BAKERSFIELD — Years before he was accused of killing a top prosecutor, then-district attorney investigator Christopher Hillis won a $50,000 stress retirement that was five to 10 times the usual award in tightfisted Kern County.
When the decorated ex-cop was asked how he had pulled it off, Hillis told former colleague Kyle Beckman that he knew some "secrets" about the district attorney's office: " 'I know where the skeletons are buried.' "
"He apparently wasn't joking," said Beckman, who is still fighting the county on his own mental stress claim.
Now, as Hillis sits in jail on charges of stabbing to death Assistant Dist. Atty. Stephen M. Tauzer, former co-workers and others in the legal community wonder what Hillis knows and how much of it might come out if the case goes to trial. He has pleaded not guilty.
"There's a lot of nervous people," said Gene Lorenz, a local defense attorney and courthouse observer. "A lot of things are going to come out when this goes to trial."
Even the local paper, the Californian, has editorialized about "a cloud building over the Kern County district attorney's office" since Tauzer's murder.
Saying the "fairness of Kern County's legal system" has been called into question by Tauzer's involvement with Hillis' drug-addicted son, the paper has called on Dist. Atty. Edward R. Jagels to provide a full disclosure of Tauzer's actions.
Hillis' attorney, Kyle Humphrey, declines to detail what, if any, special knowledge his client possesses about his days in the district attorney's office. But he said he is operating on the theory that Tauzer was leading a double life.
On one hand, Humphrey said, Tauzer was a hard-working prosecutor trusted by Jagels to run the office. On the other, Tauzer, 57, was living with Hillis' 22-year-old son, Lance, and crossing ethical lines to keep the young drug addict out of jail.
"Chris is going to get the best possible defense," Humphrey said. "If in the process powerful people are embarrassed, so be it. If it requires delving into secrets people don't want out, so be it."
Tauzer, who friends say was gay, let Lance Hillis stay at his house and gave him money, a credit card and a clerking job in the district attorney's office.
Although Christopher Hillis hoped his son would get a stiff jail sentence that might help break his addiction, Tauzer kept placing Lance in drug treatment programs, including one in El Dorado County. That is where Lance was killed in a car crash in early August, five weeks before Tauzer's death.
Humphrey said he is considering a defense that centers on the notion that Christopher Hillis and Tauzer were engaged in a tug of war over Lance. If Tauzer used his position -- and the threat of jail -- to pressure Lance into a gay relationship, it could have fueled the father's rage.
"If a parent discovers that his child is being taken advantage of in a predatory homosexual relationship, that parent would naturally be enraged," Humphrey said.
Humphrey is also looking into the possibility that Tauzer may have been killed by someone he knew only briefly. He says the murder bears a "striking resemblance" to past cases involving prominent Bakersfield men who were living secret gay lives and were killed by young hustlers.
One such case that went to trial, the 1981 murder of county administrator Edwin Buck, included testimony alleging that Buck and a Kern County political consultant were having sex with teenage boys who lived in a group home.
If Humphrey wants to turn Hillis' defense into a referendum on the district attorney's office, he could raise questions about a number of public controversies over the years.
Jagels' office was criticized by the state attorney general for the way it handled ritual child-abuse prosecutions in the 1980s. Those were some of the earliest cases in the wave of investigations that swept the nation -- such as the McMartin Pre-School case in Los Angeles -- that some legal experts compared to the Salem witch trials. Most of those convicted in Kern County were later freed due to prosecutorial errors or misconduct.
The office was also taken to task in the book, "Mean Justice," which accused prosecutors of a pattern of questionable conduct in their zeal to send people to prison.
"How many D.A.'s offices in the country have best-selling books written about them?" said attorney Lorenz. "When the appellate courts keep issuing reversals and rebuking the D.A.'s office for hiding evidence, these are serious problems."
In the days after his top deputy's murder, Jagels said he didn't see anything wrong with Tauzer's intervention on behalf of Lance Hillis. But he has repeatedly declined to comment since and has instructed prosecutors in his office to keep silent as well.
Jagels referred a call for this story to the office of state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, which will be prosecuting the case to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest, since both Hillis and Tauzer were employed by the district attorney.