Powerful gay men. Vulnerable teen-age boys. Murder. For years, some prominent local men who led secret lives were rumored to be protected. Whispers surrounding another important man's death prompt the question: Is there really a conspiracy?

Keep it quiet

By ROBERT PRICE, Californian staff writer
e-mail: rprice@bakersfield.com

Monday January 20, 2003, 03:40:00 PM

Almost immediately, reporter Steve E. Swenson learned of Fritts' ties to the case through police reports filed after the arrests.

He brought the information to Managing Editor Owen Kearns Jr., who, according to Swenson, told him not to use Fritts' name unless it came up in the trial.

Though Fritts' name was kept out of the paper, The Californian did mention Mistriel's relationships with gay men and the fact that he drove their cars -- a Jaguar (owned by Fritts), a Mercedes-Benz (owned by Hurbert "Eli" Elias, who was also named by Mistriel as a sex partner) and a Chevrolet Monte Carlo (a 16th birthday gift from Darrel Tavelli, a Simi Valley businessman who had adopted Mistriel and was also named as a sex partner).

Then, during the 1983 trial, Mistriel took the stand and named Fritts, Elias, Tavelli and political consultant Stan Harper as adult men he'd had sex with while still a minor. None of the men ever disputed those statements in Californian coverage.

Fritts' name finally made the paper three times in 1983: on Jan. 28, and on June 29-30, in articles covering consecutive days of the trial. His name appeared two times on the "jump," or inside-page continuation, and once in the last line of a small story on page B2.

Might coverage of the Mistriel trial have been different today?

Mike Jenner, The Californian's executive editor, said, "Burying news about a publisher or top editor's involvement in such a story wouldn't happen today. And it shouldn't."

Observers at the time felt it was important that The Californian named Fritts, but agreed his name was "buried."

"They put his name in there, didn't they? They kind of low-keyed the whole thing ... but at least they put him in," said Tony Reed, retired publisher of the defunct Rosedale Roadrunner weekly.

"Today, you'd rip him in two if it was somebody other than one of your own. Look at (new Kern County Sheriff) Mack Wimbish and (pre-election reports about) his illegitimate child. It was a softball situation with Ted Fritts. Everyone else, it's hardball."

"Mean Justice" author Edward Humes characterized the newspaper's coverage as "unrebutted testimony" that implicated Fritts and Harper but amounted to just "two paragraphs near the bottom of two articles."

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January 26, 2003
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