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Saturday, Oct 03 2009 01:55 PM

Kern's longest serving DA to step down, speaks on controversial career

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    By Casey Christie

    Casey Christie / The Californian District Attorney Ed Jagels in his downtown office.

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    By Casey Christie

    Casey Christie / The Californian District Attorney Ed Jagels busy during a phone conversation in his downtown office

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    By Casey Christie

    District Attorney Ed Jagels in his downtown office.

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    By Casey Christie

    District Attorney Ed Jagels on the telephone in his downtown office.

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    By Felix Adamo

    Helen Woolley hugs Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels outside the courtroom after a verdict in 2004.

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    By Dan Ocampo

    Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels talks to the media after a press conference at the Kern County Sheriff's department regarding the arrest of Christopher Hillis for the murder of Kern County Assistant District Attorney Stephen Tauzer.

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    By Henry A. Barrios

    District Attorney Ed Jagesl and then-Sheriff Carl Sparks outside the home of Assistant District Attorney Stephen M. Tauzer on September 15, 2002. Tauzer was found stabbed to death inside his garage. Henry A. Barrios/The Californian District Attorney Ed Jagels, right, and Kern County Sherriff Carl Sparks, left, at the scene of a possible homicide on the 5600 block Brooks in Bakersfield.

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    By Henry A. Barrios

    Henry A. Barrios / The Californian California State parole agent Eric Martinez, left, briefs Kern County D.A. Ed Jagels, center, and D.A. Investigator Julie Gaines before a team of officers look for a gang member during a sweep of gang members in Bakersfield in early 2009.

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    Abuse cases in the 1980s prompted the state Attorney General's office to recommend several Kern agencies, including the District Attorney's office led by Ed Jagels, adopt new procedures for dealing with victims and suspects.

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    By Dan Ocampo

    Dan Ocampo/The Californian Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels in Superior Court in 2000.

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    By Dan Ocampo

    ED JAGELS -DEATH PENALTY FILES. CAPTION: Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels stands in a storage room filled with death penaly files

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    Peggy Worthy, who was trying to get child support for her 14- year-old son, listens to Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels during an Association for Children's Enforcement par-of Support protest outside Jagels' office in 1998.

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    By Felix Adamo

    Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels took a moment to talk with Megan Maxwell the daughter of Richard Maxwell, after ceremonies at the Peace Officers Memorial in May 2006.

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    By John Harte

    Then-Deputy District Attorney Ed Jagels speaks at a forum sponsored by The Californian in his first race for district attorney in 1982. Californian editor and co-publisher Ted Fritts is seated at left. The forum became a water shed event in Jagels' campaign for a first term. District Attorney candidate Edward Jagels speaks during the 1982 candidates' forum. At left is Ted Fritts of The Bakersfield Californian. (Note: I cannot remember Ted's title at the time, I believe it was editor...jh) Photo by John Harte/Californian staff

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    District Attorney Ed Jagels

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District Attorney Ed Jagels, who is a household name in Kern County where he's been the chief law enforcement officer for 27 years, has confirmed he will not run for re-election in 2010.

As news bombshells, that ranks low. His departure has been expected since 2007. That's when Chief Deputy District Attorney Lisa Green announced she was interested in the job.

Related Info


* Larry Kusuth Hazlett Jr., 56, was convicted in 2004 of murdering a young Rosamond woman in 1978. It wasn't until 1999 that DNA evidence on a blanket in her apartment led to Hazlett as a suspect. Hazlett was sentenced to death of the killing of 20-year-old Tana Woolley. She was crowned Miss Rosamond in 1976.

* David Leslie Murtishaw was sentenced to death in 2002 for the third time in the 1978 killings of three University of Southern California film students. Jagels said he didn't think other offices would try for a third time, but Murtishaw's crimes were worth the penalty.

* Bob Russell Williams Jr. was 18 years old when he admitted in 1994 to raping, stabbing and strangling 40-year-old Mary Rose Beck at her home in The Oaks. Despite asserting that Williams had a rough childhood himself, a jury in 1996 convicted him of capital crimes and he was sentenced to death.


Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels

Grew up in the Pasadena-area enclave of San Marino

His father, George Daniel Jagels, an attorney and businessman, helped found the Leakey Foundation.

Graduate, Stanford University and UC Hastings College of Law

In April 1975, joined the staff of Kern County District Attorney Al Leddy

After Leddy announced his retirement, Jagels won an election against then-Superior Court Judge Marvin Ferguson. Jagels became Kern County's top prosecutor in 1983 and has run unopposed ever since.

Quickly developed reputation as a tough-on-crime prosecutor. His name was bandied about as a potential Republican candidate for state office.

In 1982, he was the Kern County co-chairman of Proposition 8, the "Victims Bill of Rights, " which passed in June of that year.

In the 1980s, Kern County and its DA's office gained national attention when satanism allegations emerged against defendants Jagels was prosecuting in the molestation ring cases. The allegations included infant sacrifice, ritualized cannibalism and wholesale sexual abuse. No corroboration was ever found for the satanism allegations, but they harmed the credibility of the original molestation charges.

The state attorney general's office, defense attorneys, memory experts and journalists have since criticized the handling of essentially all of the molestation ring cases.

Convictions in the cases fell apart after a flood of victims recanted. Reasons included flawed interview techniques, legal technicalities and prosecutorial misconduct.

In 1986, Jagels led a successful statewide campaign to remove Rose Bird and two other justices from the California Supreme Court over their opposition to the death penalty.

Jagels boasts that Kern County has had the highest per-capita prison commitment rate of any major California county.

In 1994, appointed to the Governor's Law Enforcement Steering Committee

In 1995, appointed the chairman of the Attorney General's Policy Council on Violence Prevention.

"Mean Justice, " a national best-selling book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes, is published in 1999. Humes charged Jagels' office too often prosecuted innocent defendants. Jagels said the book is nonsense.

In fall 2002, Stephen Tauzer, Jagels' longtime friend and top deputy, was found stabbed to death in Tauzer's garage. A month later, Chris Hillis, a former investigator in Jagels' office, was charged with Tauzer's murder.

Despite rumors that he might retire, Jagels won re-election in 2006.

Sources: Californian archives; Sacramento Bee; Kern County District Attorney Web site, California attorney general's Web site

Jagels, however, didn't publicly confirm his retirement until a recent, wide-ranging interview with The Californian.

Over the course of his long tenure as district attorney, Jagels frequently landed in the public spotlight as a lightning rod for controversy.

He proudly embraced his "tough on crime" approach. His campaign slogan was "ask a cop," implying that his tough stance on crime had the support of police and deputies.

"This is a law enforcement county and Ed Jagels is a law enforcement DA," former Kern County Sheriff Carl Sparks said.

There can be no arguing Jagels' office locks a lot of people up.

Stastistics show Kern County puts more people behind bars per capita than all but one county in the state. Kern's rate is 3 and 1/2 times that of San Francisco County.

That has earned him critics.

In 1999 the book "Mean Justice" was published, alleging that Jagels fostered a longstanding pattern of overzealous prosecutions. Many local defense attorneys agreed.

Throughout it all, Jagels remained at the helm, running unopposed for six times after his initial victory in 1982.

"We have not been overzealous -- but I hope we've been zealous," Jagels replied.

His tenure definitely included the prosecution of heinous criminals. There was Vincent Brothers, who killed five people including his three young children. And Juan Villa Ramirez, who brutally murdered Arvin High football star Chad Yarbrough. And Charles Ray Hall, the so-called Oildale rapist, who attacked a series of women in their homes.

But Jagels also was dogged by a string of discredited child molestation ring cases, the killing of his number two man by a former district attorney investigator, and allegations that he was part a group of powerful, gay men known as The Lords of Bakersfield.


There were eight molestation ring cases with 46 defendants charged between 1982 and 1985. Many were convicted and some sent to prison for hundreds of years. Jagels applauded his prosecution teams.

But in 1986 the state Attorney General's Office stepped in and declared that the children were improperly questioned. The state report said investigators all but put words in the children's mouths.

In the years that followed, appellate courts overturned most of the convictions. Prosecutorial misconduct was a factor in a couple cases. Many children recanted.

Jagels said he now accepts that mistakes were made in those cases.

His perspective is that those cases came at a time when investigative techniques and prosecutions were "in their infancy" after decades of sweeping that crime under the rug, he said. The flaws included too many interviews and "inherently suggestive questioning," he said.

The attorney general's office recommended changes which have since been implemented here and elsewhere, Jagels said.

"If those cases came today, we would have handled them differently," Jagels said. "But what we had at the time, I think we handled them the best we could."

That comment surprised Brenda Kniffen, who with her husband Scott spent more than 12 years in prison before a judge ruled the two did not get a fair trial because their children were improperly questioned. The two have always maintained their innocence.

Jagels "never admitted his problems," Kniffen said. "He's always said we were guilty."

She said she was most disheartened by deceitful investigators who played her sons against each other. Kniffen said they told one son his brother said something the brother never said.

She said she believes Jagels should have intervened to put a stop to the flawed prosecutions. And Jagels should have put the brakes on Deputy District Attorney Andrew Gindes, she said.

One of Gindes' cases was overturned for prosecutorial misconduct. Kniffen said Gindes scared her little boys.

"What upsets me the most is all the years I spent away from my kids," she said. Now she and her husband live in another state and they see their sons regularly.

"We're not holding onto anger," she said. "It would hurt us more and would get us nowhere."

Attorney Michael Snedeker of Portland, Ore. helped free 18 of the molestation ring defendants. At first, he told himself prosecutors were thinking "the only mistake you could make was not being aggressive enough," when it came to potential child molestation.

But then he came across false evidence and evidence that had been withheld.

"I thought it was very shifty," Snedeker said.

He criticized Jagels for not admitting fault.

"Truth and justice meant nothing to him," Snedeker said.

Some of the defendants won millions of dollars in lawsuits.

The latest came just last month, when John Stoll, who spent 20 years in prison, settled for $5.5 million. He had been convicted of molesting a half dozen children. All but one have recanted their testimony.

Jagels has continued to insist that Stoll was guilty, pointing out that one victim has never wavered from his claims of being molested.

Stoll did not return phone calls seeking comment.


Overzealous prosecutions in Kern County was the theme of a book authored by Edward Humes, who won a Pulitzer prize for another one of his books.

The book highlighted the 1992 trial of Patrick Dunn, a retired high school principal accused of murdering his wife.

The book alleged prosecutors withheld evidence, among other misdeeds, leading to a wrongful conviction. Humes declined to comment for this story.

Jagels blasted the accuracy of the book with a huge press release claiming more than 100 factual errors, false claims and gross distortions. Humes defended his "well-documented" research.

The Dunn case was what Jagels called "a run of the mill murder with very strong evidence of the defendant's guilt."

He said the prosecutor, John Somers, was "one of the most ethical prosecutors ever in this business" and is now a judge. Nothing crucial was withheld from the defense, Jagels said.


On a personal level, Jagels had to deal with the 2002 killing of his close friend and Number Two man in the office, Assistant District Attorney Stephen Tauzer.

Tauzer was stabbed to death by former district attorney investigator Chris Hillis, who pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter for a 12-year prison term.

At the center of their dispute was 22-year-old Lance Hillis, the son of Chris and the godson of Tauzer. Lance Hillis was a drug addict who was killed six weeks before Tauzer in a traffic accident near the El Dorado County rehabilitation center he was in.

Tauzer used his power and influence to put him in rehabilitation rather than jail. Chris Hillis believed his son wouldn't get better unless he hit rock bottom in prison.

Chris Hillis also believed Tauzer was having a gay relationship with his son. Tauzer denied that and Chris Hillis ultimately said he couldn't prove it. Sheriff's investigators found no evidence of such a relationship.

Jagels said he talked to both men, telling Tauzer that he didn't believe rehabilitation was the answer for Lance.

Still, Jagels said he was shocked by the killing and that he never saw it coming.

He said he didn't think he could have done anything to prevent it. Everyone involved was an adult and had a right to pursue what each thought was right, Jagels said.

Tauzer's death "was very difficult for me," Jagels said. "He was a very dedicated prosecutor and a long-time friend of mine. The perpetrator was also a friend of mine."


Tauzer's slaying evoked memories of the "Lords of Bakersfield," a group of powerful gay men in public life who reportedly had sex with underage boys and girls but were never prosecuted. Several of the alleged "Lords" were murdered, including Ed Buck, a former Kern County personnel director killed by a teen prostitute.

The similarities between the Tauzer case and the others came up in a 2002 "Lords of Bakersfield" investigative series by The Californian -- and the paper asked what Jagels knew about Tauzer's relationship with Lance Hillis and about the Lords cases.

At one point, the paper submitted written questions to Jagels. Several asked if the prosecutor knew about alleged sex parties in the 1980s at the home of former publisher Ted Fritts, if he had attended or participated, or ever done anything to protect those who had.

Jagels said the questions "are so loaded with malice, innuendo and false assumptions" that it would be "silly for me to dignify" them with a response.

The questions, as well as many of the stories written about Tauzer, led to a rift between Jagels and The Californian.

Jagels said the newspaper "invented scandals that don't exist. All of these things were inventions," and reduced the newspaper "to a local version of the National Enquirer."

Mike Jenner, executive editor of the newspaper, replied, "We didn't invent a scandal. We repeatedly asked for Jagels to respond and he didn't."


But Jagels has frequently fared well with the local media -- even The Californian.

After all, whatever the critics said, Jagels was never challenged for re-election. No one in Kern's history stayed in the job as long as Jagels.

"He told the public exactly what he would do and they re-elected him," defense attorney Michael Lukehart said.

"I really don't know how Kern County could have done any better than Ed Jagels," said former sheriff Carl Sparks. "Look how many judges we have who have been prosecutors."

Families of victims have also put in a good word for Jagels.

Taryn Cain said it's "hard to hear" how people blast Jagels. "We don't see that side of him."

Cain's sister, Tana Woolley, was 20 years old in 1978 -- just two years after she was crowned Miss Rosamond -- when someone sexually assaulted and strangled her to death. The case went unsolved for 24 years.

Cain and her mother, Helen Woolley, never stopped calling sheriff's investigators and the district attorney's office. No one gave up, she said.

And then one night in 2002, Cain and her parents were together when the call came in that DNA evidence -- which wasn't even a technique in 1978 -- had led to the arrest of Larry Hazlett Jr.

Jagels personally prosecuted the case and won a conviction and the death penalty in 2004. It was the last case he handled himself.

"He's wonderful," Cain said. "He helped get closure for our family. I don't know if anyone else could have done a better job than he did. Just last weekend, I talked about him with my parents. He's such a caring person."


People in Kern County who have worked for him, with him or against him also weighed in on his legacy. Some of his detractors still found good in Jagels.

"I disagree totally with his approach on incarceration," recently retired Public Defender Mark Arnold said. "It's not the panacea for public safety. Addressing the root causes of crime is."

Defense attorney and former prosecutor Kyle Humphrey agrees, saying Jagels' staff needs to work more for rehabilitation than incarceration.

"People aren't all bad because they've committed a crime," he said.

Humphrey, who once was one of Jagels' most aggressive prosecutors, said "it's about time" that Jagels steps down.

"The world he's been a prosecutor in is changing," he said.

Taxpayers can't afford to lock a person up to keep that person from committing a crime -- an approach Jagels equates with public safety, Humphrey said.

Retired judge Frank Hoover, who ran a drug court with the goal of getting people off drugs, said it was frustrating that Jagels wouldn't subscribe to alternatives to jail.

Hoover also blasted Jagels for having his staff remove judges from hearing cases over disputes Jagels had with the judges. Hoover said that was "pure egonomics."

Jagels said he was always careful to be right about beefs with judges because he knew they couldn't respond.

And yet, Arnold, Humphrey and Hoover had complimentary things to say about Jagels.

During the last 14 years that Arnold was public defender, he had "an honest and professional exchange" with Jagels, Arnold said. "I never found him to be as unreasonable as the reputation that I had heard."

The second week Arnold was in Kern County, he and Jagels had lunch and struck a deal.

"We agreed we'll stab each other in the front, and he honored that," Arnold said. "We are both fighters, but while we disagree on most issues, we dealt with each other with directness, honesty and integrity."

Humphrey said Jagels "is probably the best boss a person could have. He gave us a lot of discretion to develop as attorneys. He was always compassionate to the needs of his employees."

And Hoover said he worked well with Jagels on some court issues. He said Jagels was smart and "I've enjoyed working with him on things we see eye-to-eye on."

Defense attorney Michael Lukehart said a byproduct of aggressive prosecutions was "it "gave me the chance to perfect and hone my talents."


Jagels' impact went far beyond in Kern County.

One of his closest associates, now retired Assistant District Attorney Dan Sparks, said Jagels has been "outstanding for the state of California. Prosecutors from around the state seek and respect his advice on almost every issue of public safety."

Jagels was a leader in the state to remove three members of the Rose Bird-led California Supreme Court in 1986.

"That was critically important to the safety of Californians," Sparks said.

The Bird court overturned all the death penalty cases before it. In Jagels' view, it left California with a damaged set of criminal procedures.

Jagels' next step, Sparks said, was to spearhead reform under Proposition 115 which sped up the preliminary hearing process, allowing police officers to testify about what people told them.

"No longer could defense attorneys keep a rape victim on the stand for three days," Jagels said.

Proposition 115 also refined the jury selection process, restored grand jury indictments, created the crime of torture and streamlined criminal procedure, Jagels said.

"I'm quite proud of that," he said.

Despite harsh criticism from defense attorneys, Jagels was a staunch defender of the Three Strikes law in California, which can imprison a defendant with two prior serious felonies to 25 years to life in prison.

Mark Arnold and other defense attorneys believe there are many cases where defendants are punished far to harshly under that law for a relatively minor crime that came many years after their past felony convictions.

Jagels said the law goes after "those guys who are most likely to re-offend." He added he's proud that he has the "highest per capita three strikes convictions in the state."

In his last months of office, Jagels is working daily to "minimize" the effort in California to release inmates from prison. He said the state has the ninth highest per capita violent crime rate in the nation, but it's in the middle (about 25th) of per capita incarceration rates.

"It's disheartening to live in a state where we have extra welfare benefits, prevailing (high union) wages on public construction jobs and billions of dollars in benefits for illegal immigrants, but it wants to "release dangerous felons," he said.


On a local level, Jagels said he is most proud of the good relationships his office has with the police, the strengthening of the his office's investigative unit and making the crime lab "one of the premier labs in the state. That has allowed us to solve and prosecute any number of serious crimes."

Among the things that please Jagels the most is when his office shines on a particularly difficult case that uses a broad array of innovative techniques to get a conviction.

The trial of Vincent Brothers, a former school vice principal convicted and sentenced to death for the 2003 murders of his mother-in-law, wife and three small children, "was a perfect example of what we're all about," Jagels said.

The case included reams of investigation reports, crime lab evidence and even scientific testimony that bugs on Brothers' rental car showed he drove across the county to kill his family. Prosecutor Lisa Green had to distill all that into an easy-to-understand case for jurors, Jagels said.

Over the years, his prosecutors "really have an extraordinary record of success, considering they have among the heaviest case loads in the state," Jagels said. "We take and convict in cases many other district attorney office wouldn't ever issue."

"I've been very proud to have worked with them," Jagels said.

His latest year-long quest was to target 115 "shot callers" in the local gangs and try to put as many behind bars or out of commission as possible. At summer's end this year about 90 percent of those on the list are either in custody, dead, moved out of state or the subject of warrants and pending cases, Jagels said.


Jagels said he held off announcing his retirement to avoid being a lame duck during tough budget negotiations with the Kern County Board of Supervisors this summer.

But now he's getting ready to move on to a life of retirement he intends to fill with more hunting, fishing, snow skiing, reading history and spending more time with his youngest son, 10-year-old Jeff.

He hasn't had any plans to run for another public office during his 35 years as a prosecutor, and has no plans in the future, he said. If the right law enforcement related job came along, he might consider doing that, but he doesn't want to leave Bakersfield.

He said he's quite comfortable passing the baton to Green, a 26-year-veteran of the office who is the only announced candidate for the position. "She's an extraordinary prosecutor and very well respected," Jagels said.

Considering all he's been through, would he do it again?"

"Absolutely," Jagels said. "I've got to spend 35 years doing exactly what I wanted to do. I got to try to make society a little bit better place every day."

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