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Man Guilty in Death of D.A. Assistant

A former Kern County officer whose son was befriended by the victim is sentenced to 12 years.

October 08, 2003|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

In a surprise conclusion to one of Kern County's most sensational recent criminal cases, Christopher Hillis pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter Tuesday for killing his onetime colleague, Assistant Dist. Atty. Stephen Tauzer.

Hillis, 48, was immediately sentenced to the maximum term of 12 years in prison, including an additional year for using a knife to carry out the slaying. Tauzer was bludgeoned and stabbed to death in his garage on Sept. 13 of last year, a slaying that initially alarmed the city of Bakersfield and baffled investigators until they began focusing on the prosecutor's relationship with Hillis' son, who had struggled with drug addiction.

Defense attorney Kyle Humphrey said he was pleased with the outcome, which he said hinged on his client's state of mind. "Having no power in the system he had worked in, everything just came to a head and resulted in an explosion," Humphrey said. Hillis had faced a first-degree murder charge.

Hillis, a former district attorney's investigator, had wanted his son Lance, 22, to go to jail to overcome his drug addiction. But the 57-year-old Tauzer had interfered by writing letters and even appearing in court to get the young addict additional chances. The prosecutor even allowed Lance Hillis to stay in his home and gave him money and a car. All of that enraged Chris Hillis.

Lance Hillis was killed in a car crash in Northern California as he fled a drug treatment center in a stolen car just six weeks before Tauzer was attacked. Friends said the county's No. 2 prosecutor had been living in fear of the elder Hillis, who had previously slapped Tauzer in the face to make him leave the son alone.

Humphrey said he had not been able to determine the exact nature of Lance Hillis' relationship with Tauzer, who was gay. But Hillis' father told the Bakersfield Californian in a jailhouse interview that, on the night the prosecutor was killed, Tauzer had confessed to having had a sexual relationship with Hillis' son. Humphrey said Hillis' pent-up rage exploded.

Asked why the attorney general's office had agreed to a plea on the lesser charge, spokeswoman Hallye Jordan said, "We felt this was an appropriate resolution to a very tragic case."

She declined to comment on whether the plea agreement meant that Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer had concluded that Tauzer's behavior had in some way contributed to the death. Jordan said Tauzer's family had agreed with the disposition.

In a news release, Kern County Dist. Atty. Ed Jagels alluded to the same issue. "Given the fact that any statement by the defendant regarding the precise circumstances of the homicide cannot be contradicted, this is a proper resolution of the case." He was referring to Tauzer's death, which made it impossible for the victim to disagree.

Tauzer and Jagels were close friends and had worked together for several decades. In the news release, Jagels credited his friend with having helped to solve his own homicide.

"Steve Tauzer was responsible for establishing the DNA program in Kern County, without which the identity of his killer could not have been established," Jagels said.

Investigators said they had made a DNA match with Hillis from a knife found near Tauzer's body.

At one time, the two men had been close friends. Hillis, a former Bakersfield Police Officer of the Year, was recruited by Jagels in 1985. He rose quickly in the office, and became a lieutenant.

But Hillis never rose beyond that position. Instead, Hillis ended up leaving the office in 1993 and brought a disability claim against the county for which he won a $50,000 stress retirement.

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