Robert Price

Friday, Feb 10 2006 01:23 PM

Tauzer case may be headed for unsolved bin

By Robert Price

In the four weeks after the murder of Assistant District Attorney Stephen M. Tauzer, investigators revealed little about the evidence they'd gathered or potential suspects they may have identified.

That changed Friday when the Kern County Sheriff's Department served search warrants at the home and office of Chris Hillis, the former D.A.'s investigator whose bitter, longstanding feud with Tauzer seems to have been common knowledge at every level of county law enforcement.

A month into what Sheriff Carl Sparks has called "a career case" for his investigators -- and one that must be solved, he said, even if it points back to local law enforcement -- Hillis, 47, remains the only publicly acknowledged suspect.

But it's increasingly likely, despite investigators' claims that he is no more a suspect than any number of others, and no more a suspect than he was four weeks ago, that the Hillis connection is also their best and last hope. An investigation that's gone this far without an arrest, according to conventional law-enforcement wisdom, is an investigation in trouble.

If there's no evidence connecting Hillis, it means investigators have probably hit a wall, and the biggest murder case in recent Kern County history may not be solved, at least by traditional investigative means. And certainly not by Sparks' self-imposed deadline of Jan. 7, his last day as sheriff.

***

Speaking privately, people familiar with the long-simmering battle between Tauzer and the former D.A.'s investigator admit Chris Hillis' name was the first to pop into their heads when they first learned of the murder.

One law enforcement official who requested anonymity said he never considered the possibility that the killer could be anybody else.

The moment he heard the news, "I turned to my wife and said, 'It was Chris Hillis, and if he didn't do it, he had someone else do it," the official said.

Hillis' dislike for Tauzer was so widely known, the official said, officers were showing up at the crime scene asking, "Did Chris do it?"

Hillis himself has conceded it was logical for investigators to interview him as a potential suspect.

Many people in law enforcement know the story, at least in outline form.

***

Chris Hillis' 22-year-old son, the late Lance Hillis, had lived with Tauzer on and off over the past two years.

Chris Hillis didn't like it -- didn't like any part of it. His son was a drug abuser and Tauzer, Hillis believed, was an "enabler" who'd given him a place to live, a car to drive, cash to spend and the "get out of jail free" card that helped Lance avoid what his father believed he needed most: a bucket of ice-cold sobriety, courtesy of the state prison system.

Tauzer had demonstrated a remarkably high tolerance for Lance's alleged shortcomings in other ways. Curt Dalton of M.A. Griffin & Sons, a pawn broker at 1234 19th St. in Bakersfield, said Tauzer visited in March or April, asking whether Lance had tried to sell jewelry, artwork, sculptures or a guitar that had been stolen from Tauzer's home.

Tauzer, Dalton said, had insisted that things be handled "discreetly." That meant no police.

Hillis' primary bone of contention was Tauzer's support of leniency for Lance.

Tauzer wrote at least two letters to the court on behalf of the young man he'd known for 17 years, one dated Jan. 20, 2001, the other on June 29. In both cases he urged treatment over jail for the young defendant, who in court documents had listed Tauzer's home address and home telephone number as his own.

In both cases Tauzer was successful, winning leniency for Lance over the objections of the Kern County Probation Department, the Attorney General's office (which prosecuted the cases because of the D.A.'s conflict of interest) and Chris Hillis, who said he wrote letters on two occasions to District Attorney Ed Jagels, asking him to intervene and shoo away Tauzer.

Jagels remembers communicating with Hillis, but he doesn't remember any letters. If Jagels tried to convince Tauzer to let it go, and allow Lance to take whatever the court might dispense, he isn't saying. Tauzer, he said, was acting within his rights.

"There was nothing inappropriate about Steve doing that," Jagels said. "Steve had a personal interest in rehabilitating this kid. ... I had my own private opinion, but that was irrelevant."

Lance Hillis, facing 16 months in prison in the July hearing, instead was sentenced by Superior Court Judge Lee Felice to a third stay at a drug treatment facility.

Deputy Attorney General Leah Ann Alcazar, who'd pressed charges against Lance Hillis at that July hearing, said in court that she found Tauzer's participation in the proceedings "inappropriate."

On July 11, Lance Hillis was ordered to complete a one-year program at Progress House, an El Dorado County facility where he'd spent time before.

Three days later, he was involved in a single-vehicle crash near Placerville -- and charged with DUI -- while driving a 1993 Ford Explorer owned by Tauzer.

Three-and-a-half weeks after that, on Aug. 7, Lance walked into a KFC restaurant in Placerville and asked for food that would otherwise be thrown away. Turned down, he settled for a glass of water and left. In the parking lot, he apparently noticed that the owner of a Ford Focus had thrown his keys on the floorboard as he hopped out. Lance got into the car and drove off.

Lance, driving that stolen car, died that night in a head-on collision on Highway 49, near the Coloma drug treatment center.

Chris Hillis, who'd been a member of the Bakersfield Police Department for seven years and a D.A.'s investigator for 11 years before taking a medical retirement in 1995, was grief stricken. So was everyone else in Lance's life, including his mother, Connie Clagg, from whom Hillis had been divorced since 1981, the year after Lance was born.

Chris Hillis, who two years before had established The Haven, a residential drug treatment center in east Bakersfield, changed its name to Lance's Haven.

***

A few weeks after Lance's death, Steve Tauzer traveled to Alaska for a vacation.

He returned to work Monday, Sept. 9.

That Thursday evening, he traveled back to El Dorado County with Clagg and her two daughters to pick up some of Lance's belongings and talk with some of his friends at the drug treatment facility.

The four of them returned to Bakersfield at about 10 p.m. Friday. Tauzer dropped off Clagg and her daughters and went home.

He was murdered sometime before dawn the next morning.

Retired Bakersfield Police Officer Don Hillis -- the father of Chris Hillis -- discovered the body Sunday afternoon. Two days' newspapers were still in the driveway.

Investigators won't say much on the record about the circumstances of the crime, except this: Tauzer was murdered in his garage. He'd sustained unspecified trauma to the head, and he had been stabbed on the top of his head. The presumed murder weapon, a knife, was found on the garage floor. There'd been no evidence of forced entry, no evidence of a lying-in-wait attack, no obvious signs of a struggle.

Jagels threw a gag order over his entire office. Sheriff's officials, who initially assigned seven investigators to the case, have had little to say either.

Meanwhile, the Attorney General's office joined the investigation in anticipation of a state prosecution.

***

By many accounts, 57-year-old Steve Tauzer was the gentlest soul in an office not generally regarded as a place one might find a lot of gentle souls. Tauzer, Kern County's No. 2 prosecutor, pursued convictions with preparation and vigor, but he was sometimes known to back off in the interest of justice, too.

The longtime Boy Scout leader was "married" to his job, he once said. And not just because he was unmarried in the literal sense. Tauzer took an almost monastic approach to his life and work.

Someone at the D.A.'s office once found several uncashed paychecks in his desk, an indication that he craved the work far more than he needed the money.

Tauzer, a native of Woodland who came to the Kern County D.A.'s office in 1975 (and became assistant district attorney under Jagels in 1987), was known for his organization and dedication. He researched cases, wrote grant applications, developed computer databases and, in his folksy, unassuming way, prosecuted many of the county's highest-profile criminal cases.

Belying the stereotypical image of the hard-nosed prosecutor, the rumpled, pudgy attorney was widely admired by both allies and adversaries for his dignity and courtesy.

The admiration only grew after Tauzer staged a miraculous recovery from a massive heart attack three years ago. He'd been given a 1 percent chance of survival, but four months later he was back on the job.

Given his long record of success in the D.A.'s office -- and his relative lack of a social life -- investigators looked at his past trials and professional associations in drawing up a list of potential murder suspects. The city of Arvin, the subject of a recent Tauzer-led grand jury investigation into alleged government corruption, was no doubt of particular interest, and may still be.

But, as demonstrated by Friday's search warrants, it is Tauzer's private life that has attracted investigators' attention most.

***

Investigators are said to be looking at Lance's friends and acquaintances in El Dorado County and his friends in Bakersfield.

But, given the fact that Chris Hillis is the only potential suspect to have been searched, it's clear investigators have him in their sights. They intend, as Hillis said Friday, "to eliminate me or make me" as a suspect, based on the evidence gathered.

Two days after Tauzer's body was discovered, Hillis toldThe Californianhe'd been interviewed by investigators. He said he believed he was one of 100 suspects in the case.

He said he did not kill Tauzer, and that he had given up his hatred of him two years before. He intended to focus on establishing his drug treatment center, in the hope of honoring and eventually understanding his son.

But, on the advice of his attorney, Kyle J. Humphrey, he refused to say where he was at the time investigators believe Tauzer was killed.

Hard evidence is what counts, but the string of coincidences surrounding the Hillis family has investigators' attention, too.

There's the fact that Tauzer was probably murdered on or around Sept. 13, the same night he returned home after collecting Lance's things at Progress House. There's the fact that his body was discovered Sept. 15 by Lance's grandfather. And there's the fact that the Dracena Street home of Matthew Hillis, Chris Hillis' 35-year-old cousin, sustained heavy fire damage the morning of Sept. 17. (There's no known connection between the fire and the murder investigation.)

Of course, it's all secondary to the fact that Hillis blamed Tauzer for Lance's descent into drug abuse and his subsequent death. Hillis had made his feelings so abundantly clear that Tauzer had privately expressed fear of the man, according to sources.

There may be even more to it than that, though. Some say Hillis' anger goes beyond the fact that Tauzer's approach to Lance's well-being differed from the father's. Some say Tauzer was more than just a mentor to Lance Hillis.

Whether or not Tauzer had a physical relationship with Lance Hillis is a matter of conjecture. Lance Hillis' mother has insisted her son was not homosexual, and that he, in fact, had girlfriends. She said she was grateful Tauzer participated in Lance's life as a "father figure."

Chris Hillis told The Californianhe didn't know whether his son was gay, but he conceded his son "could have been led astray."

Their relationship, whatever its nature, eventually brought Tauzer and Chris Hillis to blows.

It happened at Tauzer's northwest Bakersfield home on Aug. 2, 2000.

"I told him (Tauzer) to stay the f--- away from my son," Hillis toldThe Californianin a September interview, recounting his recollection of the conversation.

"Oh, Chris, I don't think it's as bad as you think it is," Tauzer said.

"It is," Hillis answered.

Tauzer, acting like a "smart aleck," according to Hillis, then grabbed Hillis' chin.

"My God, what is your obsession with my son?" Hillis demanded.

The exchange ended when Hillis slapped Tauzer in the face, prompting Tauzer to threaten to call the Sheriff's Department. Hillis beat him to it, then called his father, Don Hillis. Chief Deputy District Attorney Dan Sparks (no relation to the sheriff) showed up, too.

Deputies questioned both men but ultimately no one was arrested. The only documentation of the incident that exists today is a one-line dispatch call to Tauzer's address for a reported assault, Cmdr. Keith Nelson has said. Neither man wanted to pursue a prosecution.

Twenty-six days later, Chris Hillis found his son under the influence of methamphetamine in an east Bakersfield apartment and had him arrested. That arrest led to a series of probation violations, and over the next several months, Lance served jail stints of four, 14, 30, three, 54 and nine days.

***

Other names have been mentioned in the investigation. As possible suspects, they range from unlikely to highly unlikely.

None are any more ludicrous as suspects than former Arvin City Manager Tom Payne, whose supposed motive was shallow indeed: "They don't like each other," declared Arvin Mayor Juan Olivares, who advanced the theory, to his own possible legal peril, in a local Spanish-language newspaper. Payne was apparently never considered a suspect.

If investigators fail to make an arrest soon, they may be forced to make public certain details of Tauzer's life and death, in hopes it might prompt a potential witness to think of something.

The case could also go to the Secret Witness program, a signal investigators are truly out of leads.

-- Staff writer Steve E. Swenson contributed to this report.

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