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Slaying Victim Feared for His Life, Friends Say

Former investigator is arrested in the stabbing death of prosecutor Stephen Tauzer, who tried to help his troubled son.

October 23, 2002|Mark Arax and John Johnson | Times Staff Writers

BAKERSFIELD -- In the days before his murder gripped this oil and farm town, Stephen M. Tauzer walked in fear for his life. But Tauzer, the No. 2 man in the Kern County district attorney's office, didn't request police protection or even share his concerns with colleagues.

Instead, the 58-year-old prosecutor told a friend that he had received a phone call warning him that Chris Hillis, a former Bakersfield cop and district attorney investigator, was going to kill him. Tauzer and Hillis had been arguing over Hillis' son.

"If you find me drowned in my pool or something," the overweight prosecutor confided to Hillis' former wife on Sept. 12, "you'll know who did it."

Three days later, Tauzer was found face down in a puddle of blood in the garage of his well-tended house in northwest Bakersfield. He had been dead for at least a day from stab wounds. One of the knives recovered from the scene was still protruding from his head.

On Tuesday, Hillis, 47, was arrested in the slaying after his DNA was found on one of the knives, sheriff's officials said.

The rift between the prosecutor and the former D.A. investigator is a story of two men struggling over the fate of a 22-year-old drug addict, a young man who happened to be Hillis' oldest son and Tauzer's roommate.

Tauzer, who friends say was gay but kept it hidden, had risked his reputation as a prominent prosecutor to save Lance C. Hillis, a kid he had watched grow up in his neighborhood. Tauzer opened his pocketbook and home to the young drug addict. He even gave him a job as a clerk in the D.A.'s office.

But Tauzer's involvement did not sit well with Hillis' father. The two men had argued violently over Lance, officials said. Chris Hillis, a hard-nosed law and order type, thought the only way his son would get clean was by going to jail.

Tauzer, though, believed otherwise. After Lance was arrested in a second bust, Tauzer convinced the Kern County courts that Lance belonged not in jail but in a drug treatment center 300 miles north in El Dorado County.

Then in August, five weeks before Tauzer's slaying, Lance Hillis was killed in a car crash on a lonely stretch of Highway 49, an addict on the run from rehab.

After Lance's death, Tauzer feared Chris Hillis would hold him accountable.

As he drove to El Dorado County last month to survey the road where Lance had died in a head-on collision, Tauzer seemed troubled. He confided his fears in the presence of his three passengers: Lance Hillis' mother, Connie Clagg, and Lance's two sisters, Ricci and Kaycee Clagg.

Tauzer told Connie that if anything should happen to him, she should suspect her former husband, according to Ricci. Then Tauzer confided something else:

He said he had received a phone call from Donald Hillis, Lance's grandfather who was also a former Bakersfield cop. According to Ricci, Tauzer said the grandfather had warned him that Chris Hillis, his son, had a plan to murder him.

"Promise me you won't let him get away with it," Tauzer said.

Connie Clagg confirmed that Tauzer discussed his fears "three to four times" during their trip, but she refused to go into details. Ricci Clagg said her mother has provided those details to sheriff's investigators.

In a news conference announcing Hillis' arrest Tuesday, Sheriff's Cmdr. Martin Williamson said the motive appeared to be Chris Hillis' continuing rage over Tauzer's dealings with his son.

Hillis, who pleaded not guilty to one count of murder and is being held without bail, has denied any role in Tauzer's death. His attorney questions the reliability of the DNA evidence and the alleged motive.

"Chris has given his life to the Lord," said his attorney, Kyle J. Humphrey. "He doesn't blame Steve [Tauzer] for Lance's death."

Beyond the murder, the case has raised questions of favoritism in the office of Kern County Dist. Atty. Ed Jagels. Despite Jagels' reputation for aggressive, unyielding prosecutions, the way his office dealt with the drug crimes of Lance Hillis was anything but tough.

Because the case involves such public figures, each with ties to the prosecutor's office, the murder has uncorked all sorts of serpentine conspiracy theories in this land of Pentecostal churches, country music parables and parades that celebrate private property rights.

Because Tauzer was a veteran who spent 30 years locking up violent criminals, his murder would seem to be a whodunit of infinite possibilities.

Some thought it could be tied to his decades-old handling of an alleged satanic molestation ring whose defendants have been freed from prison because of prosecutorial misconduct.

Others suggested it might be linked to his more recent investigation of civic corruption in the small town of Arvin, where he had indicted the police chief and a city councilman.

Or was it like the murders of other prominent men, who were forced by Bakersfield convention to lead double lives and meet younger men in parks along the Kern River?

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