By Robert Price
The Lords of Bakersfield.
Until recently, it was a little remembered local legend, of interest mostly to conspiracy theorists.
But in the aftermath of Stephen Tauzer's Sept. 13 murder and the subsequent arrest of his former colleague, Chris Hillis, the legend has resurfaced.
Some of the facts of the Tauzer case appear similar to aspects of the Lords legend, which goes like this: For more than a generation, 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, according to Lords lore, 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.
Though the Tauzer murder script is a slight variation on that theme, the murder trial may well detour down the same general path.
"We might very well look at similar cases over the years, in which young male hustlers or victims killed closeted homosexual men from Bakersfield," said Kyle Humphrey, Chris Hillis' attorney. "Even if that (direction of inquiry) is an uncomfortable area for people in the community -- prominent people."
The legend took root in March 1985 when Johnathon R. McClaren, a former Shafter police officer, filed suit in U.S. District Court, claiming a pattern of exploitation, protection and cronyism in Shafter.
Then-Shafter City Attorney Richard Oberholzer (who held the same position concurrently with the city of Bakersfield) called the suit a "frivolous" publicity stunt, and McLaren moved to drop it himself four months later.
But the suit gave a measure of credence to the story of the Lords of Bakersfield, a term coined by former Shafter Press editor Rick Lawler, who contributed a 2,200-page addendum, known as "exhibit C," to McLaren's suit.
Exhibit C found its way into the public eye in several ways: condensed as Lawler's own legal claim against the city of Bakersfield, filed in September 1986; as a 1989-90 serialization with supplementary reporting published by three weekly community newspapers, including the Rosedale Roadrunner; and in a 1990 book, "Valley Fire," whittled from Lawler's original document and edited by Bette Blair, a former executive secretary to Ted Fritts, The Californian's co-publisher throughout most of the 1970s and early 1980s.
Some say the Lords legend is far older. A few longtime Kern County residents remember talk of a White Orchid Society, which supposedly existed in the 1950s and consisted of a network of prominent men who led secret homosexual lives.
At least two former Californian reporters remembered hearing talk about it, but nothing more than rumors.
Now, as investigators gather information for Hillis' prosecution this summer, some are wondering if the Lords legend has a belated new chapter -- and if Tauzer's death might be a case of chickens coming home to roost.
It was already evident to some that the Kern County criminal justice system had a contradictory history when it came to homosexuals and violent crime.
Two seemingly soft sentences in homicide cases involving gay victims issued by Kern County courts, one in late 1982 and the other in 1984, got the attention of the state attorney general and helped inspire the creation of county civil rights commissions throughout California.
But at the same time, a number of well-connected local gay men -- accused of having unlawful sex with minors -- were never charged and seem to have escaped scrutiny or sanction almost entirely, according to a number of sources connected to the Lords legend.
Ironic, some might say, in a county known for its tough justice.
"This is similar to the good-old-boy network. The only difference is, if the good old boys are gay, then the good old gay boys are going to be the ones taking care of each other," Los Angeles area attorney Thomas F. Coleman said in a recent interview.
As a member of then-Attorney General John Van de Kamp's Commission on Racial, Ethnic, Religious and Minority Violence in the 1980s, Coleman informally investigated the William Robert Tyack and John Oren Biggs trials -- murder cases in which the defendants were alleged to have won sentence reductions because of the victims' homosexuality.
"What you're talking about is corruption, whether the victim is gay or not," said Coleman. "The presence of sexual orientation as a factor has, in the past at least, given the appearance of unequal treatment."
Five unusual murders over seven years, recounted in occasionally lurid detail by The Californian and others, combined with Lawler's tabloidesque analysis, makes for a smoldering body of fact, coincidence and conjecture. The characters intersect at interesting places -- and when they do, somebody occasionally turns up dead.
The first murder took place 25 years ago this month.
In many ways, Tommy Tarver was as unlike Steve Tauzer as he could be.
Tarver owned a fashionable hair salon on Bakersfield's F Street known as Mr. T Westchester. He'd been married twice but by the mid-1970s was living as a gay single man.
Among his supposed paramours, according to Californianreports at the time, was Robert Glen Mistriel, a 13-year-old male prostitute who'd been working the streets of Bakersfield and L.A. since age 11.
A gardener working in Tarver's yard the morning of Jan. 4, 1978, spotted blood seeping beneath the back door of the salon owner's Beech Street house. Police called to the scene found Tarver on the floor inside -- beaten, stabbed, nude and comatose.
He died five days later, having never regained consciousness.
By that time, suspicion had fallen on Mistriel. The youth had been stopped the day after the murder while driving Tarver's car, arrested and charged with burglarizing his home and salon. Mistriel admitted having had a key to the shop, according to The Californian .
A taxi driver testified he'd given Tarver, 49, and Mistriel a ride to the Rancho Bakersfield Motel coffee shop about 11:30 p.m. the night of the murder. An hour later, the cabbie said, he gave Tarver a ride home with a different man.
That man was a 24-year-old university student from Santa Rosa named William Kenneth Manly Jr. Manly had been passing through town and he'd registered at the Rancho Bakersfield Motel, falsely listing his profession as a representative for IBM.
Manly testified he'd met Tarver at the Rancho Bakersfield bar and agreed to go clubbing with him. But Tarver, the suspect said, first wanted to stop at his house and change clothes.
While they were there, Manly testified, two other men arrived and began arguing with Tarver. Manly went outside and sat on the front steps, and when he came back inside to get a jacket, according toThe Californian'strial coverage, Tarver was participating in a sex act with the taller of the two men.
Manly, who'd previously taken the opportunity to pocket some of Tarver's silverware, decided that would be a good time to leave.
At 2 a.m., Manly knocked on the door of a house about two blocks from Tarver's and asked to use the phone to call a cab. The couple living there made him wait outside while they placed the call; the next morning they found a silver teaspoon on the ground outside. It matched Tarver's set.
On Jan. 18, Manly was arrested and charged with Tarver's murder.
The trial began May 5, with then-Deputy District Attorney Clarence Westra at the prosecutor's table.
Deputy Public Defender John Ulman was convinced Mistriel, who was never charged with murder, was somehow involved and thought planting that seed in the jury's mind might be the best way to get a favorable verdict for his client. He tried to get the 13-year-old on the stand by granting him immunity for his testimony.
Failing that, Ulman hoped Municipal Court Judge Robert Baca would permit Mistriel to invoke in open court his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, reasoning that either option would prompt jurors to start thinking about alternate scenarios.
But Westra, according to The Californian's coverage, insisted Mistriel had had no role in the killing, and he convinced Baca to deny Ulman.
Mistriel took the Fifth outside the presence of the jury and never faced questioning -- although Ulman got the cab driver to testify that the youth had threatened to "take care of" Tarver if he crossed him. Mistriel, Ulman proposed, had set up Tarver to be killed.
Manly was acquitted of murder but convicted of first-degree burglary. He was sentenced to three years in prison in July 1978 and paroled after 19 months. His family, which operates a prominent auto dealership in Santa Rosa, hasn't responded to numerous requests for information about Manly's whereabouts.
Mistriel, meanwhile, was sentenced to six months at the Kern Youth Facility for burglarizing Tarver's house and shop.
By the following autumn, he was back on the street.
Death of a school girl
Like Steve Tauzer, Glen Fitts was a private, soft-spoken, widely respected law-and-order advocate.
Like Steve Tauzer, he had a close personal relationship with at least one troubled young man.
And, like Steve Tauzer, almost every cop in town knew Glen Fitts' name.
Fitts had taught a good number of them how to be police officers during the 1960s and '70s, either at Bakersfield College, where he'd been a police science instructor, or at the Bakersfield Police Academy, where he served as training coordinator. Many others knew him through his work as Bakersfield's police commissioner.
The few who didn't recognize his name became familiar with it in 1979.
On April 9, during Easter break from Highland High School, 14-year-old Dana Charlene Butler disappeared. Her body turned up three days later, with 30 or 40 shallow knife wounds and two deep, lethal wounds. She'd been dumped near the Old Corral Cafe just west of Hart Park.
Investigators concluded she'd been at Fitts' house on or about April 10, along with other teens. It seemed Fitts -- 56, recently widowed and terribly lonely -- had started hanging out in Siemon Park, near his home, talking to kids. He invited them to his house in northeast Bakersfield, where marijuana, beer and cocktails were free for the asking.
All he asked in return, according to reports in The Californian, was sex -- with some of the boys, at least. A 17-year-old named Richie Fralick was one of his favorites.
Fitts threw a birthday party for one of his teen-age friends one night during spring break, and he invited about 20 teens between the ages of 14 and 18. Butler, who'd been among a group of girls that met him one day at a pizza parlor, is thought to have attended. No one saw her alive again.
Investigators found Fitts' pubic hair on Butler's body, as well as dog hairs matching both of his dogs. (Even in those pre-DNA days, microscopic matching of that sort was considered sufficiently reliable.)
They found blood matching her blood type in Fitts' house, and neighbors told investigators Fitts had replaced bathroom carpeting and plumbing fixtures the day after Butler disappeared.
Friends who'd met him for dinner at the Rancho Bakersfield coffee shop on April 11 said he'd seemed jumpy, and he adamantly refused to let anyone near his car in the parking lot, according to newspaper reports.
Why no murder charges?
Investigators gathered evidence and presented it to District Attorney Al Leddy on April 30. Sheriff Al Loustalot was so confident they had their man, he told reporters at an unrelated event that same day that they could expect an arrest by the next morning.
It never happened.
Leddy eventually referred the case to the grand jury, which interviewed a parade of people, including Fitts and the plumber who'd worked at Fitts' house. But, after consulting with deputy district attorneys, the grand jury declined to indict anyone in the case.
Undersheriff Loren Fote said he was "disappointed" that Leddy had chosen not to file a complaint and promised investigators would pursue lesser charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and furnishing marijuana -- if murder charges were not filed.
BPD Capt. Bob Patterson, head of the BPD's detective unit (and later to become chief of police), said the police were also looking into filing those charges. He, too, toldThe Californian he believed there was sufficient evidence to file murder charges against the still-unnamed suspect, and said he was baffled why the D.A.'s office and grand jury both refused to do so.
"I have to believe there's something I don't know about," he said as the controversy built that spring. "I do know what information has been presented" in investigative reports.
He remains baffled today.
"We never could quite figure out the holdup," said Patterson, now retired.
The secret everyone knew
For two weeks, police cars were parked around Fitts' house in a bizarre stakeout probably never before seen in the well-kept, middle- class neighborhood. (Fitts lived two doors down from then-Assemblyman Don Rogers, the former Bakersfield city councilman who'd nominated him as police commissioner four years earlier.)
More than a month after the murder, however, The Californianstill had not published Fitts' name in connection with the case. Editors would wait for an arrest.
The rest of the city was fully aware of the suspect's name, it seemed.
On May 17-18, a group of 200 parents dubbed Mothers of Bakersfield picketed in front of the suspect's house, the Kern County Administration building and the courts building and announced plans to seek Leddy's recall.
Rumor that The Californian was part of a cover-up was apparently so pervasive that on May 20, then-Assistant Managing Editor Owen Kearns Jr. wrote a page A1 editor's note explaining why Fitts' name had been withheld in connection with the investigation.
"There was far more danger of being accused of a coverup had we not run the story at all than in running the story and leaving out several elements," Kearns wrote. " ... I would state emphatically that there has been no pressure from official agencies, private organizations or any individual to keep us from publishing information on this case."
It was the fear of a libel suit, not any conspiratorial pressure, Kearns explained in December 2002, that prompted the abundance of caution.
Fitts was finally identified by name in the newspaper May 22, the day after he was arrested on suspicion of furnishing drugs to minors and related misdemeanor offenses.
But the Mothers of Bakersfield wanted more.
Leddy refused to satisfy them. He told KUZZ radio he preferred not to prosecute a suspect "for dumping a body along a road" if investigators could later develop information that might lead to a murder charge.
The following week, one possible reason for the D.A'.s unwillingness to indict Fitts (or anyone else) for the murder became clear: The county coroner's office had failed to take time-of-death tests on Butler's body.
Sheriff's officials told The Californianthey assumed the coroner would take crucial body-temperature readings; the coroner said such tests weren't taken unless they were specifically requested. By the time investigators realized what had happened, it was too late. The body, too cold for useful evaluation, was cremated.
Investigators also were troubled by the theory that Fitts, who had a heart condition, probably could not have committed the murder, or disposed of the body, by himself.
The 'eerie' suicide note
A week after the pickets laid siege to the courthouse, Fitts was charged with three felony counts of providing marijuana to minors and four other charges.
A few days later, he shot himself in the head, leaving behind a letter that seemed to have been unfinished -- a suicide note the sheriff described as "eerie."
"Dana Butler was last scene (sic) in front of a church between 11:30 and 12:30 on April 9. I, on the morning of April 9, was home waiting for ..." And there it ended.
Fitts "was like Santa Claus to those kids," Bakersfield attorney Milt Younger, who represented Fitts, recalled last month. "The kids used him, used his house. He could no more commit that murder than a jack rabbit could. He was a weak old man.
"They just hounded that old man until he killed himself."
Fitts was named in a $5 million wrongful death lawsuit brought by Butler's parents. Ultimately, James E. Brown, the attorney for Butler's family, secured a $5,000 judgment against the Fitts estate and $50,000 from an insurance company.
Fralick, who told investigators he was Fitts' gay companion and one of the people at the Rancho Bakersfield coffee shop the evening of April 11, was named as a co-defendant in the Butler family's civil suit, and then dropped.
Today, Fralick -- who turns 41 this month -- lives in the Los Angeles area and sells used cars at a tiny lot on Hollywood Boulevard. He now calls himself Jeff.
"I'm writing a book about all this," he said in November.
The Dana Butler case remains unsolved. It's one of just a couple that Brown, of the law firm Clifford & Brown, said will always stay with him.
"It had the most intriguing, perplexing set of circumstances I've ever been involved with," Brown said. "... it had enough tentacles to make an octopus -- I just couldn't get them all to connect."
That observation might aptly summarize the entire Lords legend.
"The more I think back about it, the more I wonder if (the Butler case had) a common thread that runs through some of these other cases," Brown said. "I don't know where the connection is. I guess it's just a feeling. "
The Gatsby-like publisher
There was clearly a common thread between two of the so-called "Lords" cases. That thread was Robert Mistriel.
When Edwin A. Buck, personnel director for Kern County, was murdered on July 17, 1981, police almost immediately arrested Mistriel. It didn't take long for investigators to make the connection: Seems Mistriel had a tendency to drive around in cars owned by middle-aged gay men, including two who'd recently been murdered.
Mistriel said he'd met Buck in Beach Park, a notorious gathering place for gay men looking for action, according to coverage from that time in The Californian.
At his murder trial two years later, Mistriel testified that he'd slept with many homosexual men of prominence, including two he'd lived with and worked for: Alfred "Ted" Fritts and Stan Harper.
Fritts, whom Mistriel described as "my best friend," was The Californian'seditor and co-owner -- and a party host of Gatsby-like proportions. His mansion at the corner of Oleander Avenue and Chester Lane in Bakersfield, nestled among many of the city's most historic homes, was the scene of frequent social events.
According to people close to Fritts at the time, then-Gov. Jerry Brown was known to have visited; so had then-Sen. Alan Cranston, presidential daughter Maureen Reagan and Randolph Duke, the clothing designer. Steve Perry and his mates from the rock band Journey stopped by. Actress Dyan Cannon once visited, using the occasion to pitch a movie project. Actress Sally Kellerman and columnist Ann Landers, who knew Fritts through the Hereditary Disease Foundation, were guests on separate occasions. Singer Barry Manilow showed up.
So did local politicians.
The parties came in many flavors, all generally kept separate, including: gatherings for Fritts' neighbors in the area; his employees at The Californian;his fellow Willamette (Ore.) University alumni; his friends in local theater; his famous acquaintances in politics and entertainment; and his gay friends -- old, young and younger.
"Ted was the catalyst, and a willing participant," said Matthew Gardner, a close friend of the late publisher who recalls seeing a number of prominent Bakersfield men at the wilder parties.
Mistriel was there, too, working as a "waiter." In a 1999 letter addressed "to whom it may concern" and written from state prison, Mistriel said he dressed in shorts and matching tank top, served drinks and generally tended to the needs of the male guests -- some of whom, he said, were in local government and law enforcement. Mistriel's letter has made the rounds among several Bakersfield attorneys and others.
Fritts gave Mistriel a job at The Californian, allowed Mistriel to live with him briefly at the Oleander mansion, and permitted Mistriel to have frequent use of his luxury cars. ("The Jaguar was Robert's favorite," Mistriel's former wife, Thelma Chapman said.)
The political operative
Harper is a businessman and freelance political operative who made a name for himself guiding Don Rogers' first two Assembly campaigns in 1978 and 1980. He was accused of driving a wedge between conservative and moderate Republicans in 1980, when he allegedly tried to recruit a primary-election opponent for Rep. Bill Thomas.
Over the years Harper has continued to manage the political campaigns of conservative (or non-Thomas camp) Kern County office-seekers. Current District Attorney Ed Jagels is among his most noteworthy and longstanding political clients.
Harper was in the news for another reason during that time. In November 1979, a 19-year neighbor, Michael Joseph Banducci, tried to blackmail him with a threatening letter remarkable for its blunt gracelessness:
"Stan, I know you are gay and Mark (Manda, Harper's 22-year-old housemate) is bisexual, but who gives a (expletive)? But some important people do. I am blackmailing you." Banducci demanded $15,000; Harper called the authorities.
Tauzer prosecuted the case and got Banducci sentenced to two years in prison for attempted extortion. Some have questioned why the D.A.'s office didn't recuse itself considering the Harper/Jagels connection.
In 1980, according to court documents, Harper later won a $225,000 civil judgment for damages connected to the attempted extortion.
Mistriel claims to have been part of Harper's life in those days, too. In his Buck murder trial testimony, Mistriel alluded to a relationship with Harper and one of Harper's friends, Bakersfield merchant Hurbert "Eli" Elias.
Mistriel said he lived with Harper briefly and worked for him as a janitor.
He also testified that he ended his relationship with Harper and Elias because he felt used. However, Mistriel remained on friendly terms with Fritts -- who died of AIDS in 1997 -- until his arrest following Buck's murder.
By that time, Mistriel said, he'd had sex with at least 150 men.
The last days of Ed Buck
Like Steve Tauzer, Ed Buck was a respected administrator who inspired both loyalty and, on occasion, fear. Matters of importance went through his office.
And, like Tauzer, he occasionally enjoyed the company of much-younger men.
For Buck, one of those men was Robert Mistriel. But, at least according to Mistriel's testimony in the summer of 1983, Buck failed to get as close to Mistriel as the older man would have liked.
Mistriel testified that he'd met Buck two years earlier, at age 15, in a Beach Park restroom, and he'd had dinner at Buck's home on one occasion -- using the opportunity to steal money and tools. But he hadn't slept with him, Mistriel said.
Mistriel testified that when Buck, the county's personnel director, made a half-hearted attempt to blackmail him into a tryst, suggesting he could have Mistriel arrested for the burglary, the 17-year-old decided to teach him a lesson.
According to Mistriel's testimony,he recruited a friend, 18-year-old Roy Matthew Camenisch, and they laid out a plan to kill Buck one Friday night. On the pretense of going for a midsummer night's drive out to Lake Isabella, Mistriel chauffeured Buck out onto Bakersfield-Glennville Road, the northern extension of North Chester Avenue. Camenisch followed, unbeknownst to Buck.
At a properly secluded spot, Mistriel pulled over. Camenisch, high on LSD, pulled in front of them, turned off his headlights and got out. Mistriel got out and walked up to him -- attempting, he testified, to talk Camenisch out of it. Camenisch couldn't be swayed.
Then, with Mistriel supposedly sitting in Camenisch's car, where he wouldn't have to watch the carnage, Camenisch walked back to where Buck was still seated and, in the darkness, stabbed him, battered his head with a hammer -- the same sort of implement thought to have been the Tarver murder weapon -- and slit his throat. Having found the ground too hard to dig a grave, the two young men stuffed Buck's body in the car's trunk.
They parked the car in the garage of Buck's place on Pinewood Lake Drive, stole some things from the home, started a fire that eventually gutted much of the house, and got back to Camenisch's girlfriend's house in time to watch the last half of a midnight sci-fi movie, "It Conquered the World."
Investigators found Buck's charred body in the trunk of his incinerated car on July 20, three days after the murder.
Two murders -- one hustler
Mistriel and Camenisch were arrested two days later.
Camenisch's case looked like a straightforward prosecution, but Mistriel -- ordered to stand trial as an adult -- posed a problem. Defense attorneys Robert Vandernoor and Robert Cook feared that the prominence of the victim, along with Mistriel's alleged links to the unsolved Tarver murder and sensationalized aspects of Mistriel's "profession," would make a fair trial unattainable in Kern County.
The case had already generated a tremendous amount of publicity: 72 percent to 79 percent of the public was familiar with the case, according to a poll, and 50 percent knew it had a homosexual aspect.
Superior Court Judge John M. Nairn agreed to move the trial to Riverside County, with Westra prosecuting the case.
Mistriel's alleged but unspecified role in hairdresser Tommy Tarver's murder three-and-a-half years earlier resurfaced. That he was somehow involved in that earlier killing was presented by Camenisch's attorneys in court documents as undisputed fact.
Mistriel, still just 17, named several alleged adult lovers in painting a grim picture of his upbringing.
The son of an absent father and an alcoholic mother, he was molested by an older brother at the age of 6, endured his parents' divorce at age 8 and became involved in prostitution at age 11. By the time he was 13, he was working as a homosexual hustler on Hollywood's Sunset Strip and elsewhere.
While working as a prostitute out of the Rancho Bakersfield motel, Camenisch's attorneys said at their client's 1983 murder trial, Mistriel was "involved as a perpetrator or co-perpetrator" in Tarver's bludgeoning death four years earlier. Over the years, Mistriel himself has given different stories: At one time, he admitted having been present at Tarver's murder, but today he maintains he was not.
In asking the court to unseal the Tarver files, Camenisch's attorneys claimed Mistriel had had sexual relations with both Tarver and Buck (charges Mistriel confirmed in a phone conversation in November), and that the earlier case might yield relevant clues to the more recent one. Dean Rice, deputy to then-Bakersfield City Attorney Richard Oberholzer, tried unsuccessfully to block their efforts.
Oberholzer, now a Superior Court judge, said recently he can't recall the details of the case and didn't want to try to guess why the city might have cared at the time. Rice couldn't be located.
The defense strategy bore little fruit, however, and on April 6, 1983, Camenisch pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. He received life without the possibility of parole.
Three months later, on July 8, 1983, Mistriel was convicted of first-degree murder by a Riverside jury.
At Mistriel's Dec. 20 sentencing, Riverside County Superior Court Judge J. William Mortland described Mistriel as "totally amoral." Mistriel, by that time 19, got 31 years to life in prison.
He remains incarcerated at Corcoran State Prison and in recent interviews continues to maintain that he had sex with Bakersfield men who were then -- and in some cases still are -- in positions of power.
Powerful men never charged
Left unresolved is why none of the adult men Mistriel named in his testimony -- people like Fritts, Harper, Elias or Los Angeles County businessman Darrel Tavelli, all of whom Mistriel had previously told his probation officer about -- were prosecuted for unlawful sex with a minor.
His probation officer, Sally Rockholt, testified in 1983 that Mistriel had told her of his liaisons with adult men. But that seems to have been where it ended.
"Truthfully, back then we looked at it as sort of just rumor, speculation, innuendo," Rockholt said earlier this month. "We had no corroboration. What we did was work with the kid to show him the destructiveness of that lifestyle (as a prostitute).
"We (probation department officials) talked a lot at the time about what we could do to protect the kid, protect the community. Obviously, we failed."
Not that law enforcement officials didn't know about some of the men anyway.
Fritts, at least, was warned by vice officers about his brazen liaisons at Beach Park and elsewhere.
"They caught (Fritts) in places where he had mutual friends, you might say," said former BPD Chief Robert Patterson.
None of the men named by Mistriel ever publicly denied the factual basis of his testimony and none appears to have been investigated, or charged, for having unlawful sex with a minor.
Elias and Tavelli could not be reached for comment. Harper did not respond to interview requests. And Jagels has refused to answer any questions for these stories, including a specific question regarding his longtime political affiliation with Harper -- and whether that affiliation came to bear when and if Jagels ever considered charging Harper in connection with Mistriel's claims.
Given the popularity of Fritts' parties and the common belief among certain county personnel department employees that Buck was almost certainly gay, more reliable witnesses may not have been difficult to find.
(One former personnel department employee enjoyed telling the story of the day he and a co-worker went to downtown Bakersfield's Greyhound bus station at lunchtime, suspecting their boss would be there, trying to meet young gay men. They had Buck paged -- then sat back and guffawed as Buck, mortified, darted out the front door.)
Thelma Chapman, a former teacher of Mistriel's who married him in prison in 1985, acknowledged that Mistriel could be manipulative -- he'd developed that skill for survival's sake, she said.
But, after two decades in prison, he'd have no reason to lie about the basic circumstances of his life, she said.
"I found him to be a believable person and a kind person," said Chapman, who was legally separated from Mistriel in 1995. Their divorce was finalized in 1997 -- but not before Mistriel shared bitter memories with her, repeating the names and places he cited in that 1999 letter.
Mistriel canceled his first parole hearing at Corcoran, set for October 2002, apparently believing he had virtually no chance of gaining release. His next hearing is in four years.
A secret life, public death
Fourteen months after Ed Buck's 1981 murder, Bobby Mistriel was sitting in a jail cell, waiting for his trial to begin. And Nurl Renfro was entertaining young men, sometimes at his mountain cabin, sometimes at his house on Elm Street in the city's downtown neighborhood.
Renfro was a 50-year-old millionaire who'd once harbored political aspirations. Eight years before, in 1974, he'd run for county assessor against Milton "Spartacus" Miller and incumbent Herbert E. Roberts. Roberts routed both challengers, outdistancing Renfro, the last-place finisher, by a 3-to-1 margin.
Renfro consoled himself by building a successful business empire: He owned Gold Coast Realty & Investment, which had several valley and Central Coast offices, and he co-owned My Telephone Secretary & Doctors Exchange answering service.
Like Steve Tauzer, Renfro carried himself in such a way that many who associated with him on a regular basis suspected nothing unusual in his after-hours activities.
In Renfro's case, that included his partner in the answering service business, who testified he had no idea Renfro was gay.
Like Steve Tauzer, Renfro seems to have sought the companionship of young men -- though the two men went about it in drastically different ways.
On Dec. 19, 1982, Renfro's guest was 18-year-old John Oren Biggs, who'd answered Renfro's classified ad for a live-in caretaker. The men shot billiards in the rec room of Renfro's curiously fortified house, which had metal grids on the windows and curtains that neighbors said were always drawn.
Renfro had a few cocktails. Then, according to Biggs, Renfro grabbed him in an aggressively sexual way. Biggs pushed Renfro away -- then, for reasons not fully explained, continued playing pool with his drunken host. But when Renfro made a second pass, Biggs testified, he picked up a fireplace poker and bashed Renfro over the head 40 times.
Biggs stole some cash, drove away in Renfro's 1980 Olds Toronado and contacted a friend, William Harold Blankenship, also 18.
They returned to Renfro's house and wheeled away a small safe. Hours later, they successfully cut it open with a torch -- and were disappointed to find just a few assorted documents and some photos of men, both nude and clothed.
At Biggs' trial before Judge William A. Stone, defense attorney Clayton Adams found three other young men who said Renfro had made unwanted sexual advances. Two had answered ads offering work; one had been raped. Jurors visited Renfro's house and saw that certain rooms, including the rec room, lacked interior door knobs; the doors opened only with a deadbolt key. The implication was that visitors left when Renfro was ready for them to leave.
Prosecutor Dan Sparks successfully convicted Biggs of robbery, burglary and car theft, but the jury deadlocked between first- and second-degree murder. Sparks said the district attorney would pursue a new trial, and in late July, with a new judge, Lewis King, and new defense attorney, Joseph Giuffre, it got under way.
The attorney general steps in
The verdict, announced on Sept. 12, 1984, was a shock: Biggs was guilty, but not of murder. The conviction was for voluntary manslaughter, and Biggs -- sentenced to seven years, four months -- eventually served less than three-and-a-half years. (He returned to prison three times over the next 10 years, however, and was finally discharged from parole in 1998. His present whereabouts are unknown.)
The manslaughter conviction outraged many people, including some who identified themselves as gay.
Leading the charge was Bakersfield attorney Marshall Jacobson, who brought in Thomas Coleman, a civil rights attorney from Los Angeles. Coleman, alleging that homosexual victims of violent crimes tended to be shortchanged by the Kern County criminal justice system, convinced the state Attorney General's Office to take a closer look.
There was certainly fodder for debate.
Equally galling to some was the 1981 case of William Robert Tyack.
Tyack had been convicted of one count of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting deaths of two unarmed gay neighbors following a confrontation on an isolated mountain road.
The killings took place two weeks after the Buck murder, and Tyack testified that he feared becoming the victim of a similar attack -- even with the advantage of a firearm.
The civil rights inquiry helped build steam for then-Attorney General John Van de Kamp's campaign against "hate violence." In 1986, Van de Kamp called for enhanced criminal penalties in cases involving violence and intimidation against certain groups. He specifically proposed funding for county human relations centers, which would work with local schools, police, community groups and victims of bigotry-linked violence. Kern County created its own commission in October 1990.
Marshall Jacobson, who'd been at the forefront of the fight, didn't live to see it.
Mentor's help came at a price
"Crime in Bakersfield is rapidly getting out of control," Marshall Jacobson announced before the Bakersfield City Council in late 1981. He had hoped to convince the council to make the Kern County Crime Commission, a one-year advisory committee on which he served, a permanent fixture. The City Council turned him down.
Seventeen months later, Jacobson was dead himself -- a victim of the same sort of violence that had so concerned him.
Jacobson, a 48-year-old millionaire real estate and criminal defense attorney, was stabbed to death on Dec. 20, 1984 -- almost two years to the day after Renfro was murdered. Jacobson's former lover/protege/housemate, Randy Ray Backen, then 19, was arrested.
Jacobson had met Backen at the city's Greyhound bus station and offered him a place to live. For the next eight months or so, they shared Jacobson's house in southwest Bakersfield, just off Ming Avenue.
Jacobson, like Tauzer, tried to provide for his protege's every need -- monetary, emotional or otherwise.
Jacobson, who enrolled Backen in Bakersfield Adult School, supplied food, lodging and tuition. But there was a price: household chores -- and sex.
Bakersfield police knew Jacobson was gay and some had privately expressed concern about his participation on the crime commission given "his known background," according to unnamed BPD official quoted by The Californian in 1983.
Police once considered charging Jacobson with sexual misconduct with a boy, but the juvenile was reluctant to testify and charges were never filed, according to that Californianarticle.
Backen granted The Californiana jailhouse interview almost a year after the murder. "I'm not a homosexual," Backen said. "It was something I had to do to have a roof over my head."
Jacobson had hired Backen at the Bakersfield Law Center, which Jacobson ran, and at times "was like a father" to him. But their physical relationship "disgusted him," Backen said.
When Backen skipped school for two straight days to look for a job, a violation of their agreement, Jacobson kicked him out of the house.
Backen, still fuming a week later, came back with a 14-year-old neighbor, Trion Blaine Hunt. Backen told the boy he intended to kill and rob his one-time mentor. Hunt, who professed not to have taken Backen seriously, waited outside. Backen later claimed the boy "egged him on"; Hunt family members questioned how a 14-year-old boy might have had such influence over a 19-year-old.
In any case, Backen knocked on the front door, and Jacobson ordered him to leave. Backen hopped a fence and went in the back, through an unlocked sliding-glass door. Jacobson demanded to know what Backen wanted; the teen said he had something he needed to talk to him about, and he led Jacobson down a hallway toward a bedroom.
Then, abruptly, he spun around and stabbed Jacobson in the belly with the double-edged hunting knife Hunt had loaned him. Then Backen stabbed him again and again -- 10 or 11 times in all, by his count.
Hunt expressed amazement when he saw what Backen had done -- but then he started loading stereo equipment into the back of Jacobson's 1983 Cadillac El Dorado.
That night, Backen drove Jacobson's car into Los Angeles and sold it to two men for what he believed was a packet of heroin. Then he went to the North Hollywood bus depot and telephoned a friend of Jacobson's, who promised to help him escape to Mexico but instead called police.
The defendant waffles
Backen pleaded guilty, then changed his mind about it.
He parted ways with his attorneys, Michael Sprague and Robert Birchfield, and attempted to withdraw his plea. He says he fired them; they say they asked the court to relieve them as soon as Backen began making false statements about them.
Backen based his demand for new representation, he said, on jailhouse gossip: A cellmate told him he'd seen Sprague in gay bars. Backen said he therefore believed Sprague could not represent him fairly in a case in which the victim was gay.
Sprague, who died in 2001, denied he was gay, and he later won a libel judgement from a fellow attorney who'd made similar accusations.
Attorney Lee Felice, now a Superior Court judge (and, coincidentally, the judge who ordered Lance Hillis into a drug rehabilitation facility prior to Lance's death) was appointed to represent Backen.
Judge Gerald K. Davis did not allow the plea change, however, and in the end, Deputy District Attorney Stephen P. Gildner was victorious: Backen was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Backen, who's now known as Randy Ray DeCicco, is in Corcoran State Prison.
Hunt, represented by attorney Jay Christopher Smith, was convicted of four counts of burglary -- and first-degree murder. Despite a California Youth Authority presentencing evaluation that found him to be a criminally unsophisticated follower in need of schooling and counseling, Judge John M. Nairn sentenced Hunt to eight years in the CYA system.
Hunt was paroled in May 1993, violated parole six months later and served almost two additional years. He was released in June 1995, two months after his 25th birthday.
Now a recovering heroin addict, Hunt, 32, was living at a Salvation Army detox facility in Los Angeles as of November 2002. "This whole thing ruined my life," he said recently.
The alleged photos: 'Drop it'
The day after the murder, Marshall Jacobson's brother, Norman Jacobson, searched Jacobson's home on Lamar Court. According to court records, he discovered, among other things, photographs described as showing Jacobson and other "persons known to Jacobson" in compromising positions with other males.
Norman Jacobson apparently intended to destroy the photos, but Tony K. Moore, a friend and employee of the slain attorney who accompanied the brother on his search, held on to them, according to a statement attributed to Coleman in Jacobson's probate file.
Coleman -- the civil rights attorney, now brought in as special administrator of Marshall Jacobson's estate -- urged that the photos be preserved in case they were needed in the criminal trial.
Since Backen was persuaded to plead guilty, there was no trial. And there's no mention of the photos in any court files, other than Jacobson's probate file.
Moore, who now lives in another state, won't say what became of the photos.
"Drop it," he said. "Let sleeping dogs lie. You don't even know what you're getting yourself into."
Two more for the Lords file?
It's been nearly two decades since the Jacobson murder, and until the Tauzer case, no subsequent crime seemed to have much in common with the Lords killings of the 1970s and '80s.
The 1998 Sid Sheffield murder case, which shares only a few elements of the murders outlined in the Lords legend, may become part of the defense strategy for accused Tauzer killer Chris Hillis.
Kyle Humphrey, Hillis' attorney, said he's still developing a strategy, but he acknowledges potential in this avenue of inquiry: Could Tauzer's alleged homosexuality have contributed to his own death in a way that parallels that of Sheffield?
Sheffield, a prominent local education and health activist, was found stabbed to death in his mobile home off Columbus Street. When the investigation stalled, police revealed details about Sheffield's life that painted a picture decidedly different from the public image: He was allegedly gay.
"We are going to look at all angles in our defense," Humphrey said. "We'll examine where Mr. Tauzer could have gone (the night of Sept. 13) in that (late-night) time frame. We've had several murdered gay men in the past few years, and a lot of it had to do with lifestyle. So we'll explore everything."
The Tauzer and Sheffield cases bear a few similarities. Sheffield was also white, educated, lived primarily alone and was attacked with a knife. The two murder victims were close in age. However, Sheffield's after-hours activities suggest a promiscuous lifestyle. At the time the investigation moved into the inactive file, detectives were asking about a young man in a cowboy hat Sheffield may have met in a bar.
The cases have important differences, too. Sheffield was robbed. Tauzer, so far as investigators have allowed the public to learn, was not. Sheffield had no known enemies. Tauzer potentially had many. Sheffield was social. Tauzer was private.
Unlike the Tauzer case, there's been no arrest in the Sheffield case.
Whether either murder belongs alongside the Lords of Bakersfield cases of past years remains to be seen. The Tauzer case seems to have more connections; it clearly has more potential to make life uncomfortable for highly placed individuals.
Two acquaintances of the defendant, speaking at separate times and places, had this identical observation: "Chris Hillis knows where all the D.A.'s skeletons are buried."
If the conspiracy theorists are right, that may amount to a lot of skeletons.
Note: Original package of stories published Jan. 19, 2003.