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Prosecutor's Slaying Grips a Town

Bakersfield: Private life of the victim, who took in a colleague's son who had drug problems, draws scrutiny as investigation continues.

September 19, 2002|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAKERSFIELD — In any town, the murder of a top law enforcement officer would be news. But in this bastion of conservatism in California's oil patch, the killing of Kern County Assistant Dist. Atty. Stephen M. Tauzer is the No. 1 topic not only on the evening news but in the bars and grocery stores along California 99, where the roar of traffic going elsewhere reminds people how lucky they are to live in Bakersfield.

To many people here, Tauzer's white hair and avuncular jowls comprised the face of law enforcement. A legendary workaholic, he not only handled the toughest criminal cases, but wrote budgets and analyzed legislation.

Fair, conscientious, deliberative, kind. These were some of the terms associated with him. Now that he is dead, people are learning a new vocabulary to describe the 57-year-old prosecutor as Tauzer and his lifestyle come under the same kind of microscopic examination he brought to the most ordinary murder trial.

The events have also shined an uncomfortable spotlight on the local prosecutor's office after Dist. Atty. Ed Jagels was forced to declare a conflict of interest in a prosecution because of Tauzer's personal involvement in the case.

The body of Kern County's No. 2 prosecutor was found in his garage Sunday, apparently by a neighbor. Tauzer had been stabbed at least once in the head and suffered other head trauma that the Sheriff's Department has declined to describe.

While speculation at first centered on some of the high-profile prosecutions he had handled, including grand jury corruption investigations in the small towns of Taft and Arvin, details about his private life have most recently generated the most speculation around town.

Tauzer did not have any declared enemies. He lived alone in a tidy shake-roof home in northwest Bakersfield and apparently divided his life between work and helping young people with problems.

He was a longtime volunteer with the Boy Scouts, working closely with special-needs kids, and was interested in politics. His yard was often staked with signs for one candidate or another.

Now comes word that he took in a young man with drug problems, an association that apparently sparked a heated outburst from the young man's father. Court records also show that Tauzer intervened with the courts on behalf of the young man, Lance C. Hillis, on more than one occasion.

"I am optimistic about Lance, his plans and his chances for the future," Tauzer wrote to Judge Lee Felice of the Kern County Superior Court in June. "I will continue to offer him whatever support I can."

Whatever role Tauzer's letters played, Hillis was able to avoid a prison sentence for possession of methamphetamine.

The support Tauzer offered included a place to live. Records show that Hillis, who was then about 21, listed Tauzer's address as his home last year.

Hillis was attending a treatment program in Northern California when he was killed in an auto accident on Aug. 7.

Hillis' father, Chris Hillis, was a longtime investigator for the district attorney's office. Officials in the office say he and Tauzer had been close friends until Tauzer began to take an interest in his son's drug problems.

"They recently had a tremendous falling out" over Lance and how to handle his drug problems, said Jagels. "His dad was a devout believer that you have to hit rock bottom" before you can solve drug problems.

To Chris Hillis, rock bottom apparently meant going to prison for a while, something Tauzer opposed.

"Steve felt Lance needed support," Jagels said.

At one point, according to law enforcement officials, the elder Hillis struck Tauzer, but no charges were filed.

Jagels described Tauzer's relationship with Lance Hillis as kind of a godfather to a godson. In his letters to the courts, Tauzer said he had known Lance since he was 5.

Nonetheless, Tauzer's involvement in the case forced the district attorney's office to declare a conflict of interest in the Hillis prosecution. The state attorney general's office took over the case.

Asked if the Tauzer murder investigation is shining an uncomfortable light on his office, Jagels replied, "I suppose it does."

Sources said detectives have interviewed the elder Hillis in connection with Tauzer's death.

Hillis, who now operates a drug treatment center in Bakersfield, denies having anything to do with the murder. "I just want to grieve my son's death," he said.

Despite the new information, Sheriff's Cmdr. Martin Williamson insisted that detectives "have not focused our investigation on any individual."

Williamson also insisted he remains "very optimistic" that the crime will be solved in the short term.

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