are well founded, according to Rienzi, a clinical psychologist who is also head of assessment at the university. "The more conservative aspect of this community often confuses pedophilia with gayness," she says. "The problem is what they are talking about here is abuse of power."

Jagels frequents Happy Jack's. That's why Rosales, who co-owns this place with her husband, says, as she serves a piece of coconut cream pie, "What you see in here, what you hear in here, stays in here."

Of course it won't.

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