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?

The legend of the Lords of Bakersfield

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

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

Alan Ferguson / The Californian

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 remains unsolved.

The 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 has resurfaced.

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 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.

Though the Tauzer murder script is a slight variation on that theme, the murder trial may well detour down the same general path.

"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 Shafter.

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 early 1980s.

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 California.

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 justice.

"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' homosexuality.

"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 treatment."

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.

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January 26, 2003
Homepage > News Home > Local > The Lords of Bakersfield

 The Lords of Bakersfield

   The legend of the Lords of Bakersfield

   Loving Lance: A battle that consumed three lives

   Decency defined the Tauzer friends remember

   Questions dog Jagels

   The paper becomes part of the story

   Lance had all the dad he needed at home, grieving father says


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