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Secrets in Bakersfield

Rumors of a powerful cabal were whispered for years. Then the local newspaper investigated.

January 27, 2003|Gayle Pollard-Terry | Times Staff Writer

Bakersfield — It's lunchtime, and nearly every stool is taken at Happy Jack's Pie N' Burgers on the edge of downtown Bakersfield. A shoe salesman digs into a bowl of homemade chili. A couple of architects devour thick, juicy hamburgers. Their buddy orders a peanut-butter-and-chocolate pie, the house specialty, to take back to work. Frances Rosales, the proprietor, cuts it into a dozen slices. She finishes, and asks: "May I have everybody's attention? Would anyone like to comment on the story in the Sunday Californian?"

Would they ever.

On Sunday, Jan. 19, The Bakersfield Californian published a special report, "The Lords of Bakersfield." Its 17,321 words take up nearly eight pages and are the talk of this small, conservative city in Kern County at the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley.

The remarkable package of stories and photos focused on a legend that had only been whispered about for decades.

"For more than a generation," the story said, "Bakersfield was run by a cadre of men who led double lives. To the public, these men were members of the community's most visible institutions, its justice system and the media.

"But in truth ... these men -- a sprinkling of county executives, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, even the newspaper's publisher -- were part of a loose-knit, secretive network.

"Some were homosexuals who preyed upon young men and boys, then used their positions of power and influence to protect one another from possible ramifications. Occasionally, however, the preyed-upon lashed out, leading to a string of murders involving young gay men and their prominent older male suitors."

In the late 1970s and '80s, the victims included two millionaires, one of whom was on a county crime commission; the Kern County personnel director; the owner of a fashionable hair salon; and a 14-year-old girl who attended parties thrown by Bakersfield's one-time police commissioner, who committed suicide after being charged with providing marijuana to minors. With the exception of the girl, whose case was never solved, the murders were committed by teenage or young adult men who said they had had sexual relationships with the victims.

But the legend never amounted to anything until last fall, when a local prosecutor named Stephen M. Tauzer was stabbed to death at home. The circumstances of his death -- and perhaps his life -- were reminiscent of the many whispered rumors about the Lords of Bakersfield. The Californian decided to investigate. The stories have roiled the city's elite, dominated the local airwaves and forced some in this conservative law and order-loving town to reassess its image.

"As we all know, Southern California is defined by its loyalties to particular neighborhoods and communities. Each one of those has an identity. That identity is rocked when stories like this become well known." -- Social historian and author D.J. Waldie.

"This is a murder mystery. This is an R-rated blockbuster," says reporter Robert Price, 46. Ordinarily the newspaper's Metro columnist, he and Assistant Managing Editor Lois Henry, 38, spent three months digging into court records, searching police reports and interviewing hundreds of people. One of the men they investigated, Ted Fritts, was a former publisher of the paper, and a brother of the current publisher.

Because of that connection, Price says, he was a little surprised the paper took the story on. "I know it's sort of smelly to praise your boss," the reporter says, "but in this case it's justified. She showed courage."

The publisher, Ginger Moorhouse, 58, speaks openly about her younger brother, who died of AIDS in 1997. When he ran the paper, he was part of the network of prominent men at the centerpiece of the special report.

"We were part of the story," she says, and the newspaper didn't hide that. Reader reaction to the series, she adds, has been very positive.

Tauzer's slaying, says Henry, reminded her of rumors she had heard years ago about "the whole Lords thing."

She tracked down documents in a 1985 federal court case in which a former police officer in the Kern County town Shafter claimed a pattern of exploitation, protection and cronyism. An addendum to the lawsuit, which was dismissed as frivolous, theorized about a network of well-connected men, the "Lords of Bakersfield," who got away with crimes, such as sex with minors, that would have put others away.

The Californian stories raise questions about the nature of the relationship between Tauzer and Lance Hillis, who died at 22 last summer when he crashed a stolen car after running away from a drug rehab program.

The stories document how Tauzer, 57 -- who was not openly gay -- helped Hillis get a job at the district attorney's office, gave him a car, let him live in his house, co-signed an apartment lease for him and pulled strings, including writing to a judge, to keep the young man out of jail.

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