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
The legend of the Lords of Bakersfield
By ROBERT PRICE, Californian
staff writer e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday January 20, 2003, 03:40:00
Alan Ferguson / The
Fourteen-year-old Dana Butler was
murdered in April 1979. Former Police Commissioner
Glenn Fitts, the leading suspect, was never
charged and later committed suicide. The case
Lords of Bakersfield.
Until recently, it was a little remembered local legend, of
interest mostly to conspiracy theorists.
But in the aftermath of Stephen Tauzer's Sept. 13 murder and the
subsequent arrest of his former colleague, Chris Hillis, the legend
Some of the facts of the Tauzer case appear similar to aspects of
the Lords legend, which goes like this: For more than a generation,
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, according to Lords lore, these men -- a sprinkling
of county executives, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, even
the newspaper's publisher -- were part of a loose-knit, secretive
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
Though the Tauzer murder script is a slight variation on that
theme, the murder trial may well detour down the same general
"We might very well look at similar cases over the years, in
which young male hustlers or victims killed closeted homosexual men
from Bakersfield," said Kyle Humphrey, Chris Hillis' attorney. "Even
if that (direction of inquiry) is an uncomfortable area for people
in the community -- prominent people."
The legend took root in March 1985 when Johnathon R. McClaren, a
former Shafter police officer, filed suit in U.S. District Court,
claiming a pattern of exploitation, protection and cronyism in
Then-Shafter City Attorney Richard Oberholzer (who held the same
position concurrently with the city of Bakersfield) called the suit
a "frivolous" publicity stunt, and McLaren moved to drop it himself
four months later.
But the suit gave a measure of credence to the story of the Lords
of Bakersfield, a term coined by former Shafter Press editor Rick
Lawler, who contributed a 2,200-page addendum, known as "exhibit C,"
to McLaren's suit.
Exhibit C found its way into the public eye in several ways:
condensed as Lawler's own legal claim against the city of
Bakersfield, filed in September 1986; as a 1989-90 serialization
with supplementary reporting published by three weekly community
newspapers, including the Rosedale Roadrunner; and in a 1990 book,
"Valley Fire," whittled from Lawler's original document and edited
by Bette Blair, a former executive secretary to Ted Fritts, The
Californian's co-publisher throughout most of the 1970s and
Some say the Lords legend is far older. A few longtime Kern
County residents remember talk of a White Orchid Society, which
supposedly existed in the 1950s and consisted of a network of
prominent men who led secret homosexual lives.
At least two former Californian reporters remembered
hearing talk about it, but nothing more than rumors.
Now, as investigators gather information for Hillis' prosecution
this summer, some are wondering if the Lords legend has a belated
new chapter -- and if Tauzer's death might be a case of chickens
coming home to roost.
It was already evident to some that the Kern County criminal
justice system had a contradictory history when it came to
homosexuals and violent crime.
Two seemingly soft sentences in homicide cases involving gay
victims issued by Kern County courts, one in late 1982 and the other
in 1984, got the attention of the state attorney general and helped
inspire the creation of county civil rights commissions throughout
But at the same time, a number of well-connected local gay men --
accused of having unlawful sex with minors -- were never charged and
seem to have escaped scrutiny or sanction almost entirely, according
to a number of sources connected to the Lords legend.
Ironic, some might say, in a county known for its tough
"This is similar to the good-old-boy network. The only difference
is, if the good old boys are gay, then the good old gay boys are
going to be the ones taking care of each other," Los Angeles area
attorney Thomas F. Coleman said in a recent interview.
As a member of then-Attorney General John Van de Kamp's
Commission on Racial, Ethnic, Religious and Minority Violence in the
1980s, Coleman informally investigated the William Robert Tyack and
John Oren Biggs trials -- murder cases in which the defendants were
alleged to have won sentence reductions because of the victims'
"What you're talking about is corruption, whether the victim is
gay or not," said Coleman. "The presence of sexual orientation as a
factor has, in the past at least, given the appearance of unequal
Five unusual murders over seven years, recounted in occasionally
lurid detail by The Californian and others, combined with
Lawler's tabloidesque analysis, makes for a smoldering body of fact,
coincidence and conjecture. The characters intersect at interesting
places -- and when they do, somebody occasionally turns up dead.
The first murder took place 25 years ago this month.