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 Gatsby-like publisher

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

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


There was clearly a common thread between two of the so-called "Lords" cases. That thread was Robert Mistriel.

When Edwin A. Buck, personnel director for Kern County, was murdered on July 17, 1981, police almost immediately arrested Mistriel. It didn't take long for investigators to make the connection: Seems Mistriel had a tendency to drive around in cars owned by middle-aged gay men, including two who'd recently been murdered.

Mistriel said he'd met Buck in Beach Park, a notorious gathering place for gay men looking for action, according to coverage from that time in The Californian.

At his murder trial two years later, Mistriel testified that he'd slept with many homosexual men of prominence, including two he'd lived with and worked for: Alfred "Ted" Fritts and Stan Harper.

Fritts, whom Mistriel described as "my best friend," was The Californian's editor and co-owner -- and a party host of Gatsby-like proportions. His mansion at the corner of Oleander Avenue and Chester Lane in Bakersfield, nestled among many of the city's most historic homes, was the scene of frequent social events.

According to people close to Fritts at the time, then-Gov. Jerry Brown was known to have visited; so had then-Sen. Alan Cranston, presidential daughter Maureen Reagan and Randolph Duke, the clothing designer. Steve Perry and his mates from the rock band Journey stopped by. Actress Dyan Cannon once visited, using the occasion to pitch a movie project. Actress Sally Kellerman and columnist Ann Landers, who knew Fritts through the Hereditary Disease Foundation, were guests on separate occasions. Singer Barry Manilow showed up.

So did local politicians.

The parties came in many flavors, all generally kept separate, including: gatherings for Fritts' neighbors in the area; his employees at The Californian; his fellow Willamette (Ore.) University alumni; his friends in local theater; his famous acquaintances in politics and entertainment; and his gay friends -- old, young and younger.

"Ted was the catalyst, and a willing participant," said Matthew Gardner, a close friend of the late publisher who recalls seeing a number of prominent Bakersfield men at the wilder parties.

Mistriel was there, too, working as a "waiter." In a 1999 letter addressed "to whom it may concern" and written from state prison, Mistriel said he dressed in shorts and matching tank top, served drinks and generally tended to the needs of the male guests -- some of whom, he said, were in local government and law enforcement. Mistriel's letter has made the rounds among several Bakersfield attorneys and others.

Fritts gave Mistriel a job at The Californian, allowed Mistriel to live with him briefly at the Oleander mansion, and permitted Mistriel to have frequent use of his luxury cars. ("The Jaguar was Robert's favorite," Mistriel's former wife, Thelma Chapman said.)

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January 26, 2003
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