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Prosecutor's Slaying Is a Mystery

Crime: Kern County authorities seek answers in the stabbing death of Stephen Tauzer, a key figure in D.A.'s office.

September 17, 2002|JOHN JOHNSON and MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BAKERSFIELD — In the long day after Assistant Dist. Atty. Stephen M. Tauzer was found stabbed to death at his well-tended home in the suburbs here, his friends and former colleagues are turning to the possibility that it was Tauzer's personal life--and not his career fighting crime--that may have gotten him killed.

In the legal community where Tauzer spent nearly 30 years reshaping the district attorney's office with his skills as a top prosecutor, computer programmer and grant writer, his slaying has baffled the lawyers and judges who knew him best.

Their immediate impulse was to consider the long list of criminals Tauzer had sent to prison, as well as his most recent investigation of civic corruption in the small, raucous town of Arvin about 35 miles south of here.

But then came word that the killer had entered Tauzer's house without force. His friends and former colleagues now wonder if the murder had something to do with his personal life.

They say Tauzer, 57, a roly-poly man who never married and had a laid-back and rumpled style even in the courtroom, was known to reach out to people in trouble. As second in command of the office, he helped build the child-support division until it was spun off into a separate county department last year.

"I'm extremely upset that someone would subject such a gentle man to such a violent death," said Bob Carbone, a defense attorney who came up through the ranks of the district attorney's office, where Tauzer mentored him. "Yes, he put some stone-cold killers behind bars, but lots of prosecutors do that and they rarely become victims of homicide.

"Murders like this, it's either someone you know or a relative."

When Kern County Dist. Atty. Ed Jagels got the call Sunday afternoon that his top prosecutor was found dead at his home, Jagels thought he knew why.

Tauzer, who barely had survived a heart attack two years ago, looked so ill a few months back that Jagels drove him to the hospital and had him admitted.

But as Jagels pulled up to Tauzer's block in the suburbs northwest of town, he saw the police cars and yellow tape and knew that his longtime friend had met another end. The man he described as the "most able attorney I have ever worked with" was lying in a pool of blood on the floor of his garage, the victim of a fatal stabbing to the head.

"I was flabbergasted," Jagels said Monday. "He had a breadth of talent that was remarkable."

Authorities said an unidentified friend went to Tauzer's house around 3 p.m. Sunday after not hearing from him for a few days. The friend noticed the garage door was open and found Tauzer dead on the floor with a stab wound to the head and other trauma. A knife was found at the scene. Police said he had died one to three days earlier, and there were no signs of forced entry and nothing appeared to have been taken.

"We are focused, we are dedicated and we are going to arrest the suspect or suspects responsible for the death of Assistant Dist. Atty. Steve Tauzer," Kern County Sheriff Carl Sparks said. "I make that commitment to you now.''

Tauzer, who grew up on a farm in Woodland as the oldest of 14 children, graduated from the UC Davis School of Law and joined the district attorney's office in 1975. From the onset, longtime co-workers say, he made a mark with his keen grasp of legal issues, his gentlemanly manner and his bulldog approach to prosecuting bad guys.

"Often in a criminal trial where the stakes are so high, there's lots of rancor and bitterness between prosecutors and defense attorneys, but not with Stephen," said defense attorney Tim Lemucchi, who squared off against Tauzer more than once. "He was very hard nosed, and when he got his teeth in your pant leg, he wouldn't let go. But never did he stop being a gentleman."

It was part of his manner, they said, to appear disorganized and to poke fun at himself for his supposed failings, such as not being able to locate the right file or know how to operate a video projector. But often, he used his apparent bumbling to his advantage.

During the 1995 prosecution of alleged killer Offord Rollins, a star high school athlete, Tauzer kept hitting the wrong button on the projector. Each time he did, however, the photo of the victim's battered corpse came up on the courtroom screen, leading to a charge of prosecutorial misconduct.

Over the last year, Tauzer had led the county's investigation into misuse of public funds in the tiny town of Arvin. The grand jury, with evidence presented by Tauzer, has indicted the police chief and a city councilman on public corruption charges.

Police said they are dismissing no theories at the outset. "Anything is open at this point," said Sheriff's Cmdr. Martin Williamson. "I won't dismiss anything."

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